[7 December 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s the most hair-raising horror story ever. It’s enough to keep the most jaded adult up at night. The mere scope of the subject is so outrageous, so far beyond the capacity of most human imagination that an “out of sight, out of mind” response becomes an easy way of dealing with it (“it’s somebody else’s problem” coming in a distant second). Yet when one looks at the headlines or listens to the news these days, there’s no escaping it. It shaped the last election and threatens to undermine everything this country has created for the last 232 years. If you believe the terrifying documentary I.O.U.S.A., America is headed for a financial crisis of monumental proportions - and apparently, we are probably too late to keep it from happening.
Centering around the Fiscal Wake Up Tour, initiated by former United States Comptroller General David Walker (with substantial support from The Brookings Institute, The Concord Coalition, and the Heritage Foundation), director Patrick Creadon proposes four reasons - or “debts” - for our current capitalistic meltdown. The first is obvious - National Debt. The second, Savings Debt, puts the spendthrift credit addicted citizenry directly in the line of fire. The Trade Debt deals with our dependence on foreign investment, goods, and jobs to keep our country moving, and the last item - Leadership Debt - places much of the blame at the doorstep of post-modern politics. In essence, we’ve lived in a “too good to be true” system since Watergate wiped out our faith in government - and we’ve been unwilling to change it.
As a point man, Walker is wise, articulate, and engaging. But at present, he appears to be playing to a jaded, jingoistic crowd. According to Creadon, Americans are still locked in a sense of entitlement. Like Veruca Salt, or Freddie Mercury and Queen, we want it all and we want it now. We don’t think about socking something away for the proverbial rainy day (unlike the Chinese, who take their $10 a day salary and still manage to save 50% of their earnings yearly) and overreaching in all aspects of our life - McMansions, overstuffed SUVs, crass creature comforts. But I.O.U.S.A. also illustrates how this relatively minor portion of the population ruins it for everyone else. By failing to restrain their own purse strings, there is a ripple effect down to the mired middle class and the working poor. That’s because, just like their elected representatives, the inferred wealthy wield power, and as a result, they dictate the kind of “voodoo” economics that got us in this mess in the first place.
One of the most fascinating elements of this documentary is the timeline explaining the US debt since 1776. There has rarely been an era when we’ve run at zero, and the Clinton surpluses are explained away as tagged-on treatments of the always available Social Security Trust Fund excesses. But with the Boomers about to hit retirement, and the current state of the economy balanced on the backs of policies that propose “spend now, pay later…much, much later”, I.O.U.S.A. argues that a breakdown is inevitable. Walker and his primary co-conspirator Bob Bixby (of Concord) seem exasperated in their conclusions, and the tour hopes to alert the country to the problem. But even with alarming statistic that would disturb even the soundest mind ($57 TRILLION debt in 20 years?!?!?), it’s apparently ‘head in the sand’ time.
As an entertainment, I.O.U.S.A. is occasionally confounding and always jaw-dropping. Creadon piles on the problems with such relish that the potential solutions get some incredibly short shrift (a musical montage? That’s the way to explain our potential path to escaping penury?). There’s also one too many ‘nobody’s listening’ moment, opportunities where Walker and his wise men are shuttled aside for more “audience friendly” news stories. The reliance on the next president seems prophetic, since the recent campaigns offered a clear contrast between business and usual and outside change. Yet I.O.U.S.A. argues that no quick fix is available. Tough times will call for equally harsh remedies - and the talking heads are convinced that Americans won’t cotton to such sacrifices.
Indeed, there’s plenty of blame to go around here, arguments pro and con regarding the realities of the world vs. our need for instant gratification and material satisfaction. When a skit from Saturday Night Live spoofs an infomercial offering a one page book entitled Don’t Buy Stuff You Cannot Afford, the clueless responses from the fake couple contain too much truth to be completely satiric. Clearly, the situation here is so bad that it’s almost impossible to laugh at. And don’t let left wing arguments about Bush’s War/Tax Cuts or Neo-Con criticisms of Pork Barrel spending throw you off. Together, they make up less than 10% of the overall budget and problem..
No, in 2008, the US is stuck paying service on an already massive debt, maintaining Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, and waiting for the fateful day when our foreign investors decide to pull rank. Like the old cliché says - it’s never fun to say ‘I told you so’ - but Walker has been pitching that party line for almost a decade. Oddly enough, one of the few Cabinet members to carry his torch - Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill - was fired by the President (via Vice President Cheney). Under the current administration, no news was not only good news - no bad news was great. For decades, propaganda and ineffectual policies have brought the nation to the verge of collapse. As I.O.U.S.A. argues, it may be too late to save this flat-lining patient.