Warren Buffett doesn't have a very big part in a new documentary that's trying to inspire Americans to take action against the nation's growing national debt. Buffett appears for a few minutes in I.O.U.S.A.talking about his concerns over the U.S. current accounts deficit.
He did, however, play a major role in the live panel discussion hosted by CNBC's Becky Quick that was beamed to hundreds of movie theaters around the country tonight as part of the movie's premiere.
Buffett was the self-described "token pollyanna" among the five men on the panel, who spent much of the evening arguing the nation faces a massive financial reckoning in the coming decades, as baby boomers leave the workforce and start collecting on promises of government-subsidized healthcare and retirement benefits. The theme of the night: average people need to educate themselves on the extent of the problem, start saving more, and put pressure on Washington politicians to tighten the nation's collective belt.
He predicts the U.S. economic "pie" will get bigger over the years to help pay for the many promises government has made to its constituents. And he repeated what he has said in the past, essentially that throughout U.S. history living standards have improved over time as American capitalism harnesses the incredible abilities and potentials of the people who live here.
Buffett told the audience in an Omaha auditorium, and in movie theaters around the country, that it hasn't been a good idea to sell the U.S. short since 1776 and he's not about to start now.
That came as a surprise to some of the people in the audience with me at the AMC Garden State 16 theaters in Paramus, New Jersey, a few miles from CNBC's headquarters just outside New York City.
The generally knowledgable crowd, many of whom seemed to know one another, speculated that Buffett's off-message comments may have been a surprise to the film's backers.
I was somewhat surprised at the size of the turnout. About one-hundred people, who paid a relatively steep $18 each to get in, stayed through the 2-1/2 hour movie/live event, which did get a bit policy-wonkish toward the end. (We all had to ignore the loud rumbles and crashes from the other "disaster" movie playing next door.)
There aren't any fiery explosions, but I.O.U.S.A does do a good job of taking a dry subject and making a strong case that the nation is going to have to make some "tough choices" and start living within its means, sooner rather than later.
Its backers may have preferred that Buffett stuck more to their script and didn't express quite so much optimism that a growing economy will write a happy ending to the story, without all those difficult decisions.
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