The mild-mannered hero of I.O.U.S.A., a documentary about the national debt, is David Walker, the former U.S. comptroller general (from 1998 to 2008). He planned on a career in the military, but had to back out because of a bad ear. Now he’s found a new fight: warning Americans that our federal government is spending the country into oblivion.
If it doesn’t sound particularly sexy, well, maybe that shouldn’t matter, given the current financial mess. Eschewing the smug gotcha pandering of Michael Moore, director Patrick Creadon’s film is nonpartisan, clear and informative. With a combination of interviews and smart graphics, which carry the load of the film’s copious statistics, Creadon gives us a bracing crash course in debt history.
The day the United States opened for business we were $75 million in the hole; it took until 1835 to bring the debt down to zero, the only such moment in American history. The debt skyrocketed again during the Civil War, was brought down to a manageable level in 1913, then rose dramatically during the World Wars. Now the debt stands at $10.5 trillion, and once you factor in unfunded obligations to Medicare and Social Security, we’re more than $53 trillion down. That’s more than $175,000 per person.
The answer to the “So what?” question is that, by 2040, the federal government would only be able to service the debt and meet some benefits for Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. The rest of Washington would be closed for business. Federal taxes would have to be doubled to close the gap.
I.O.U.S.A. effectively links the way our low personal savings, national trade imbalances, Federal Reserve monetary policy and poor leadership from both parties have contributed to the debt problem. The film’s only weakness is that it tries to cram in some hopeful “things we can do” in the final minutes—after the detailed damage report that constitutes much of the film, pat advice to save more, spend less and reform taxes feels underfed. “We don’t do anything until something reaches a crisis,” a political columnist notes midway through. Good news, because here we are.