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A film about the U.S. debt?

'I.O.U.S.A.,' premiering this month, spotlights the huge financial threat that looms.

August 11, 2008|Frank Ahrens | The Washington Post

A private equity billionaire, a former federal government official and a Baltimore newsletter editor have made a documentary film that they hope can do what an endless parade of policy papers has not: Persuade Americans that debt has created a looming economic crisis that would make the Great Depression look like a market correction.

The movie, "I.O.U.S.A.," premiering Aug. 21, is an 87-minute alarm on what it calls the tsunami of debt bearing down on the United States' future, caused by the rising national debt, the trade imbalance and the pending costs of baby boomers cashing in on entitlements.

Early reviewers have dubbed the film "An Inconvenient Truth" for the economy, meaning it's not exactly the feel-good movie of late summer 2008.

Except for budget wonks in love, it hardly counts as a date movie. The film's thrilling action sequence has a guy going to a refrigerator for a Tab. There are no car chases and nothing blows up.

Except, possibly, for the entire economic future of the United States.

"I.O.U.S.A." offers up as its action hero David M. Walker, former head of the Government Accountability Office. With movie-star looks that scream "accountant" rather than "Terminator," Walker has been the Cassandra -- or Chicken Little -- of America's growing deficit for some time. Last August, he compared the U.S. to the final days of ancient Rome, which he said was militarily overextended and fiscally irresponsible. Since 2005, Walker has been traveling the country on the catchy-sounding "fiscal wake-up tour," preaching his apocalyptic message to half-empty rooms, at least at the start. The tour picked up steam after Walker's message was featured in a "60 Minutes" piece in March 2007.

In March of this year, Walker resigned from the GAO so he could be even more vocal on the debt crisis, becoming chief executive of the newly formed Peter G. Peterson Foundation, set up by Peterson, co-founder of Blackstone Group, a major private equity player.

Their message: You probably know that the national debt is $9.6 trillion and rising. What you don't know is how bad things really are. If you include all the unfunded entitlement obligations -- Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and so forth -- we are actually in a $53-trillion hole, Walker says.

And it will only get deeper as we get older.

In an interview, Walker is full of grim one-liners, such as: "The debt has increased our risk of being held hostage by foreign lenders" and "Our situation is serious, and it is deteriorating with the passage of time" and "The financial condition of the U.S. is worse than advertised."

The nation's debt now accounts for 66% of the gross national product. But unless things change, the film argues that the cost of aging baby boomers will push that proportion to 244% by 2040, twice what it was at the end of World War II, our highest level of national debt. A debt that high, super-investor Warren E. Buffett says in the film, "could create real political instability."

At this point in the movie, we're wishing we'd rented "The Towering Inferno" instead. Happier ending.

The film generally skirts specific solutions -- it does not recommend one form of Social Security reform over another -- but suggests a broad entitlement overhaul, tough budget controls, conservation of energy and, at the no-duh level, not buying things you can't afford. In the interview, Walker said tax deductions and exemptions would have to be reduced and a national consumption tax should be considered.

The film will open in 400 theaters around the country Aug. 21, followed by a live video town hall meeting from Omaha, featuring Walker, Peterson and Buffett.

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