NEW YORK - Anyone with a heartbeat knows there is a threat to the U.S. economy at year-end - that if President Barack Obama and Congress don't find a way around it, something at which Washington excels, bad things will happen to all of us.
Pardon my verbal gymnastics, but I'm trying to avoid typing "fiscal cliff" even as our government barrels toward it.
In case you were under the impression there was a sense of urgency about preventing $500 billion of automatic tax increases and spending cuts from taking effect in the new year, think again.
Obama scheduled no meetings with congressional budget negotiators this week.
As soon as lawmakers returned to Washington, Obama decided to take his case to the people or, alternatively, bring the people to him to plead his case.
Ever since the Nov. 6 election, both parties have been focusing on a single, controversial issue: whether the Bush-era tax cuts for individuals making more than $200,000 a year ($250,000 for households) will be allowed to expire.
Obama has threatened to veto any legislation that extends the cuts on the top 2 percent "because it's bad economic policy," according to White House spokesman Jay Carney.
The expiration of tax cuts on top earners would increase federal revenue by $824 billion during the next 10 years, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates.
If Congress does nothing - if taxes go up across the board, discretionary spending is cut and Medicare payments to doctors are slashed, among other automatic adjustments - the Treasury would take in an additional $5.1 trillion of revenue over 10 years.
That's hardly chump change, but even "big tax increases can't cover the rising cost of entitlements," said Joe Carson, director of global economic research at AllianceBernstein in New York.
Mandatory spending on programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, totaled $2.05 trillion in fiscal 2012, or 58 percent of the federal budget.
Based on demographic trends, entitlement spending will reach $3.55 trillion in 2022, consuming almost two-thirds of the entire budget.
In the past, the United States generated enough revenue to cover future costs. During the 1980s and 1990s, for example, the ratio of current revenue to entitlement spending five years out was 1.4, according to Carson.
Then the cost curve started bending in the wrong direction. The ratio of revenue to future entitlement costs fluctuated between 1 and 1.1 over the past decade: Tax revenue barely covered the part of the budget that is on automatic pilot.
Even with a revenue boost from inaction on the fiscal cliff, the ratio of current revenue to projected entitlement spending never exceeds 1.15 during the rest of the decade, Carson says.
"The future cost of mandatory programs absorbs all of the projected growth in revenue from tax increases and economic expansion over the next decade," he said.