Of all Super Bowl commercials, Chrysler's latest pro-America, Imported-from-Detroit pep talk may be getting the most attention. As you've no doubt seen by now, Clint Eastwood's steely gaze and growling baritone speak of a county knocked down but not out. A country that's hurting, scared and angry. A country that's lost its AAA credit rating. A country that needs to pull together to pick itself up.

The advertisers are trying to tap into the sense that all's not right in the economy. Something is fundamentally broken, and, until it's fixed, problems like chronic joblessness, bombed-out home prices and stagnant wages will continue. These are all problems I've been exploring over the past couple of years.

At the very top of the list, according to the polls, is the fiscal situation in this country. The total national debt stands at nearly $15.4 trillion, and the annual budget deficit is expected to total $1.1 trillion this year -- levels that as a percentage of the overall economy haven't been seen since World War II. Our deficit, relative to the size of our economy, is larger than that of any other major nation, including Greece and Portugal, according to estimates by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Not good.

With tepid economic growth, dysfunctional bitterness in Washington and some big decisions looming on taxes and spending, the situation is likely to get worse, according to new estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

The worry is that America will eventually face the same fate as Greece: Broke, unable to pay its bills and begging for mercy from its creditors. Not exactly the national image of rugged self-reliance embodied by the "Man with No Name." And something you'll hear a lot about from Republicans running against President Barack Obama this year.

But we're not broke. We have by far the biggest, richest economy in the world. And we enjoy some of the lowest borrowing costs in history.

Image: Anthony Mirhaydari

Anthony Mirhaydari

Yes, we're spending too much, even on popular things like Medicare, Social Security and defense, while cutting taxes to 60-year lows and largely neglecting drivers of future growth such as infrastructure, energy and education. But our huge economy gives us the ability to fix the problem. And we have to.

Because if we don't fix it soon, we will lose that ability.

Plenty of money, for now

The government can currently borrow at negative interest rates; the bond market is so eager to funnel cash into the U.S. Treasury that it's willing to pay for the privilege. Last month, investors accepted a negative real yield of 0.05%.

In other words, investors are begging the White House and Congress to borrow. Lenders don't beg to lend money to those who won't be able to pay it back.

In fact, back as far as 1285 -- using bond data starting with city-states of Venice and Genoa before moving on to medieval powers of Italy, Spain and the Netherlands, and modern powers Britain and the United States -- we see that government borrowing costs are near historical lows. (See the chart below.)

GFD long-term government bond yield index © MSN Money

This is a consequence of nature of the downturn we're in: a balance-sheet recession driven by debt deleveraging and massive monetary policy stimulus from the Federal Reserve and other major central banks. (For more on these structural issues, be sure to review "The world's $8 trillion debt hole" and "Will Ron Paul-onomics beat Obama?")

We have no problem raising money to fix the things that need repairs. But this won't last indefinitely.

Our credit card bill

The root of the problem is shown in the chart below.

The money the government has been taking in (as a percent of gross domestic product) has been falling, while the amount it spends has been rising, roughly since 2001. Think the tech crash, the Bush tax cuts, two wars and a long economic downturn. That's a recipe for rising debt.

Government receipts vs. outlays © MSN Money

The U.S. debt load, on its current trajectory, is set to reach scary heights in the years to come -- levels that will put America "in the same position as the peripheral eurozone countries that have seen their borrowing costs soar and left Greece on the verge of a massive default," according to the experts at Capital Economics.

Federal debt to GDP © MSN Money

What would it take to turn this around?

Last week, the CBO presented two economic scenarios. The "baseline scenario" would see the deficit fall to less than $200 billion, or 1% of the nation's GDP, by 2018. Sounds great.

The trouble is, it would require that the Bush tax cuts expire, more people pay the Alternative Minimum Tax and doctors accept sharply lower Medicare payments. In addition, there would need to be a trillion dollars' worth of the automatic spending cuts related to the failure of the congressional deficit supercommittee to find a deal late last year. It would also require the end of extended unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut. The top tax bracket would rise to nearly 40%.

Apart from the political uproar that would cause, the economy wouldn't be able to tolerate such a sudden fiscal tightening. Barclays Capital estimates the cuts would be worth around $500 billion next year, more than of 3.5% of GDP. That, combined with the hit to confidence, would be enough to send the United States down the same recessionary path as austerity-obsessed Europe.

Given election-year politics, this scenario won't happen. And given how eager the bond markets are to finance U.S. debt, such a drastic tightening isn't needed anyway. It would just make the deficit worse, since part of the annual shortfall is driven by economic performance.

So instead, the CBO offers an alternate fiscal scenario. Under this model, the biggest pain points I listed above -- ending the Bush tax cuts, changing Medicare reimbursements, keeping the AMT where it is and those automatic spending cuts -- are all avoided to keep the electorate happy. The only change is allowing the expiration of the payroll tax cuts, which is already scheduled.

Under this scenario, which assumes the economy recovers fully and the unemployment rate falls back below 6%, the deficit is still $1 trillion in 2017. Growth alone doesn't get us out of the hole, just as austerity alone isn't the answer.

This illustrates a critical point: The real problem runs deeper than things like payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits. It's structural and caused by rising per-capita health care spending and an aging workforce placing more demands on the underfunded social benefits system..

By then, the U.S. debt load will approach the lofty heights occupied by the likes of Italy, Portugal and Ireland -- increasing the risk that the bond market loses patience and jacks up our borrowing costs (as happened in Greece), precipitating a crisis.

This is only five years away. Sooner if the economy worsens, as I expect.

The picture is even uglier over the horizon. A 2010 study by the Bank for International Settlements estimated that in the absence of reforms and a cap on age-related spending, the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio will double over the next 10 years to 200%. By 2040, it will be over 400%.

This is the scale of the problem we face.

But, as Eastwood's Chrysler ad suggests, the country is up to the task. To get out of this, we need a two-pronged strategy.

Continued on the next page. Stocks mentioned: Cemex (CX, news) and Martin Marietta Materials (MLM, news).