Ben Carson, currently sitting in second place in the 2016 GOP primary, made a bit of news yesterday when he sat down for an interview with Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal to talk about the debt limit. Specifically, Carson revealed that he doesn’t really seem to know what the debt limit is. Ryssdal tried several times to get Carson to comment on whether he’d allow the U.S. to default on its debt payments, and Carson kept responding by saying that he’d shrink the budget and cut spending and tell Congress to “get on the stick and stop messing around.” Everyone had a good laugh at Carson and at the party that would elevate him to the top tier of 2016 candidates.
But while the debt limit fumbling was funny and got all the attention, there was a separate exchange in the interview that I thought was more significant and did more to illuminate the basic dishonesty at the center of Carson’s campaign and the campaigns of most of the other 2016 Republican candidates.
At one point in the interview, Ryssdal posed Carson a fairly open-ended question: describe what the Ben Carson administration would look like. Carson ran with the premise, ticking off a list of major policy goals he envisions, most of them relating to national security objectives. Carson said that as president, he would “quite substantially” improve our military capabilities, conquer outer space (“he who controls space controls the Earth”), “beef up our cyber capabilities,” and secure vulnerabilities in the electrical grid. He promised that he would stand up to Russia in Eastern Europe and “every place in the Middle East,” start up a new missile defense program, and generally project American power across the globe. “We're going to be taking a whole geopolitical strategy that is proactive, and not reactive,” he boasted.
All these things cost money. Lots and lots of money. Earlier in the interview, Carson had endorsed a balanced budget amendment and said the secret to achieving a balanced budget was simple: across-the-board spending cuts for every department within the government (though apparently not for defense). “Anybody who tells me there's not 3 to 4 percent fat in virtually everything that we do is fibbing to themselves,” he said. Carson also plugged his flat tax scheme which would reduce everyone’s tax rate to (a biblically inspired) 10 percent and cut government revenues dramatically. And, as we saw in his debt limit “answer,” he’s firmly opposed to any increase in our existing debt.
Reacting to Carson’s ambitious plans for shrinking government spending and revenues while also pursuing American global and extraterrestrial hegemony, Ryssdal asked Carson a sensible follow-up question: how the hell does this budget math work? Carson’s responded by saying he can overcome basic mathematics through the power of positive thinking.
RYSSDAL: And just so I'm clear, you're going to do this while balancing the budget, not raising the debt and cutting the size of the government?
CARSON: You know what, I've gotta tell you this, you might find it a little amazing, but you know, throughout my life, I've been faced with people saying, "You can't do this, this is impossible."
RYSSDAL: I know, I get it, that's where we started, that's where we started, and I appreciate your mindset on this one.
CARSON: So that doesn't bother me when people say that.
RYSSDAL: OK, fair enough.
You really have to listen to the audio to appreciate the amount of restraint in Ryssdal’s voice as Carson tries to explain this. “I can do anything I put my mind to” is a fine credo to live one’s life by, but it won’t make 2 – 10 = 1,000,000,000.
What’s really incredible is that pretty much every Republican candidate for president is promising some form of this same exact nonsense. They’re pushing hugely regressive tax cuts that will starve the government of revenue, they’re promising to balance the budget, they’re promising to cut the debt, and they’re promising to bloat the defense budget and tackle all the world’s problems with bombs, bullets, and soldiers. Some even insist that hugely expensive programs like Social Security and Medicare will be exempt from cuts and alterations. The math does not work, even if you use the special “dynamic scoring” voodoo to paper over some of the revenue losses the tax cuts will cause. Political realities make the necessary levels of spending cuts completely unworkable, even without the promised increases to defense spending.
This is standard Republican fare, presented as easily attainable and eminently responsible. What separates Carson from the rest of the field is that he at least sort of acknowledges that there is no real plan to realize this fantasy beyond “close my eyes and hope real hard.”