Image: Uncle Sam's debt © Peter Gridle, Getty Images

Despite what Wall Street thought, the last-minute, middle-of-the-night fiscal cliff deal was a dud. Not only did it raise taxes on nearly 80% of Americans and ignore the spending that's the root cause of the deficit and long-term debt problem, but the animosity it engendered also dropped more poison into the dry well of bipartisanship in Washington.

Count the victories: Lower- and middle-income Americans avoided a $120 billion income tax hike this year but will be hit with a $120 billion payroll tax hike instead. The rich face a $70 billion income tax hike. The $100 billion or so in spending cuts, the "sequester," was delayed by a measly 60 days.

But now America faces an even larger precipice: a combination of the debt ceiling, the sequester and the end of the continuing resolution funding the government in lieu of an actual budget. The fun is set to start as soon as Feb. 15, which is the earliest the Bipartisan Policy Center believes the U.S. Treasury could exhaust its cash reserves -- forcing us to raise the debt ceiling, default on the national debt or sharply cut discretionary spending.

We're on a collision course with fiscal reality. There is no more pretending it isn't there -- the Pentagon says the problem is so big that it jeopardizes our national security. For too long, rhetoric has alternated between Democrats promising goodies and Republicans promising to not make us pay for them. There are no easy solutions left; the bills have come due.

Dreadful trajectory

The least-disruptive option, of course, is to raise the $16.4 trillion debt limit. America will, at least in the short term, need to borrow more. Part of this is because the economy is deficient and in need of critical investments from the government. And part of it is because Washington is a long way from addressing the root cause of the problem.

Anthony Mirhaydari

Anthony Mirhaydari

And as a result, the country's debt -- which totals more than $52,000 for every man, woman and child in this country -- just isn't enough. It's not even close.

But we also need to wake up to the fact that the time to fix this is short. The credit agencies and our foreign creditors grow increasingly impatient with our budget petulance.

Washington just doesn't get it.

President Barack Obama and the Republicans in Congress are preoccupied with pointing the finger at the other party -- not fixing the structural problems of a weak, debt-hobbled economy and out-of-control health-care costs, both of which have been decades in the making. Slivers of hope during the fiscal cliff negotiations, including discussions of changing how Social Security benefits are calculated (by changing how inflation is measured) and raising the Medicare eligibility age (to match the Social Security full retirement age), were quickly abandoned to focus on the old tropes of the rich versus the middle class, paying "fair shares" and punishing job creators.

Federal debt

The result was a deal that merely delayed the pain without changing the long-term debt trajectory. The chart above shows our course quite clearly.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that, compared with the full force of the fiscal cliff (had we gone over it), the deal adds $4.6 trillion to budget deficits over the next 10 years -- a deficit the CBO believes will total nearly $10 trillion, enough to take the national debt to an incomprehensible $27 trillion by 2022.

By then, according to Credit Suisse estimates, almost all of America's tax revenue will be going to entitlement programs and interest payments on the debt. Spending on everything else -- including bullets and jet fuel -- will add to the debt load. A weaker-than-expected economy or higher-than-expected interest rates will bring the day of reckoning closer.

No progress

Troublingly, the bickering has already started anew.

Before he even signed the fiscal cliff deal into law, Obama said he wouldn't negotiate over the Treasury's borrowing limit and that any new spending cuts would need to be offset by additional tax hikes. Over the weekend, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., delivered a riposte, saying that Republicans are "done raising taxes" and that any increase in the debt ceiling would need to be accompanied by significant entitlement cuts. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, echoed these sentiments.

In other words, both sides have returned to their corners to pout and fold their arms. Meanwhile, most Americans are starry-eyed from the stock market's rise, focused on the jump in small caps represented by the iSharesRussell 2000 Index (IWM), and blissfully unaware of what's coming.

The farce will end soon. The deadlines we now face cannot be delayed as easily as the earlier ones. And even if they were, the credit-rating agencies have threatened that, without action to at least stabilize the trajectory of the national debt, they will downgrade us -- setting the stage for a repeat of the August 2011 market meltdown caused by the loss of America's AAA rating from Standard & Poor's.

No easy answers

Why is the task of balancing this budget so hard?

For one, part of the deficit is "cyclical" and caused by the weak, credit-addled economy, bombed-out home prices and a subpar jobs recovery. Tax revenues are low, not only because we've been enjoying the Bush tax cuts and Obama's payroll tax cuts, but also because the employment-to-population ratio has fallen to levels last seen in 1981. Moreover, growth is weak because business owners and executives aren't investing enough in new equipment and employees -- in large part because of fears of higher taxes.

And the government has been running huge deficits, not just because of Bush's stimulus checks and Obama's $787 billion stimulus spending, but because it's been facilitating the deleveraging of the rest of the economy. Overly indebted households passed losses to the banks via mortgage defaults, which passed the losses to the government via the $700 billion bank bailout and FDIC-funded bank closures.