Whether it's Plan A, Plan B or something else, the solutions to the fiscal cliff are likely to give way to a rocky economic landscape for which many Americans are unprepared.
Lawmakers have been scrambling since the election last month to avert the so-called fiscal cliff, $600 billion in mandated tax increases and spending cuts that could plunge the country back into recession.
Earlier this week, Republicans and Democrats appeared on the verge of a compromise, but discussions between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner stalled once again. Republicans instead pushed a vote on "Plan B" that would raise taxes on people making more than $1 million a year. Obama has vowed to veto it.
Before the talks broke down, the difference between the two sides was, in fiscal terms, chump change: $1 trillion versus $1.2 trillion in additional tax revenue and $1.2 trillion versus $850,000 in spending cuts, all over the next decade. Neither plan, though, represents significant fiscal reform.
"This is not a deal to fix the problem, it's a deal to diffuse the fiscal cliff," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan think tank that favors a balanced budget.
The fiscal cliff was a crisis of Congress' own making, brought on by its inability to address many of the same problems last year. The bigger problem, which lawmakers aren't addressing, is the lack of sustainable fiscal policy.
We are in this mess in part because for decades leaders from both parties have been reading from the same economic playbook. They haggle over the small change while trying to convince Americans that it will make a profound difference in the country's finances.
Most of the spending cuts being discussed come from the discretionary spending budget. Government services other than defense would be slashed to levels unseen since the years immediately after World War II.
If a Hurricane Sandy-type storm hits the East Coast next year, there would be far less funding for emergency services under either Plan A or Plan B.
Neither proposal would make the sort of broad change in the fiscal landscape that our lawmakers imply. The biggest chunks of federal spending aren't in the discretionary part of the budget.
"The bigger problem is the basic unsustainability of our entitlement programs versus our tax income," Bixby said.
Many who receive benefits such as Medicare and Social Security bristle at the term "entitlement," arguing that they paid for them. But they didn't, at least not fully. The benefits they extract, especially from Medicare, far exceed their contributions through payroll taxes.
While lawmakers have vowed to reform entitlements and taxes next year, it's not clear that they have the political will left, giving the grueling fiscal cliff showdown, Bixby said.
The budget battle playing out in Washington is nothing more than a giant national temper tantrum. Since 2001, we have been on a spending jag that has ballooned well beyond the costs of inflation and population growth. We've funded wars and prescription drug plans, bailed out banks and automakers and stimulated the economy. These programs have spanned both parties' control of the White House and Congress.
At the same time, we've cut taxes. We now have the lowest average tax rate in about 30 years, yet many still complain taxes are too high and protest any threats to cut or curtail entitlement programs.
For more than a decade, we have demanded more while expecting to pay less. No one wants to admit the party's over.
Even now, both sides are fudging on their proposals. Obama's plan has some $200 billion of "allowances." These are budgetary loopholes. Rather than saying where the cuts will come from, they are simply designated as something that will be determined later.
The Republican plan has about $1 trillion worth of these fudge factors.
Everything we're hearing in Washington is an attempt to continue the fiscal myth of getting more and paying less. Most Americans are unable to envision a world as austere as the ones laid out in these budget plans, and even the sponsors of them don't seem terribly committed to making them a reality.