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Bob Buckley explains the ‘Fiscal Cliff’

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We've heard a great deal about the so-called "Fiscal Cliff" facing the nation, but how many of us really understand it?

How did we get here and is there a way out? Would you send your family over the "cliff?"

Financially, that's what we're facing as a nation, because of legislation Congress and the President passed, last year.  It got its name from Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, who said this to a Congressional committee, in February.

Under current law, on January 1st, 2013, there is going to be a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases.

First, let's see how we got here.  For years we, as a country, have been spending more than we make and putting the extra on the national credit card. 

Well, last year, our credit cards were maxed out and the President asked Congress to increase the limit on the national card. 

Before Republicans in Congress would agree to increasing our national credit card limit, they wanted some kind of assurance that we would get our spending under control.

They couldn't come to an agreement with the President on how to do that, so they decided to create something so distasteful to both parties, that they'd surely come up with a deal to avoid it.

That's the law that created the fiscal cliff that goes into effect, in January.  Sort of the legislative equivalent of cod liver oil. Google that.

It includes nearly half a trillion dollars ($494 billion) in tax increases next year, alone - the biggest tax hike in a single year in history.

Your share of the tax increase depends on how much you make.

Families that make $50,000 will pay about $2,000 more.  Families that make $85,00 will pay another $3,500 and the big hammer will come down on families or small businesses that make $500,000:  They'll pay an extra $120,000 next year.

The problem is, even those tax hikes won't solve our deficit and debt conundrums.

We would still be spending at least $600 billion more, each year, than we took in, on top of a debt of more than $16 trillion, already most of it to foreign countries, which means we may be spending as much as a trillion dollars a year just on interest on the debt, in ten years.

So the fiscal cliff law has automatic spending cuts, too.

About half of them (49.5%) would be from the defense budget, though defense spending accounts for fewer than one in five dollars in our budget. (16.8%)

Still, if we're going to balance our budget, eventually, we'll have to find a way to get our allies help pay for the defense we provide most of them.

The US defense budget is more than what the next 17 countries spend on defense combined.  In effect, many of them live under the US defense umbrella.

But the real driver of our debt is healthcare spending.

We only spent about 1 in 10 dollars on healthcare in 1960.

But then we created Medicare and Medicaid, and spending exploded.

We now spend one in 4 dollars on healthcare - and that will be 1 in three, in the next decade.

All those increases in spending, at the same time that middle-income Americans have gone from paying 1 in 5 dollars earned in taxes in 1980 (19.2%) to 1 in 7, (14.3) today.

So, how do we avoid going over that cliff?  It seems both sides are going to have to give.  Republicans are probably going to have to find a way to significantly increase what we all pay in taxes and Democrats are going to have find a way to accept the fact that we can't spend nearly as much money as we have been. 

Then our role, as voters, is to understand that each side had to give, and maybe think twice about voting out people who were able to come to that compromise.