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Associated Press/Photo by Nati Harnik

Time is money

Movies | On the federal debt crisis, leaders aren't leading

Issue: "Two-ring circus," Sept. 6, 2008

And now for a really inconvenient truth: The national deficit is going to cause large problems very soon. On the face of it, the assertions made by Patrick Creadon's surprisingly engaging new documentary I.O.U.S.A. are pretty elementary: Personal profligacy contributes to a trade deficit; you can't lower taxes and raise spending simultaneously without borrowing money; you'll regret borrowing money from the wrong people.

But these are the truths, Creadon claims, that our leaders ignore. His documentary is frightening mostly because of its various timelines, extrapolated from our current public spending and taxation plans: Do you know when the national debt clock will have to be replaced because it won't have enough zeroes on it? Probably early next year. Do you know how old you'll be when Social Security will officially pay out more than it takes in? Apparently, I'll be 36.

Creadon's problem is not that George Bush has ruined the economy (though the movie certainly criticizes his fiscal policies), it's that, for time out of mind, the easiest and most expedient way for American leaders to remain popular has been to pass the buck on to the next generation. I.O.U.S.A. is notably critical of Ronald Reagan, but nobody, Democrat or Republican, gets off lightly, with the exception of Bill Clinton, whom the film praises for balancing the federal budget.

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In fact, nearly all of the documentary's modern-day players are either struggling, morally courageous nobodies or the influential and irresponsible-the first we see of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, they're looking bored in a Senate budget meeting-with only one exception: Texas congressman Ron Paul, who is introduced to us in the middle of hassling Alan Greenspan, one of the movie's central villains.

I.O.U.S.A. comes across as oddly bipartisan; its experts (sourced with actual footnotes in the corner of the screen) include conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation and disgruntled former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. Its perspective is characterized by cautious federal spending, a wary eye toward foreign trade (especially with China), and, unfortunately, frustration.

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