If I told you that “Generation Zero” is the best movie about deficit spending and national debt that you will ever see, would you think I was making a joke? As in, how much competition can there be in such a category? OK, there’s not much competition in the “fiscal film” category. But “Generation Zero” would win, because it’s a brilliant movie; in reality, it’s a work of art that happens to be about red-ink spending.
“Generation Zero” is going to do for the tea party movement--and the larger cause of controlling government spending--what Al Gore’s 2006 movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” did for the global warming debate. There are some differences, however. As we now know, “Truth” was based on a deep fallacy, the idea that “global warming” is happening, even as the earth indeed is cooling. By contrast, “Zero” deals with one of the great struggles of our time; the trillions being spent and overspent are real. Down this wastrel road lies the chaotic fate of a banana republic--or maybe today’s Greece or Zimbabwe.
And of course, whereas “Truth” won an Oscar and helped propel Gore to a Nobel Peace Prize, “Zero” is unlikely to win a single prize from left-leaning Hollywood or from even lefter-leaning international organizations such as the Nobel Institute. But, unlike “Truth,” which caused no real change in American politics, “Zero” is certain to have a huge political impact here at home.
Written and directed by Stephen K. Bannon and produced by David Bossie, founder and president of Citizens United, the right-leaning activist group, “Zero” is undeniably a work of advocacy, featuring on-air appearances by everyone from Newt Gingrich to Lou Dobbs to Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) But the film should persuade any fair-minded observer that we have a problem.
“Zero” starts with the 2008 stock market crash, which led a Republican president, George W. Bush, to demand that Congress enact the Troubled Asset Relief Program, now ingloriously remembered as “TARP.” And TARP, of course, was only the beginning of trillions in bailouts and loan-guarantees that have disfigured and corrupted our economics and politics over the past year-and-a-half.
But “Zero” is less persuasive when it argues that the origins of the problem go back to the sixties, when Baby Boomers started changing our politics. It’s possible to blame the 60s generation for many excesses, but the roots of fiscal excess go far deeper. Some might note, for example, that Social Security dates back to 1935. Fannie Mae, the federal housing-subsidy agency, was established to 1938. Medicare, which is projected to consume more than a tenth of our national output later in this century, was enacted in 1965. And the fateful decision to index Social Security to inflation--putting a permanent cost-of-living escalator under entitlement spending, regardless of other economic conditions--was taken by Greatest-Generation politicians in 1972, when the oldest boomers were in their mid-20s. Our national problems would be a lot easier to solve if they could be isolated to just one bad-apple generation.
It is certainly true, however, that boomer politicians made the problem worse--much worse. The dramatic expansion of home mortgages, including subprime mortgages to unqualified buyers, was a bipartisan cause in the 90s and the 00s. And the 1999 repeal of the Glass Steagall Act, for example, which allowed Wall Street to gamble with bank depositors’ money for the first time since the early 30s, was signed into law by a boomer president, Bill Clinton. And George W. Bush and Barack Obama, two big-spending presidents, were also boomers--together with much of Congress.
But the larger point to be made is that overspending is the familiar fate of nations. Spain, the world’s leading superpower in the 16th century, defaulted on some or all of its debt 14 times from 1557 to 1696. And today, three centuries later, Spain is one of several European countries--others being Portugal, Ireland, Italy, and Greece, the so-called “PIIGS”--in danger of default.
And perhaps democracies face a special kind of danger, because the voters eventually figure out that they can vote themselves the treasury. That was a gloomy point frequently attributed to the 18th century Scots historian Alexander Tytler, although subsequent scholarship suggests that the quote is a composite from several different sources. But questions about provenance don’t change the warning power of the words:
“A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's greatest civilizations from the beginning of history has been about 200 years.
During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependence; from dependence back into bondage.”
So the bad news is that no system, not even the best, is guaranteed survival. In fact, the historical odds seem to be against the long-term flourishing of our American experiment.
But the good news is that we have been warned--most recently, by “Generation Zero,” parts of which have already aired on Fox News and Fox Business News. Moreover, the entire film is also available online, click here to view it.
As “Generation Zero” reminds us, our fate is in our hands. We can learn from our mistakes, we can change our fate, we can save our country.
If we want to.
James P. Pinkerton is a writer and Fox News contributor. He is the editor/founder of the Serious Medicine Strategy blog.