Last night I attended a great event. In theaters across the country, I.O.U.S.A. premiered with a special live broadcast of a panel discussion between some pretty interesting folks. If you saw Tropic Thunder last weekend, you might have seen the preview for the event.
It started with a brief intro by a CNBC host, then they showed the 90 minute documentary (no previews – appropriate, probably). After that there was an hour-long discussion broadcast into the theaters taking place live from Omaha, featuring Warren Buffet, Former US Comptroller Dave Walker, Peter Peterson, the head of the Cato institute (ugh) and the head of AARP (heh, and kind of ugh).
The movie is about not just the US national debt (9 trillion), but about the future obligations that lead us to really be in debt about 55 trillion. It’s amazing – the people who put it together did a really great job of describing fiscal and monetary policy in a way that people without an economics background can really grasp. They lay out the history of debt in the country, and the situation we’re in now. It’s really well done, and raises some interesting questions / points.
First off (and maybe everyone else knows this, but I didn’t), Social Security really isn’t the biggest problem. There are a few different ways to fix it, but even if we don’t touch it, people my age and younger can expect to get about 70% of what folks retiring now get. Not great, but certainly not as terrifying as it seems. The big problem, though, is because we’ve had a surplus, we’ve been taking from it to pay for other costs. Soon we won’t be able to do that.
Second, our debt is increasingly owned by foreign markets. At first I thought the filmmakers were going to get all isolationist and over-patriotic, but in reality they were pointing out that in the past nations (the US, actually) have used their controlling power in other nations’ debt (England, France) to influence political issues (Suez Canal). It’s a kind of freaky prospect.
Third, even if we stopped all military spending, it would still only account for about 3% of the problem. I’m not a fan of the war in Iraq, and I think I’ve been assuming it’s eating up more money than it is. 3% is a TON of money, don’t get me wrong. It’s just not the number I expected.
The panel discussion was really interesting. The moderator did at one point mention that AARP is often seen as the problem, and the AARP guy of course disagreed. Pete Peterson (he has a foundation, not sure what else he’s done) kept pointing out that special interests are an issue (ahem, AARP, I’m looking at you). The Comptroller was really interesting – he’s got some ideas and clearly is not happy with the way things are going. The Cato institute man of course was humorless and very conservative, pointing out that people need to stop expecting the government to insure them against every possible thing. Of course, if one can afford insurance for everything, they aren’t the problem.
It was a great movie – I hope you get a chance to see it when it makes it to your town.