woody_zimmerman_118_2007This was 1930s actor W. C. Fields’ famous question when some situation in his films seemed impossibly beneficent. Even a madcap character like WC knew that nothing is free, and that somewhere, somehow, somebody had to be footing the bill.

That, of course, was the movies – and old-time movies at that. Real life isn’t a movie – especially nowadays, when a large segment of our population seems not to comprehend that any benefit that appears to be “free” is being paid for by somebody, and that the almighty federal government actually has no resources of its own. It spends trillions each year, but those expenditures can only be taxes collected from citizens or monies borrowed from national, corporate or individual investors.

More than that, President Obama has no special “stash” from which he can draw funds to shower special benefits on his acolytes. Once I would have said no grown-up person would believe such a thing, but now I’m not so sure. Early in Mr. Obama’s term I heard a man-on-the-street (actually, a woman-on-the-street) radio interview with two women in Florida who were queuing up to receive some sort of monetary handout. When the interviewer asked them where the funds were coming from, they said they didn’t know, except it was “from Obama.” Where did he get the money? “We don’t know – from his stash,” answered one. “That’s why we love him,” cried the other. “O-ba-MA! O-ba-MA!” they both chanted as the bemused reporter moved on to speak to others waiting on line.

In another high-comedy sound-clip, a woman enthused that Obama’s election meant she wouldn’t have to worry any more about putting gas in her car or about making her mortgage payment. The One was going to take care of everything.

This is the kind of mentality we’re dealing with now. If he were here, W. C. Fields would be blue in the face from asking, “Who’s paying for all this?” Mr. Obama and his compadres in the Democratic Party are certainly taking no pains to clarify that Mr. Obama has no money except what his government can collect in taxes or borrow. But even if they clarified this, I doubt if the people cited above would care. All they know – or think they know – is that the money is flowing and they won’t be paying for any of it.

The population that dreams about financial “manna” dropping from heaven extends beyond dimwits who think Obama has a secret stash, however. In Wisconsin, a huge uproar erupted in early 2011 when Governor Scott Walker took office. He had been elected on promises to balance Wisconsin’s out-of-control state budget and stop the meteoric rise in Wisconsin’s taxes. The uproar came from unionized state workers who opposed Gov. Walker’s proposals to strip their unions of collective bargaining rights on pay and benefits and to stop the state’s practice of collecting union dues directly from employees’ pay. Unions also opposed any attempts to make state employees pay even a small portion of the costs of their pension-funding and health-care insurance premiums.

Wisconsin state employees did not want to hear about overdrawn budgets, citizens crushed under high taxes, or Wisconsin private-sector workers earning less in salary and benefits, on average, than unionized public-sector workers. Gangs of state workers – assisted by union “activists” bused in from out of state – took over the state capital and generally raised hell for several weeks, hoping to stop passage of the governor’s fiscal reforms.

This effort failed, but unions vowed to fight the governor to the death. To start their “no quarter” campaign, they collected 900,000 signatures on a petition for a recall election. Union leaders at the national level confidently predicted that the “union-busting” governor would be recalled by Wisconsin voters who would stand with them for fairness and union rights.

But this prediction was incorrect. By the time of the recall election, on June 5, 2012, the political climate in Wisconsin had changed. Tempers had cooled, and voters cast their ballots on the basis of Mr. Walker’s actual record – not merely on union fear-mongering. Under his programs, the state’s budget had been balanced, taxes had not been raised, and the jobs of most state workers had been saved.

In the recall election, Mr. Walker defeated his opponent of 2010 – Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett – by 54% to 45% of the vote. This was a larger margin of victory than the governor’s original margin in 2010. He thus became the first state governor in American history to withstand a recall election. Wisconsin’s voters had repudiated the unions’ resistance to reforms that brought reality to the state government’s budgeting and stopped the inexorable increase in taxes that was hurting both citizens and the state’s commerce.

In his victory speech, Governor Walker bravely proclaimed, "Tonight we tell Wisconsin, we tell our country, and we tell people all across the globe that voters really do want leaders who stand up and make the tough decisions…”

All this was welcome news, of course, but one is still bound to regard a 45% opposition vote as a troubling sign. That vote against Mr. Walker means that very nearly half of voters were willing to stick with the status quo ante on state government finances. They were entirely OK with union collective bargaining, burgeoning pay and benefits, and the higher taxes required to pay for them. Whatever problems these things posed for Wisconsin citizens, the 45% didn’t want to hear about them either.

This is not good, for it represents a near-even division on government spending (and taxing) that could easily flip the other way. Mr. Walker’s mandate is tenuous, at best. The least slip could mean curtains for him, politically. His ringing words notwithstanding, the jury is still out on how committed Wisconsin voters really are to responsible government with respect to finances.

This large-scale public drift toward dream-world government financing – i.e., the “stash” – derives partly from what can be called the “bailout mentality.” This is an attitude – assiduously cultivated by Mr. Obama and his party – whereby citizens expect government to protect them from unwise choices and/or untoward developments in business and personal affairs. If you paid too much for a house, saw its value fall, and found your mortgage “underwater,” the government will bail you out just as it bailed out banks that lent mortgages that should never have been granted to buyers of questionable credit-worthiness.

I believe future historians will call Mr. Obama’s the Bailout Presidency, and will marvel at the many ways in which the bailout mentality infected society. Some of that infection is expressed in those absurd declarations cited above, but some expressions are more subtle. I heard some interesting variants, even today, in the aftermath of the damaging derecho storm of June 29, which left hundreds of thousands of homes across several states without power for varying lengths of time.

The interesting development from this disruption was the emergence of scammers who called at houses that had suffered power loss or other damage from the storm. The callers – who said they were “from the government” – told residents that they were eligible for government “bailout funds” related to the storm. In some cases, residents were told that the government would pick up their utility bills for some period of time – perhaps indefinitely. Invariably, though, householders were asked to furnish bank account numbers, social security numbers and other vital data so the funds could be transferred to them directly. (The reader can work out whose funds were probably transferred, as a result of this exchange of data.)

Initial reports suggest that some 2,000 Florida and 10,000 New Jersey residents were victimized by variants of this scam. More thorough investigations will undoubtedly raise the victim count in the areas mentioned, as well as in other areas of the storm’s 700-mile swath.

Why could this scam work so easily? Obviously because the offer of bailout money for storm damage or power-disruptions was entirely credible. We have been conditioned to expect a Bailout of the Month from the current administration – especially during the presidential campaign season. After nearly four years of President Obama, we are thoroughly infected by the bailout mentality. We’ve stopped asking, “Who’s paying for all this?” It’s going to take awhile for us to relearn how to ask it. If we’re lucky, we’ll start relearning in January. Until then, repeat this phrase 50 times every day:

“The government has no money. I’ll end up paying for part of anything it gives away.”