The emperor has no money

It won't be Washington's dirty little secret much longer: the world's most powerful empire is about to go broke.
April 1, 2007

It won’t be Washington’s dirty little secret much longer: the world’s most powerful empire is about to go broke.

Following the success of their light-hearted New York Times crossword doc Wordplay, filmmakers Patrick Creadon and Christine O’Malley will deal with a more serious puzzle in their upcoming, as-yet-unnamed 90-minute feature doc on the US federal debt.

They are banking on the fact that the public can stomach yet another educated warning, and rightly so, considering the popularity of a certain doomsday doc of the global warming persuasion. ‘We joke about this, but it’s true – our movie is sort of a financial Inconvenient Truth,’ says Creadon. ‘It really paved the way for other stories like this to come out because it proved people are dying to find this information out.’

Shooting on Mini DV has just begun, but the plan is to be in theaters in time for the 2008 federal election. Fiscal responsibility is expected to be a hot issue during the primaries. The debt has doubled to US$8.5 trillion from where it was 10 years ago, and many say it will explode in the next 20 years as the trade deficit balloons and baby boomers suck up already under-funded Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

While Creadon and O’Malley paid out of their own pockets to put out Wordplay, they will have more support, both creatively and financially, with the current film. Funding will come from a faith-based community group called One Horizon Foundation, as well as publishers Agora Financial. ‘In some ways [the investors] feel it’s like a higher calling,’ says Creadon. ‘They are all committed to getting the word out about this story… There is a terrible storm on the horizon if we don’t fix these things.’ The film will be based on the book Empire of Debt written by Bill Bonner and Addison Wiggins, who is an editor for the financial newsletter The Daily Reckoning. Wiggins and One Horizon Foundation’s John Carne will serve as executive producers, while Sara Gibson from California-based prodco Open Sky Entertainment will help O’Malley with producing.

Such a complex and political topic begs input from experts, so Creadon is in the process of assembling a panel of non-partisan business and government insiders. He is adamant about getting the facts right and conveying them to ‘commoners’ such as himself. ‘The numbers are so big and the concepts are fairly tricky and complicated, and when people see a story about it they just tune out. It’s like hearing a story about outer space,’ he says. ‘We’re finding it to be a challenge to just get our heads around it, to figure out how to tell the story.’ Therein lies one of the biggest challenges for Creadon: how does one make a story normally discussed by politicians and stuffy academics consumable? He plans on employing a similar strategy to that used in Wordplay. ‘We’re going to find really key characters who are involved in the struggle, and we’re going to have a lot of visuals, graphics, and charts to drive home the point.’

One of these characters will be us comptroller general David Walker, who heads the Government Accountability Office. Considered the country’s ‘accountant-in-chief,’ he is raising awareness of the looming disaster by touring the world like a rock star, on what he calls the ‘fiscal wake-up tour.’

In documenting what Creadon calls ‘the most sensitive issue in Washington,’ you’d think he’d create enemies in the process. But he insists on being objective and not pointing fingers. ‘There are a lot of documentaries that do that – pick good guys and bad guys. We really don’t want to do that. Our belief is that we’re all in this together, and we’ve all created this mess. It’s not like the Republicans or the Democrats did this to us.’ Talking to Creadon, it’s impressive how much personal responsibility he takes on with this issue. With three kids under five, he and O’Malley need not look very far for inspiration. ‘Children and grandchildren are going to be paying for this for their entire lives. Nobody wants that. That’s selfish, and you can’t defend selfishness.’ With the future of their own empire at stake, they can only hope to spread the word before it’s too late.

About The Author