Few titans of Wall Street would decide, upon retiring at age 81, that now was a good time to shoulder the challenge of averting America's impending fiscal doom. Pete Peterson, however, is not your average octogenarian,
So Blackstone's co-founder created the Peter G. Peterson Foundation this spring, endowing it with $1 billion and a mission to increase public awareness of the urgent nature of our country's debt crisis.
Four months into the job, Peterson and his team are hoping I.O.U.S.A.-a documentary about debt that opens today in 400 theaters throughout 10 cities-will deliver their cause its first big publicity push.
I.O.U.S.A., directed by Wordplay's Patrick Creadon, aspires to be the Inconvenient Truth of debt. It is based on the book Empire of Debt by Addison Wiggin and William Bonner, and elucidates, in layman's terms, the deep financial hole into which America's government and its citizens have dug themselves.
The heroes of our story are Dave Walker and Robert Bixby. In March, Walker, the former U.S. Comptroller General, left his post six years early to head the Peterson Foundation; Bixby serves as the executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group aimed at promoting fiscal responsibility.
I.O.U.S.A. follows Walker and Bixby on their "Fiscal Wake-Up Tour," a town hall series that has so far rolled through more than 40 cities to host frank discussions with Americans about the nation's growing financial challenges-as well as inspiring them to act.
Walker and Bixby's message is simple: Over-consumption and lack of fiscal restraint has America hurdling toward an untenable debt position, and pushing politicians for aggressive solutions is our only hope to fix it.
I.O.U.S.A. identifies four distinct deficits facing the country-federal budget, personal savings, trade, and leadership-and uses interviews, clever charts and graphics, and archival footage to tackle each separately.
The film taps an impressive roster of interview subjects, including Warren Buffett, former Federal Reserve chairmen Alan Greenspan and Paul Volcker, and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who together paint an unequivocally negative picture of the state of our national finances.
In driving home the gravity of the situation, I.O.U.S.A. pulls no punches. Bixby likens the growing debt tally to a levee about to burst (think Hurricane Katrina); New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg goes so far as to say, in so many words, that "the only issue that's more severe than this is the idea that an Islamic fundamentalist would get his or her hands on a nuclear weapon and use it against us."
Fearmongering aside, the bare figures presented in global and historical context are indeed startling. The federal debt is currently $9.5 trillion, with the value of unfunded public promises hitting $53 trillion-that's $175,000 for every American. U.S. consumer debt was $2.46 trillion as of June 2007; the trade deficit is currently $357 billion. Debt makes up 66 percent of our G.D.P. these days, and could swell to an untenable 240 percent of G.D.P. by 2040.
While I.O.U.S.A. addresses personal debt, the focus shies away from finger-wagging at citizens' spending habits in favor of finger-wagging at politicians who refuse to acknowledge the federal problem. As Walker and Bixby aim to make debt reduction a major campaign issue, the movie will be shown at both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in the coming weeks.
Whether I.O.U.S.A. will make an impact is the $9.5 billion question.
Unfortunately for the filmmakers, instead of having defenseless polar bear cubs, the debt crisis has only long-faced, prematurely graying public servants with apocalyptic messages as tools of persuasion.
Making a primer on public debt both informative and entertaining is a practical impossibility (Walker and Bixby aren't quite Harold and Kumar), but I.O.U.S.A. does an admirable job at balancing the two. An Inconvenient Truth has created a promising precedent for data-heavy documentaries, and, especially in light of the increased public attention paid to debt due to the subprime crisis, America might just be intrigued enough to watch.
In the meantime, the Peterson Foundation is still planning editorials, newspaper and TV advertisements, even outreach through videogames and blogs aimed at spreading knowledge of the debt problem to people of all ages. Providing grant funding to the Wake-Up Tour and acquiring I.O.U.S.A. were just the start. But a good one, at that.