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Hullabaloo


Saturday, October 10, 2015

 
Ben Carson's exceptional ignorance about government and the economy

by digby

This piece in Slate by Jordan Weissman spells it out:

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has risen to second place in the Republican presidential primary by presenting himself to voters as the accomplished, affable, soft-spoken face of conservatism's lunatic fringe—the sort of guy who will suggest thatevolution was influenced by "the forces of evil" (aka Satan), that there are meaningful parallels between the United States in 2015 and Nazi Germany, and that next year's elections might just get canceled due to social unrest. With that in mind, his relative lack of expertise on subjects like the federal budget or monetary policy are neither the most shocking nor worrisome aspects of his candidacy, especially considering that the current GOP poll leader is the human embodiment of belligerent ignorance and even the established candidates have staked their runs on fantastical policy platforms.
Nonetheless, given that Carson is attempting to become president of the United States, it seems worth noting that he appears to understand little about how the government he would lead actually functions or relates to the economy. On Wednesday,Marketplace ran an extensive interview in which the candidate discussed his thoughts about economics with host Kai Ryssdal, and it makes for some harrowing reading. I've broken out a few of the takeaways.
Ben Carson Has No Grasp of the Federal Budget
Like many a candidate before him, Ben Carson thinks the federal government would be more effective if it ran "like a business," which in his mind would mean applying some corporate management techniques, like Lean Six Sigma, to make it more efficient. Unlike most candidates, he seems to think this will eliminate the government's deficit. Asked how he plans to balance the federal budget, as he has said he would like to, Carson explains:
What I would do is first of all, allow the government to shrink by attrition. Don't replace the people who are retiring, thousands of them each year. And No. 2: Take every departmental head, or sub-department head and tell them, "I want a 3 to 4 percent reduction." Now anybody who tells me there's not 3 to 4 percent fat in virtually everything that we do is fibbing to themselves.
This is a preposterous answer. The Congressional Budget Office reports that last fiscal year, the federal budget deficit was $435 billion (which, by the way, was the lowest since 2007 and below the 50-year average as a percentage of GDP). If you were to cut all federal outlays, including Medicare, Medicaid, military spending, and social security, by 4 percent, you would save less than $150 billion. It is unclear, however, whether Carson actually thinks he would need to cut any entitlement program spending—when Ryssdal pressed him on this point specifically, Carson said he was in favor of an "across the board" cut, but then went back to talking about "fat" in departments, which isn't typically how people discuss Medicare benefits, for instance. Meanwhile, the CBO believes that reducing the entire federal workforce by 10 percentthrough attrition would only save about $50 billion over a decade.
It is a popular delusion that Washington could solve its long-term fiscal issues by eliminating waste and inefficiency. The reality is that we spend a great deal of money on benefits for the elderly and the poor while maintaining a massive military; the government, as the joke goes, is basically an insurance company with an army attached. The fact that a semiserious contender for president doesn't seem to recognize this is slightly dispiriting.
Ben Carson Does Not Understand What the Debt Ceiling Is
By now, you are likely familiar with the debt ceiling. By law, the Treasury is only allowed to borrow a limited amount to cover all of its obligations. Every so often, Congress has to vote to raise that amount, so that the government can pay its bills. Failing to do so would result in an economically catastrophic default, but in recent years Republicans on Capitol Hill have tried to hold the debt ceiling hostage by threatening not to raise it without policy concessions from President Obama, a trick that they pulled off somewhat successfully in 2011, and far less so in 2014. As of now, it appears the government will need to increase the borrowing limit again in November.
The essential fact in all of this is that raising the debt ceiling does not authorize new spending. It lets the government pay for old spending. Ben Carson does not seem to understand said fact. Here is his exchange with Ryssdal on the subject.
Ryssdal: All right, so let's talk about debt then and the budget. As you know, Treasury Secretary Lew has come out in the last couple of days and said, "We're gonna run out of money, we're gonna run out of borrowing authority, on the fifth of November." Should the Congress then and the president not raise the debt limit? Should we default on our debt?
Carson: Let me put it this way: if I were the president, I would not sign an increased budget. Absolutely would not do it. They would have to find a place to cut.
Ryssdal: To be clear, it's increasing the debt limit, not the budget, but I want to make sure I understand you. You'd let the United States default rather than raise the debt limit.
Carson: No, I would provide the kind of leadership that says, "Get on the stick guys, and stop messing around, and cut where you need to cut, because we're not raising any spending limits, period."
Given the repeated showdowns over this issue, it is simply mystifying that Carson is still missing the distinction between increasing the budget and raising the borrowing limit. 
[...]
More example of Carson's lack of basic understanding about the government and the economy at the link. With this conclusion:

Again, none of this is quite so colorful as Carson's talk of Nazis and Satan. But it's disconcerting nonetheless. Carson is more genial, and given his storied career in neurosurgery, certainly smarter than Trump. But he demonstrates only the slightest bit more thoughtfulness when it comes policy, and an equally willful, talk-radio-ish disregard for math. Meanwhile, these two men combined are currently carrying about 40 percent of the Republican vote. It truly is the modern know-nothing party.