Ever since the tulip bulb mania of the 16th century, if not earlier, people have fallen for various “bubbles.” Right now, I think we’re in the midst of a “government bubble.” The Wisconsin elections may–may–signal that we’re coming to an end of that mania, and a realization that fundamental reform of government is not just a matter of ideology, but of math.

In the tulip-bulb craze of the 16th century, people bet their futures on–are you ready for this?–tulip bulbs. In the words of Investopedia, “prices [for bulbs] were rising so fast and high that people were trading their land, life savings, and anything else they could liquidate to get more tulip bulbs.”

More recently, we’ve had the dot-com bubble and the housing bubble. Like the tulip bulb mania, these bubbles were fueled by greed that overcame prudence. They were also fed by a belief that “things are different now.”

In the political sphere, the U.S. has operated in a “government bubble,” since at least FDR, who ushered in the New Deal and the promise of technocrats in government. Through FDR’s Social Security proposal, poverty among the elderly would become a thing of the past.

LBJ brought us the “whiz kids,” who failed in their plans for Vietnam and for urban renewal. But he also introduced Medicare, through which the elderly would never have to suffer from medically induced poverty. One theme uniting FDR, LBJ, and indeed most of the politicians of the 20th century (think of the “Humphrey-Hawkins Act,” for starters) was the promise that smart people in government could manage away poverty, economic cycles, and in general, human misery. In the current century, George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy promised, in No Child Left Behind, that properly tuned government policies could make sure every child became academically proficient.

But like all bubbles, the government bubble can’t stay afloat forever. On the national level, Social Security is still popular enough to head off major reforms. It also has been headed towards insolvency for decades. Each time the actuaries run the numbers on the program’s fiscal health, the forecasted day of reckoning keeps getting revised to an earlier and earlier date. Ditto for Medicare, a program whose unfunded liabilities dwarfs the size of the U.S. economy.

More recently, the stimulus spending splurge brought us more bubble magic at work, in the belief that government can stimulate the economy through demand-side measures. It also significantly added to the national debt. “ObamaCare,” meanwhile, promises the idea of “universal health care,” while carrying a fiscal time bomb of its own. As a result, S&P has downgraded the debt of the U.S. government, as the company questions our political leaders’ abilities to find a way to pay for everything they and previous leaders have promised.

State governments, meanwhile, have their own troubles, particularly in the education and health care spheres. In these two areas, “more” is never enough. Another problem is the unfunded liabilities for public-employee pensions and post-retirement healthcare benefits, which go only one direction (up).

Unlike the U.S. government, states can’t print money to “paper over” their troubles. Some states (Illinois, in particular) continue to postpone the day of reckoning. Others (New York) have stopped making things (much) worse. Still others (Indiana and most famously, Wisconsin) have taken steps to bring the cost of government under control by changing collective bargaining laws for government employees–laws that make it difficult if not impossible to reign in personnel costs or manage public workforces effectively.

Leaders of those unions (and by the logic of “solidarity forever,” all unions), don’t like the changes and have lashed back. Of course. They threw everything they had at 6 Republican state senators in Wisconsin, and defeated two of them. Those elections may have been the high mark of political activism by public-sector unions, though perhaps not. You can make the argument that unions across the nation have wasted $15 million, since they “only” picked up one seat that should have been Democratic anyway, while the other was held by a flawed candidate embroiled in a particularly seedy divorce.

There’s one other fact that should be kept in mind: Most of the seats up for grabs in yesterday’s recall elections were solidly Republican anyway. One of them was even based in the city that lays claim to be the birthplace of the Republican Party, so as a group, the incumbent senators had the advantage.

So was the union money and effort wasted? Not at all. The unions demonstrated they have the power to inflict fear into the hearts of reform-minded legislators, or at least make their political lives very difficult. So the government bubble may continue to expand for quite a while before it pops.

In addition, there’s more fueling the bubble than the demands of public-sector unions. The public, for one thing, likes big government, though not necessarily big government as an abstract idea. There is plenty of approval for specific aspects of big government. The suburban parent says “don’t touch my kid’s school.” The green business owner says “don’t touch my ethanol / wind / solar subsidy.” The Republican Party activist says, ironically, “don’t let government interfere with my Medicare.”

Self-interest is not the only factor fueling the government bubble. Cynicism is another: It’s hopeless to think of making government smaller and rational, so let’s grab something for myself while I can. Such is the position of some people I know who support a palace for the state’s gridiron royalty, the Vikings. “I don’t mind paying taxes for something I enjoy.” Government may be my master, but at least he gives me some cool goodies now and then!

Do the Wisconsin election returns tell us much about the future of the country? Perhaps not. I hope so.