"Is that $53 trillion or is there a number beyond trillion?" A woman behind me in the darkened theater was wondering aloud about that just-cited, staggering amount of projected future national debt.
We were sitting in a Washington, D.C., movie multiplex watching numbers beyond comprehension cascade down the screen as an introduction to IOUSA, a depressing film about the ever-rising pile of federal government debt. Its creators hope that this movie will do for the fiscal debate what Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth did for global warming - transform the topic into a popular issue and bolster belief in the need for strong action by armies of determined voters. The film was directed by Patrick Creadon, who made his feature documentary debut two years ago with Wordplay, about New York Times crossword editor and NPR personality Will Shortz.
IOUSA's sponsors hope the film, companion book, website and advertising campaign will become a powerful weapon in the presidential debate (and beyond) over Social Security and Medicare, the biggest of all federal programs and the twin pillars of financial and economic well-being for millions of Americans. The effort is being financed by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, created with a billion-dollar endowment by Peterson, who was commerce secretary during the Nixon administration and who amassed a fortune by buying companies, taking them private and successfully selling off assets and divisions for huge profits. Peterson is also founder of the Concord Coalition, a conservative think tank.
Peterson has long been a vocal critic of Social Security: He has argued in books, such as Gray Dawn (Times Books, 1999), that rich people like him don't need the benefits and has insisted that the system should be radically restructured. Early this year, he hired David Walker -an eloquent speaker and the U.S. government's former fiscal watchdog when he headed the Government Accountability Office - to run his foundation.
The movie shows Walker and Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, traveling the country on what they call a fiscal wake-up tour, getting in and out of cars, going to civic club luncheons, telling people to get nervous about the national debt. They allude only briefly to Social Security and Medicare, which appear in the fast-growing category of entitlements.
The IOUSA website not only includes screening information for the film but also features the 'Take Action" page, where readers can send a form letter to policymakers. The language is similar to advertisements the Peterson Foundation has placed in major newspapers. One, taking up two full pages in the Sept. 7 edition of The New York Times, was titled 'To the Presidential Candidates and the American People." The advertisement carried such headings as "America's $53 Trillion Hole" and "Unsustainable Entitlement Spending." The ad went on to claim that "eliminating pork-barrel spending, rolling back the Bush tax cuts and ending the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan ^. . would fall short" of meeting the deficits.
Language, of course, is key to political debates. Those who phrase the issue as the entitlement problem or as entitlement reform aim to label Social Security, Medicare and related social insurance programs as pernicious problems to be solved.
Consider other language: "Social Security keeps millions of people living independently. It provides at least half of the income for most people age 65 or older. Medicare pays doctor and hospital bills for 40 million Americans." The political debate will be a struggle in labeling the issue so as to win the support of voters and their representatives in Congress.
For example, some members of Congress are talking about forming an entitlement commission to study the issues and make recommendations for so-called reforms (a euphemism for reductions). "We don't do commissions …