PBS documentary 'Overdraft' explores U.S. debt situation


After the screening, Wharton professor Michael Useem moderated a discussion




In last week’s presidential debates, Governor Mitt Romney said that he would cut funding for PBS as part of his plan to balance the budget and decrease the national debt.

Last night in the Zellerbach Theatre, The Wharton School and the Penn Institute for Urban Research hosted a screening of Overdraft — a PBS documentary — which discusses the causes and dire consequences of the United States’ soaring national debt.

After the screening, management professor Michael Useem — who is also the director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management — moderated a panel discussion.

The documentary, which can also be found on YouTube, was commissioned and funded by the Travelers Institute, a think tank founded by Travelers Insurance Company. It applies the company’s management, experts and knowledge to issues of public policy.

“We wanted to raise awareness about the importance of public policy decision-making and things that our experts can help with,” said Joan Woodward, the president of the Travelers Institute and executive vice president of public policy for Travelers.

Though the Traveler’s Institute funded and contributed information to the documentary, they had little say in its editorial content. WTVI-TV — Charlotte, North Carolina’s PBS affiliate — produced the film in partnership with Susie Films.

The documentary outlined how the housing crisis, the resulting economic downturn and unbridled government spending contributed to the burgeoning national debt.

It then showed various perspectives concerning how portions of the government’s budget such as health care, defense and social security were not solvent.

Heather Huang, a junior exchange student in Wharton, found pharmacy owner Tom Miller’s story particularly effective. His pharmacy in Marion, Illinois, went under because the state government could not afford to reimburse him for patients’ Medicare and Medicaid prescriptions. She liked that the film interviewed “common people and related [national debt] to their lives.”

While it did not provide specific solutions, the film stressed that something must be done.

Introducing the film, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Travelers Companies Inc., 1974 Wharton bachelor’s and MBA graduate Jay Fishman stressed that we are on an “unsustainable path to $2 trillion [yearly] deficits if we don’t do something about it.”

Echoing a quotation from Revolutionary-era financier Robert Morris, University President Amy Gutmann commented while introducing the film, “Our own interest and the public good still go hand and hand.”

Wharton is the first stop on a nationwide tour of a growing list of business schools that include the Institute for Economic Policy Research at Stanford University and MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Producer and Susie Films founder Scott Galloway hopes the film will serve to educate students and encourage them to be involved in public policy. “My hope is that they get a better understanding of the issues,” he said. “I do hope that they recognize that a lot of these issues are solvable.”

Students who attended the event echoed Galloway’s thoughts, discussing the film’s education value. Dan Clay, a Wharton MBA student said the film was “really helpful in explaining why the debt matters.”

Second-year Wharton MBA student William Wang said the film stressed that “fiscal responsibility goes a long way.”

Katie Willis, a graduate student in the School of Social Policy and Practice studying non-profit leadership, appreciated that the film motivates viewers to take action. “The urgency of the speakers within the film felt like a call to arms, which I enjoyed because this is such a pressing problem.”

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