Home > Uncategorized > Review: “I.O.U.S.A.”–How’s that debt coming along?

Review: “I.O.U.S.A.”–How’s that debt coming along?

The national debt is one of those topics that receive serious amounts of attention but never quite serious attention. Politicians posture and pander to no end, but there’s no denying the reality: tax cuts and increased spending has skyrocketed our debt to new heights leaving us with the grimmest of prognoses. “I.O.U.S.A.” plays the part of the unfortunate doctor who is trying to level with us: we owe a lot of money, it is a serious crisis already, and it’s only going to get worse. Centered around the Concord Institute, a bipartisan non-profit organization trying to raise awareness about the national debt, “I.O.U.S.A” crams an overview of the debt’s history, status, future, and implications in a short, 80+ minute film. The picture is an important and illuminating message about one of our nation’s most serious–if also least sexy–crises.

Overall, the does a good job of tracing the history of our national debt (as you might imagine, it jumps sharpest during major wars) to provide some perspective of its evolving nature. After all, the national debt has not always been on a steady, uphill trajectory: it has gone down at times, even in the last couple of decades. But that’s not what lies ahead for us. Baby-boomers retiring means we’re due for rising Social Security and Medicare costs even while revenues for those programs are due to diminish. After years of Congress drawing from those programs’ reserves to patch its own fiscal holes, that extra revenue will be gone as Social Security begins to owe more than it takes in. Even though the film provides a startling projection of the growing debt, one frustration with “I.O.U.S.A.” is that it does little to highlight some of the external reasons for our debt problem (the elephant in the room: rising health care costs).

“I.O.U.S.A” frames its discussion around 4 different “crises:” the fiscal crisis, the monetary crisis, the trade crisis, and the leadership crisis. In short, we are spending more than we are earning (as a nation and as a populace), our unstable use of the Federal Reserve portends inflation, we are importing more than we are exporting, and no one has the huevos to do anything about it.

For the most part, “I.O.U.S.A.” tries to stay politically-neutral: it does not advocate tax cuts or spending cuts over the other (I think they would say, as I would, that we need both). But in the last third of the film, it makes a very direct, undeniable point: the debt was starting to slowly diminish at the end of Clinton’s presidency but it doubled under Bush. Paul Snow, Bush’s former secretary of treasury, discusses how he was basically forced to resign for not signing on to Bush’s tax-less, spend-more policies. Though tax-cuts were supposed to stimulate the economy and thus actually increase tax revenues, this dream never materialized. Now, after financing two wars and an increase in Medicare while cutting taxes, the debt situation looks worse than ever.

In some ways, this movie has never been more relevant and never more dated at the same time. It was released in 2008, while the economy was slowing but before the financial crash that made our perilous situation look even worse. The stimulus packages under Obama have been financed almost entirely on debt, and fiscal deficits appear inevitable for the near future. Of course, there is the Keynesian case to be made that worrying about the debt at this exact moment would cause only more economic harm: since no one wants to spend, the government has to keep demand high through deficit spending. Still, it is undeniably scary how large that debt clock is climbing ($14 trillion as of this morning).

We cannot ignore too how how the politicized the national debt has become, to the point that politicians only pay it lip-service in order to enact their demands. The Affordable Health Care Act is, according to the Congressional Budget Office, supposed to decrease the national debt, but some economists and policy wonks feel that the government has underestimated the costs of the bill’s unintended consequences. It will cost much more than they think. On the other hand, the Republicans repeal bill–the hillariously titled “Repeal the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act”–will, according to the CBO, increase the national debt. But upon hearing this news, John Boehner, the new House Speaker, dismissed the report as unimportant. And thus the irony continues: the political party who is threatening to let the government default on its loans by not raising the debt ceiling (as it periodicially does), in order to make a stand that the debt is too high, is supporting a measure that will increase the debt. And so it goes.

(Note: “I.O.U.S.A.” is available on Netflix Instant Play)

PS If you feel like you’ve got all the answers (and let’s be honest: you probably do), you can try and balance the budget yourself now and into the future with this NY Times interactive feature. A lot more fun than you might imagine.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Liz
    January 7, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Here is my suggestion: STOP BOMBING PEOPLE. When I start thinking about the cost of the various wars we have engaged in since the Bush administration, both financial as well as the cost of actual human lives, I get a gigantic angry pit in my stomach and then become physically violent in the most hippie way possible (I stomp around and spew mean-ish words and then remember to love the earth and all of its inhabitants). FOR THE LOVE. WAR SHOULD BE THE LAST OPTION.
    /end pacifist rant

  2. Liz
    January 7, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    To be fair, I also don’t believe in making a gigantic mess (see: Baghdad) without cleaning it up. So I don’t advocate for the immediate removal of all of our troops/resources from Iraq/Afghanistan, although a scaling back and a finishing-up-the-job-quickly is probably warranted. But I DO get really angry that we made the mess in the first place. Like so angry. So very, very, very angry.

    I want you to know that I just erased an entire tirade on preemptive strikes and the such because it was long, rambling, and vitriolic. Check out my self control!

  3. January 7, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    Liz, when I think of you, “self control” are the words that instantly come to mind.

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