Patrick Creadon’s documentary I.O.U.S.A., which could easily be used in an Economy 101 lecture hall, is no dry, academic work having little to do with the lives of average Americans. Given free publicity on CNN recently because of its timeliness with the current, endless presidential campaign, I.O.U.S.A. is scarier than any Hostel or Friday the 13th chiller. After all, most of us do not really worry about psychopathic killers wandering around targeting us, since we’re all lovable and without enemies. Unless you’re older than 90, get set for something that terrifies Americans more than Freddy Krueger: taxes. They’re going to soar into heights that oil may never reach. If you’re young, you’re going to suffer a lower standard of living than your parents and grandparents because, despite what John McCain and Barack Obama say, respectively, about the wisdom of cutting the amount that your boss withholds from your bi-weekly check or hitting only those rarified folks who make more than $250,000 a year, they’re going up. America is not about to pull a Lenin, who made Czarist bonds into some cool wallpaper, or Fidel Castro, who took away the pleasures of the Havana Hiltons without paying Paris or anyone else with stock in the corporation.
Though not as graphically entertaining as Al Gore’s Oscar-winning vehicle An Inconvenient Truth, I.O.U.S.A., which is politically neutral, accuses our country of fiscal cancer, blaming a few politicians in particular. The documentary features U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker and Concord Coalition suit Robert Bixby, super-accountants who watch, albeit helplessly, as our country gets itself deeper and deeper into hock. Lifting the plastic green shades from their caps, they cite the current federal debt, and it’s higher than the price of a Lamborghini: 8.7 trillion dollars. That’s a lot of green that the world’s allegedly richest country owes to bondholders, who more than ever are not our own U.S. residents but the folks in China. Which is the underdeveloped country now? If the Chinese government, which profits greatly from what we buy from Beijing and its environment and to a lesser extent from what great American products they purchase from us—like fried chicken and Coca-Cola—ever called in the bonds, we’re in deep, uh, trouble.
Trying without much success to keep the talking heads to a minimum by utilizing cinematic devices like pie charts and timelines, Walker and Bixby, along with others who think money all the time like billionaire Warren Buffet and former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, bring William Bonner and Addison Wiggin’s book Empire of Debt to life. This is an indictment of Americans’ habit of spending more than they have, both as John Q. Public and as the national government. Former President Nixon is criticized for taking us off the gold standard, thereby sending the dollar into the toilet as it is now, while Paul O’Neill has little use for George Bush’s wartime spending, an obvious challenge to his so-called ideology of conservatism.
Much of what the picture brings out is familiar to those of us who were not interviewed on the street, like the citizens who haven’t the slightest idea what the national debt is or what it means while they worry simply about saving enough to take their dates to the multiplex—where they’re hardly likely to see I.O.U.S.A. The film has one major problem, at least to non-Economics majors like me: Given that what the government spends on war (pardon me: defense), Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is out of our hands unless we elect a Libertarian like current presidential candidate Ron Paul, who would do away with entitlements, what are we supposed to do about the national debt or the trade imbalance with China? If we stop buying shoes and milk and stash the money into a 401(k), will that really bring down the figures very much? A candidate who promises to take our entire paychecks and hand each of us an allowance of $100 a week might do the trick, but will he or she get more than one vote? In other words, we might be able to pay off our credit card bills in full every month if we try, but we’re not about to change the red ink on a government level.