A Quick Review of I.O.U.S.A.

by: Markham Lee

I attended a showing of I.O.U.S.A Thursday night and I really enjoyed it.

The movie's strength is that it organized all of the elements of our national debt problem into a cohesive narrative, and presented the facts in a way that was largely apolitical and easy to digest. As a result people who are new to the issues or are fairly knowledgeable can both walk way with new knowledge and/or a better understanding of the big picture; the movie's strength wasn't in presenting a lot of new information per se it was the way in which the information was presented.

Without going into too much detail about the movie I'd say that one of the more telling (if not gloomy parts) of the movie was a segment that discussed how in terms of % of GDP, our current Debt is higher than it was in past time periods where the country was at war or dealing with situations like the Great Depression. It's rather disturbing to realize that in a times of relative peace and prosperity our country has continued to run up huge deficits, and mortgage the future to finance the present. In fact even if the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weren't occurring/had never happened/were to end soon it would be a drop in the bucket compared to the overall problem.

Furthermore the deficits in of themselves aren't so much the problem as it is the fact that a large % of the debt is owed to foreign countries (China and Japan hold over $1 trillion), and our pending liabilities for socials security and Medicare dwarf our current debt problems. It's not really the amount of debt we have as a nation it's the economic context it exists within.

Another disturbing factoid is that without the surplus from the Social Security fund, our nation would've only had ONE year over the past 40 where it ran a surplus as opposed to the five that's commonly reported.

Needless to say this isn't something that's sustainable over the long-term.

While this isn't exactly a "festive" film but I wouldn't say that the people interviewed for it and/or the makers of the film are necessarily pessimistic about the future, it's more along the lines of "because of what's coming we have to make some difficult decisions, and take the necessary steps to prevent a future calamity". The film's approach seemed to be to educate people on what the overall national debt picture looks like, so that they're then able to foster a dialogue around solutions and to push the folks in Washington to take the steps required to ensure a better future for our nation.

For some reason the movie wasn't being shown in the Seattle or any of the close-in suburbs and I had to drive to the outskirts of the Seattle metro area (arguably Tacoma metro really), to find a theater that was showing it. Despite all of that the movie was well attended, the audience definitely seemed very interested in the issues at hand and the vast majority stayed for the panel discussion at the end. This worries me (slightly) because if the big chain theaters in Seattle (and other major cities) ignore the movie it's going to limit the audience it will be shown to; and let's just face a documentary on our national debt is going to have a hard time competing with the Dark Knight.

The other issue is that I felt as if I was in church with the choir (based on the reactions of the audience), and while having a better informed choir is important the preacher really needs to engage with the people who are hung over and/or playing golf on Sunday mornings. A telling example of this is the fact that in New Hampshire the local TV news didn't cover a recent visit by the fiscal wake-up tour (despite sending a video crew) , and were instead dedicating time to on the spot coverage of a mugger who swallowed a ring in front of the police.

I'm unsure as to the level and severity of the "ring swallowing problem" in New Hampshire, but I would think that the Fiscal Wake Up Tour is probably more important in the overall scheme of things.

The issue of our national debt isn't discussed as much it should be and the discussion is nearly always part of a larger partisan debate and is rarely discussed holistically, hopefully this movie will change some of that and help foster the larger dialogue that needs to be had before its too late. At the end of the day the issue of our national debt isn't tremendously complicated nor is it especially hard to understand, it just needs to be presented to the people in way that's easy to digest and free of all of the usual partisan rubbish that often sullies the conversation.

I just wonder if there isn't already so much momentum towards fiscal irresponsibility (at the Governmental and Personal level) that we won't be able to markedly change anyone's behavior into an even larger crisis (then the one we have now) occurs.