I'm sitting next to a well-dressed home-schooled high schooler from just outside of Lafayette, Louisiana, watching failed Senate candidate and former HP CEO Carly Fiorina talking about the dignity of jobs that don't pay a living wage. Why Fiorina is speaking at Defending the American Dream isn't really clear. She did an awful job at HP, has never held elected office and seems incapable of saying anything remotely incisive. Nevertheless, her performance distills Americans for Prosperity, and its conference, to its essence.
Fiorina was introduced as someone who worked her way from being a secretary to being the first female CEO of a Fortune Top 50 company (until she was booted out with a $21 million severance package). Like a lot of things said at this conference, that's technically true. Sure, Fiorina's dad was a federal judge and law school professor and her mom was a professional artist. She may have graduated from Stanford before getting a master's from MIT's Sloan School of Management, too, but she did do some secretarial work after dropping out of UCLA's law school before ditching and heading to Italy to teach English.
There's nothing wrong with any of that, of course. It's just that presenting Fiorina as a salt-of-the-earth, rags-to-riches story is disingenuous.
One heard it in every speech, every session and nearly every overheard conversation. Minimum wage jobs are "meaningful," no mention of the extreme number of minimum wage-hours one has to work to merely survive. "They" don't want to work, not because doing so would lead to net loss after transportation costs and child care, not because one can work at Wal-Mart full-time and still qualify for SNAP benefits, but because Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds -- which are basically impossible to get anyway -- and food stamps are so appealing. It's the same rhetoric that Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton used to gut the welfare system, applied to a system that's already been gutted.
Income inequality, Fiorina and others said, was the fault of government bureaucracy and over-regulation. Taxes are too high, too progressive, even in Tennessee, South Carolina and Texas, states utterly dominated by movement conservatives. The free market will drag people out of poverty, and objectivism will save us all.
Person after person reiterated the need for attendees to speak with their heart, to not make so many intellectual arguments when witnessing to those who exist outside the bubble of liberty. What the heart says, at least for Americans for Prosperity and its acolytes, is get yours. Those who can't don't want it because they have too much.
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