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AN INCONVENIENT DEBT

The Baltimore Sun

A parade of American presidents, from Eisenhower on, all warning of the inherent peril of runaway spending. A Saturday Night Live skit. A graphic presenting America's budgetary history as a roller-coaster ride of epic proportions. An out-of-control screed by an analyst losing it in front of a national TV audience.

I.O.U.S.A., a documentary being screened three times at this weekend's 10th annual Maryland Film Festival, uses every tool available to drum home its message that deficit spending is bad, that a country built on it is heading for nowhere but trouble. It's a message both cautionary and, given the film was in gestation long before home foreclosures and spiraling gas prices sent the American economy into a tizzy, disturbingly prescient.

Sitting in a restored Sons of Italy hall on St. Paul Street, the film's co-writer and executive producer, Addison Wiggin, takes no joy in events that seem to be proving him right.

"It doesn't do much good to feel vindication," he says. "Even if we're right, people still need to know what to do at this point."

Wiggin, 40, is executive publisher of Agora Financial, a financial research firm and publishing group that is just one of some 20 companies operating under the umbrella banner of Agora Inc., a Baltimore-based holding company. For nearly 30 years, operating for much of the time out of some of the grandest historic buildings in downtown Baltimore, Agora Inc. has been advising its customers on the good life, offering tips on how to make money, how to stay healthy, how to travel first-class.

Wiggin and the economic brain trust at Agora Financial have been decrying deficit spending for years. He and Agora Inc.'s founder, William Bonner, co-wrote Empire of Debt, a 2005 warning shot across the country's economic bow that laid out Agora's position pretty clearly: America can't continue spending more than it takes in. Deficits will eventually prove ruinous. The mountains of debt on which much of the American economy is built are destined to crumble, and the results won't be pretty, as the dollar loses value, prices skyrocket and retiring baby boomers start wishing they'd saved some of that money they couldn't wait to spend back in the salad days.

I.O.U.S.A., directed and co-written by the husband-and-wife team of Patrick Creadon and Christine O'Malley (WordPlay), is Agora's first foray into filmmaking. Its timing, opening in an election year, Wiggin says, is no accident. The idea is to work the film's message about the danger of deficits into the presidential debate. Just as An Inconvenient Truth raised the alarm about climate change, I.O.U.S.A. longs to do the same for deficit spending.

"We put this story together in a way that helps educate people, for one," says Wiggin, "and hopefully motivate them to understand what fiscal challenges face the country, and how that impacts their lives.

"It seems to me," he adds, "that, with a message like this, it's much easier to hand somebody a DVD and say, 'You've got to watch this,' than to hand them a tome of 350 pages."

So far, the film's message seems to be getting across just fine. During its premiere, at January's Sundance Film Festival, it played to near-capacity audiences and widespread praise. Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan lauded it as one of the best documentaries playing, saying it "might be the most unexpectedly frightening movie in the festival."

The film plays well to the public-service side of Agora, says Bonner, the company's founder. While profit is certainly his company's priority, he says, there's a side of him that longs to get important issues out before the public.

"This is something we felt we should do, even though there's probably no money in it," he writes via e-mail from Europe, where he recently was traveling between his home in the south of France and Italy. "We're old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy, Eisenhower-era Republicans. We thought it was our duty."

Bonner, an Annapolis native whose educational resume stretches from Anne Arundel County's Southern High School to Georgetown Law School, founded Agora in 1979. From a single eight-page newsletter (International Living) advising readers on travel and retirement, Agora has grown considerably; it now operates as a holding company for some 30 companies worldwide, publishing more than 300 books and 40 newsletters. Subscriptions to the various newsletters range from free (including The Daily Reckoning, the flagship of Wiggin's Agora Financial) to $1,500 or more.

"I am hardcore unemployable," Bonner writes. "Agora evolved because I never could imagine seriously working for anyone else."

Agora first set up shop at 824 E. Baltimore St., in a home purchased as part of the city's revitalization effort. In 1994, it moved into historic Mount Vernon. It set up shop at 14 W. Mount Vernon Place, a mansion dating from 1847 that featured one of the city's first hydraulic elevators (it still operates). It is one of six buildings owned and renovated by Agora, which has won numerous preservation awards for its work.

"They have restored those buildings magnificently," says former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, president of Baltimore Heritage. "I think they deserve tremendous praise from every Baltimorean."

Agora also has earned its share of criticism, for what some have called overzealous promoting. A 1999 pitch, in which the company offered to sell press passes (for $298) to travelers who wanted to enjoy the free perks supposedly offered to international travel writers, earned Agora a dart from the Columbia Journalism Review.

"A truly tacky travesty of what real journalists, with real press passes, are all about," the CJR editors wrote.

And in 2003, the federal Securities and Exchange Commission filed a complaint against Agora, claiming it defrauded readers by charging $1,000 for false insider information about a Maryland-based company that supplies nuclear power plants with enriched uranium.

Although Agora itself was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, one if its arms, Pirate Investor (now known as Stansberry & Associates), and one of its editors, Frank Porter Stansberry, were ordered in August 2007 to pay $1.5 million in restitution and civil penalties. The decision is currently on appeal.

Such blips, however, have done little to slow Agora down. If anything, the current economic downturn, which Agora has been warning has been on the way for years, is only increasing the company's credibility and influence.

"They have very consistently railed for a long time about deficit spending," says Mark Hulbert, editor of the Hulbert Financial Digest. "They have earned their bona-fides there."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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