A pants-crappingly important documentary about the monstrous problem of the United States’ national debt, director Patrick Creadon’s I.O.U.S.A. takes as its two crusading, point-of-entry subjects Concord Coalition executive director Bob Bixby and former U.S. Comptroller David Walker, both level-headed, entirely cool and collected Poindexter-types who could pass for affable branch managers at your local savings and loan. That’s important, and underscores the rational appeal of this alarm-bell non-fictioner: while it undeniably elicits temple rubbing and teeth gnashing in extra servings, I.O.U.S.A. doesn’t go for cheap partisan provocation.
As superbly elucidated in the bird’s-eye financial history documentary The Ascent of Money, also recently released to DVD, debt in and of itself is not necessarily a problem. But I.O.U.S.A., inspired by William Bonner and Addison Wiggin’s Empire of Debt, tells the story of a country, collectively, living a wildly unsustainable lifestyle. Faced with key deficits in budget, savings, trade and leadership, the federal government is critically overextended in many areas; increased foreign competition in the form of emerging economic markets only deepens our challenges. With the American economy already in shambles, 78 million baby boomers are expecting retirement benefits from their indebted federal government, and it’s these massive liabilities (approximately $7 trillion for social security, and another $34 trillion for combined Medicare commitments, including President Bush‘s prescription drug giveaway) that dwarf the actual debt, and push it to a staggering total of around $54 trillion.
Weaving together archival footage, economic data and candid interviews with Walker, Bixby, Warren Buffett, Alan Greenspan, Paul O’Neill, Robert Rubin, Alice Rivlin, Paul Volcker and other titans of currency, I.O.U.S.A. offers a vivid and alarming profile of America’s financial status, a surefire path toward foreign policy being dictated solely by banking considerations. An effectively stitched together opening montage comprised of various State of the Union speech clips makes sure the audience immediately grasps that this isn’t a partisan hatchet job, despite the indisputable fact that Bush inherited a projection of increasing budget surpluses along with a $5.6 trillion debt in 2000, and took it to around a $10 trillion debt, and growing, at the beginning of this year.
Creaden (Wordplay) is skilled at being able to craft a compelling narrative from and around wonkish details, but he isn’t afraid to interject both real-world irreverence and anxiety into his work– in the form of interview snippets with average retirement-age Americans, heading back to work or fretting about their kids and grandkids — which helps humanize the movie, and make its seemingly too-big-to-tackle problem something relatable, if no less unnerving. Smartly, Creaden also contrasts consumer behaviors (as encouraged by governments); America’s conspicuous consumption is contrasted with a Chinese couple who work together in a factory and earn the collective equivalent of around $20 a day, yet save more than half of that income. As much as the widening manufacturer’s gap, it’s that difference in mindset that helps explain the $260 billion trade deficit with China in 2007.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, I.O.U.S.A. includes a slew of supplemental material, starting with a five-minute, direct-address update from Walker, recorded in early January 2009. An hour-long panel discussion from after the film’s premiere includes Walker, Buffet, Bill Niskanen, Bill Novelli and Peter Peterson, and Buffet and Greenspan also pop up in a separate “economic experts” section explaining why deficits matter. (Here’s a partial hint: the massive debt accrued after World War II, when it swelled to 122 percent of the gross domestic product, was owed to ourselves, courtesy of war bonds.) A special classroom-friendly section provides viewers with Volcker’s reading list. Five minutes of on-the-street interviews with ordinary Americans are counterbalanced by fiscal update information, a three-minute, data-laden slideshow, and the movie’s trailer. To order any DVD release from PBS Home Video, including this title or The Ascent of Money, call (800) PLAY-PBS or click here; to purchase the I.O.U.S.A. DVD via Amazon, click here. A- (Movie) B+ (Disc)