After road-testing in Florida not long ago, the mobile version of the Conservative Political Action Conference hit Chicago last week. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was the most entertaining speaker, as he and a couple other reform-minded governors – Ohio’s John Kasich and Kansas’ Sam Brownback — related their significant accomplishments to the conference. Everybody saluted Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for his big victory earlier in the week, winning his recall election by a larger margin than he won election in 2010.

All four governors overcame huge budget deficits early in their administrations.  Kasich won a higher debt rating for Ohio around the same week rating agency Moody’s downgraded the United States of America’s.  Brownback and the Kansas Legislature instituted a new five-year tax credit for small businesses coming to his state.

Gov. Christie, reporting that President Barack  Obama had blamed the weak U.S. economy partly on the fact that “state and local government hiring is going in the wrong direction,” explained why that statement shows a fundamental ignorance about how the American economy works.  He used several examples of reforms that are critical to head off “fiscal cliffs” in some states that mirror the alarming irresponsibility evident in the political approach to the national economy.  For example, he worked with a mostly hostile state Legislature to initiate rescue of the state employee retirement health program — which he claimed actuaries calculate to be currently $67 billion underfunded — by eliminating the cost of living adjustment, excluding part-time work, increasing contributions and raising the retirement age for benefits.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., backed up the governors’ stories by reporting that the federal government paid more than $600 million in benefits to dead people last year.  He claimed that one person collected his father’s pension from 1971 to 2008, and was only caught when he died.  All this, against a background of no White House plan to reform entitlements. (Witness this increasingly famous quote by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner in response to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.:  “I’m not here to tell you that we have a plan to deal with the long-term budget deficits, but can tell you that we don’t like yours.”)

The brightest moments for me were the few minutes taken up by American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks to defend the market-based capitalist system. Brooks pointed out that 80% of the world’s worst poverty has been eliminated since 1970 by the free enterprise system, and that it is the only economic system so far which has shown to have the capacity to lift billions of people out of poverty.

Brooks has an interesting background, in that he started out as a professional musician playing French horn in the Barcelona Orchestra.  It was a government job.  Brooks and his Spanish wife eventually decided to quit this job and move to America, a move that startled their friends, because with unemployment hovering around 24% in Spain, quitting a job often means permanent unemployment.  Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal about his new book – “The Road to Freedom” – Brooks gave his conclusion that the difference between Spain and the United States is the difference between “earned success and learned helplessness.”  The latter term was coined by Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, and refers to “what happens if rewards and punishments are not tied to merit.”

The culture of victimhood that engulfs us and the American president –who uses “fairness” in every other sentence, but never having anything to do with rewarding merit — are ingredients for more 99% Occupy movements and worse.   That is what is moving in the wrong direction. Moreover, the federal government is doing very little to address the number one issue for “Millenials” – people 19-29 years old – which is lack of jobs, and not necessarily government jobs. Brooks points out that social democratic Spain features youth unemploymentof 50%.  He and several of the CPAC speakers detailed how the current administration (“goat rodeo”, according to Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill.) seems bent on pointing us in the same direction.

Brooks concludes that, “The stakes in the current policy battles today are not just economic.  They are moral.”

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