Running on Empty

College students produce prize-winning video on student awareness of the national debt.

Monday, January 9, 2012

By Peter Nichols

In a three-minute online video called Man on the Street 2, an interviewer’s voice asks, “Do you know what the current size of the national debt is?”

A self-consciously stiff college student on camera responds, “Three-trillion dollars?”

“Well, actually the answer is ten-trillion dollars,” the voice declares.

The student visibly gasps beneath a BOING! sound effect.

The video short was put together by undergraduates John O’Malley and Will Son for the Future of American Politics, a freshman seminar they took last fall.  The light-heartedly serious documentary won first prize in a national contest sponsored by Facing Up, a non-partisan program for students curious about what the federal budget means for their future.

On the first day of the seminar, which met at the peak of the last presidential campaign, the instructor told the class, “We’re going to talk about the one thing that politicians won’t be talking about in the upcoming election:  fiscal policy.”  The students learned about spending on health care, Medicaid and Medicare, Social Security and the coming retirement of baby boomers and its fiscal burden for future workers.  As the housing market collapsed and the stock market crashed, the instructor would come into class each Monday and remark, “Everything we talked about last week—forget about it; it’s all different now.”  During breaks, students consulted their Blackberries for real-time updates on the unfolding economic crisis. 

"With our film, we're trying to get the younger generation to tell politicians that we do care about our future." - Will Son

Things finally became so bad that candidates did start talking about fiscal policy—sort of.  “Politicians don’t want to say we’re going to stop spending because then they’re not going to get reelected,” O’Malley observes.  “All those bailout bills and all these companies going under that want government money—the problem is the government’s spending too much.  We’re ten-trillion dollars in debt!”

O’Malley’s and Son’s video explores student awareness of the federal budget and tries to educate them on the fiscal health of America’s government and society.  In the film, several college students at Penn are asked if they know the number for the national debt.  They all underestimate it—by a lot.  The Man on the Street students were equally uninformed about—and alarmed by—the federal government’s $455 billion deficit for fiscal year 2008.  “It’s kind of amusing, but it’s also really sad that we’re so uneducated,” notes O’Malley, who’s learned that government’s deep pockets have a bottom.  “It’s just that we’re going to run out,” he says, “and politicians don’t want to talk about it.”  That makes him angry. 

“The future of American politics seems so distant,” adds Son, “but it’s right now.  The decisions and policies we’re making today will affect us in 10 or 20 years.  With our film, we’re trying to get the younger generation to tell politicians that we do care about our future.”

“It’s kind of frightening when you have to think about it as a freshman,” O’Malley comments.  “You’re just trying to get through college and then hopefully get a job.  But when you graduate, you’ll need that job because you’ll need to pay for your parents and your grandparents and all your aunts and uncles.”

As for his share of the $500 prize money, O’Malley says, “most of it went to textbooks.”

“Yeah,” echoes Son, “I spent 243 bucks on textbooks this semester.  At least we were investing in something important—like our future.”