I.O.U.S.A. opens Friday in select theaters

My first reaction upon reaching the conclusion of the terrifying, blunt-force trauma documentary I.O.U.S.A. was a fervent wish for our next president. Instead of a celebratory inauguration speech outdoors in freezing Washington, D.C., in January, President Obama or McCain should convene a national town hall meeting. The first hour and a half would consist of a television broadcast of I.O.U.S.A., and the next two, three, four hours would consist of a president-moderated discussion on how our nation can address the problems outlined, in unforgiving detail, in the film.

The film is a grim assessment of America’s precarious, unsustainable finances. It’s full of (digestible) numbers, but the salient one is that the national debt has nearly doubled since the end of the Clinton administration, standing now at $8.7 trillion, and is projected to top $10 trillion by the time of the Jan. 20 inauguration. Another frightening one: The only reason we’ve been paying our bills as well as we have is because we’ve been raiding the Social Security trust fundcontrary to the system’s designfor years. Chillingly, beginning around 2017the end of the next president’s two potential terms in office, in other wordsthe pension obligations will exceed the money going into the trust fund.

But why aren’t people more concerned? The film amply documents general public ignorance of deficits and debt, and further points out that we live in a culture accustomed to imaginary money, whether it’s the credit card that buys us a lavish vacation or the mysterious congressional borrowing that finances an overnight $700 billion bailout of Wall Street. At the end of this chain of credit are notes held by foreign countries, especially Japan and China. What will happen, the film wonders darkly, when our debt obligations to other nations are such that they affect our geopolitical autonomy?

Director Patrick Creadon (Wordplay) assembles a heavyweight team of credible Cassandras to build his case. Among them are longtime Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, congressman and former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, Clinton’s brilliant Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Bush’s short-lived, naysaying Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and the patron saint of stock picking, Warren Buffett. But it’s two especially fervent alarmists who drive the narrative: David Walker, former controller general of the congressional General Accounting Office, and Robert Bixby, the Tab-drinking executive director of the nonpartisan watchdog group The Concord Coalition. They’re an unlikely pair, but united in their despair over Washington’s entrenched culture of cutting taxes and increasing spending, they hit the road in a consciousness-raising tour that the film documents.

What’s truly depressing is the absence of solutions. I.O.U.S.A. emphasizes that it’s not enough to point fingers at the excesses of the Bush era: Reversing the tax cuts and the expansion of Medicare drug benefits, bringing an immediate end to the Iraq war and eradicating McCain’s much-loathed earmarks and government waste will make only a small dent in the problem. If we’re committed to Social Security and Medicare, and we want to maintain a credible military and an acceptable level of other government services, the only alternative is to raise taxesbrutally, to levels that will profoundly affect our everyday consumption.

This is an essential documentary, but it’s short on frills and heavy on narration, talking heads and (well-designed, crystal-clear) graphics. In one of the charts, I.O.U.S.A. identifies four kinds of deficits America has to confront: budget, trade, savings and leadership. It’s the last deficit we can address immediately, at no cost.