Many economists believe large government stimulus packages are necessary to keep the economy from collapsing in the face of an unforeseen pandemic. Politicians have approved roughly $2.7 trillion for this since March, including outright checks to many Americans that will not need to be repaid.

But the money isn’t free. The national debt keeps soaring, and Congress and the White House are digging a hole that will be difficult to fill once things return to normal.

Earlier this week, the Congressional Budget Office reported that Washington’s accumulated debt is on track next year to reach 100% of gross domestic product, which is the broadest measure of the nation’s entire economic output in a year.

This hasn’t happened since the end of World War II, when the nation puts its entire economic might into winning the war. The benefits of victory led to an economic surge in the years following the war that quickly brought the debt back to a manageable level. 

Today, it’s doubtful a victory over COVID-19 would lead to any similar benefit, although economic output would surely increase. The problem is that Washington was piling on debt long before the pandemic began. Neither the Trump administration nor Republicans in Congress have seemed interested in fiscal austerity, agreeing to bipartisan budget deals that ballooned the deficit.

To many in Washington, the debt no longer seems a concern because interest rates are low and inflation remains in check. Investors seem unfazed by the numbers, buying treasury assets with confidence. 

The dollar’s position as the world’s reserve currency has helped keep the nation from suffering the problems seen in other countries where debt has exceeded economic output, such as Japan, Italy and Greece.

But all the arguments in favor of debt cannot escape the reality of interest. The higher the debt goes, the harder Americans have to work just to meet annual interest payments. An official at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative think tank, told The Wall Street Journal this week that interest payments are on track to exceed $1 trillion by the end of the next decade.

Even a small increase in interest rates would jar the economy at that debt level. This could result in higher inflation, beginning a dangerous spiral. Those who have invested in U.S. Treasurys would demand higher interest rates to compensate for increased risk. The result would be unemployment, economic hardship and a weakening of the nation’s ability to protect itself and its interests abroad.

Answers won’t come easy, and today’s politicians don’t seem realistic about what is needed. The race for Utah’s 4th Congressional District offers an example. Incumbent Democrat Ben McAdams supports a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, but has said he would leave Social Security alone. His opponent, Republican Burgess Owens, has signed onto a taxpayer protection pledge, promising not to raise taxes. 

Getting the nation’s fiscal health in order will require changes to all entitlement programs, including Social Security, and it will require tax increases. 

A decade ago, the nation came close to solving the problem when President Obama appointed Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator, and Erskine Bowles, a former Clinton administration chief of staff, to head a bipartisan panel charged with writing a plan. 

The result was a plan so practical and realistic that the panel itself fell short of the votes needed to consider it an official recommendation. It called for a series of tax increases totaling $2.6 trillion, and spending cuts equaling $2.9 trillion. The retirement age would have risen gradually to 69, with younger workers being promised reduced benefits. Farm subsidies would have been eliminated, along with deductions for charitable contributions and mortgage interest.

Many politicians admired the plan, and even privately supported it, but wouldn’t dare vote for it.

The trouble is, without such a plan, fiscal reality one day will force more drastic measures on the economy, and politicians won’t have a choice.