Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The national debt is rapidly approaching $10 trillion, and the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have proposed budget policies that will almost certainly add several trillion dollars more. Meanwhile, unfunded liabilities for Social Security and Medicare over the next 75 years exceed $44 trillion.

It’s enough to make Addison Wiggin and David Walker as mad as hornets, and they’re doing something about it.

Their joint effort is the acclaimed documentary film “I.O.U.S.A,” which examines the future burden of the soaring national debt. “I.O.U.S.A.,” which received standing ovations at the Sundance Film Festival in January, will debut in the Washington area on Sunday, June 22, at the Silverdocs: AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival in Silver Spring.

Mr. Walker, a former accountant with Arthur Andersen LLP who recently resigned as comptroller general of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, has spent the past several years playing Paul Revere while conducting a “Fiscal Wake-Up Tour” across the country. Mr. Wiggin, the executive producer of “I.O.U.S.A.,” said the nation is in “a very precarious situation, but you wouldn’t know that listening to public officials.”

On Nov. 15, 2005, Mr. Wiggin and his co-author, Bill Bonner, were busy sending copies of their book, “The Empire of Debt,” to every member of Congress and the Federal Reserve. Mr. Wiggin was planning to produce a documentary based on the book’s thesis. “From the federal government down to consumers,” Mr. Wiggin explained, “America had become a society addicted to credit and debt.”

“Just by accident,” Mr. Wiggin recently recalled, “we ran into Walker.” As Mr. Wiggin and Mr. Bonner were packaging their books that day, a front-page story in USA Today caught their attention. It featured details of Mr. Walker’s apocalyptic message. Amid the piles of copies of “Empire of Debt,” Mr. Wiggin was especially intrigued by Mr. Walker’s comparison of the United States of today and Rome before the fall of its empire.

He immediately telephoned Mr. Walker, who agreed to be interviewed.

“Does this have anything to do with that book, ‘The Empire of Debt’?” Mr. Walker asked shortly after the interview began. “Because I loved that book. I read it on an airplane, and then I read a passage to my grandkids the next day,” Mr. Walker told Mr. Wiggin.

Thus was born the idea for “I.O.U.S.A.” A major theme of the movie became Mr. Walker’s “Four Deficits”: the budget deficit, which, according to the latest projections, will total $2.5 trillion over the 2002-09 period; the savings rate, which has turned negative in recent quarters for the first time since 1933; the trade-related current-account deficit, which cumulatively exceeded $5 trillion over the past 10 years and averaged more than $750 billion per year over the past three; and the leadership deficit.

Mr. Wiggin, who is the executive publisher at Baltimore-based Agora Financial, spent months following Mr. Walker across the country as the comptroller general delivered the bad news to Rotary Clubs, universities, business meetings and editorial boards. The film crew traveled to Iowa, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New Hampshire.

The Washington Times was an early destination for “The Fiscal Wake-Up Tour.” With the unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare now rising by nearly $3 trillion per year, long-term fiscal problems have worsened considerably since Mr. Walker calmly and methodically painted his dire picture several years ago at The Washington Times.

The documentary, which lasts 85 minutes, took two years to produce and has cost $800,000. It includes interviews with former Treasury Secretaries Paul H. O’Neill and Robert Rubin, former Federal Reserve Chairmen Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan and billionaire investors Warren Buffett and Peter Peterson. Mr. Wiggin calls them “the Mount Rushmore crowd of American economics.”

The film sold out at every festival, including Sundance, Dallas, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Mr. Wiggin said the plan is to release “I.O.U.S.A.” nationally on Aug. 21. “We want to inject the themes of the movie into the national conversation during the election campaign,” he said.

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