This interview originally aired on October 7, 2015.
Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal talked with Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson about his campaign, the economy, and how he would change the government if he were elected.
Kai Ryssdal: Dr. Carson, good to have you with us.
Dr. Ben Carson: Good to be here.
Ryssdal: Here’s the most basic question, sir, so I’ll start with it first: Why do you want to be the president of the United States?
Carson: I’m not sure I particularly see that as a lifelong aspiration, but in listening to so many people clamoring for me to do this over the last couple of years, I finally decided that maybe I should give it some consideration. I was comforted by the fact that all the political pundits said it was impossible and that there’s no way you could put together an organization to run a campaign at a national level, no way you could have enough funding to do that, and I said, “Phew. Great.”
Ryssdal: Pressure’s off, right?
Carson: Pressure’s off. But I said, “Lord, if you want me to do this, open the doors and I’ll do it,” because, as I start listening to people – particularly elderly people – telling me that they had given up on America and they were waiting to die, it really stirred my heart. And I start listening to younger people who are so concerned about their children and grandchildren and I said, “What is it that people are asking for?” And as I began to study the issue I began to understand that they’re asking for something different than what we’ve had because we keep going down the same path. And you know, this country was really designed for citizen statesmen, and not for career politicians.
Ryssdal: There has to be something inside you, though, sir, that makes you believe that you can do this job better than the other — I don’t even know, now — what, 14, 15 people who are up there in various stages on the debate stage.
Carson: Well yeah. I’ve had a lot of experiences in life where people said things couldn’t be done, to the point now where I almost don’t even want to try it unless people tell me it can’t be done.
Ryssdal: You have said more than once you want to run the government as a business. You want the president to be the CEO of that business. And I wonder, other than running a medical office, or sitting on corporate boards of Kellog’s and Costco, how do you know the government ought to be run like a business? How do you know the president ought to be the CEO?
Carson: Well I know what efficiency looks like, and I know what inefficiency looks like. I’ve had an opportunity to work in universities, sit on university boards, as opposed to working with corporate boards, and noticing the rapidity and the efficiency with which things are done in one area versus the other area. And, sometimes the same kinds of problems. So also, starting a national nonprofit. As you know, nine out of 10 of those fail, and the Carson’s scholar fund is active in all 50 states, has won two major national awards, which are only given to one organization out of tens of thousands each year. Obviously those are not things that can be done without understanding how things work.
Ryssdal: So President Ben Carson runs a government that is faster, that’s quicker. Is that what I’m hearing?
Carson: And much more efficient, recognizing that we have 4.1 million federal employees, and we have 645 government agencies and sub-agencies. And there’s an enormous amount of inefficiency and overlap to be gotten rid of. And there are turnaround programs like Lean Six Sigma that are used out in the business world that are incredibly effective in turning things around and in saving money. And the American people deserve to have an efficient government. I don’t think anybody objects to paying taxes, if they thought that it was being used efficiently. And if in fact we did use it efficiently, imagine what it would happen. Imagine what would happen if we used the government resources in an efficient way to generate income.
Ryssdal: OK, so let’s talk about Ben Carson as president of the United States. You have said you want a balanced budget amendment. You’ve said that debt is a problem, it’s a cancer on this society, so let me ask you a couple of questions about that. First of all, if we’re gonna have a balanced budget amendment, government’s gonna have to spend less, we’re gonna have to get more money. What will you not provide in the way of government services? What entitlements will you not provide as president that will help get the budget balanced? What are you not gonna give the people?
Carson: Well, first of all, recognize that it’s not that difficult. If we simply refuse to extend the budget by one penny for three to four years, you got a balanced budget. Just like that. So this is not pie in the sky, very difficult thing to accomplish. Having said that, one of the bugaboos that has kept us from reducing government in the past is sacred cows. 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.
Ryssdal: With respect, sir, you didn’t answer the question. What are you not gonna do? It’s easy to say trim fat, it’s easy to say 3 to 4 percent reduction, but rejecting the premise of the question isn’t answering the question.
Carson: What I’m not gonna continue to do is supply money for everything. If you have to cut your budget by 3 to 4 percent, that automatically answers your question.
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.”
Ryssdal: I’m gonna try one more time, sir. This is debt that’s already obligated. Would you not favor increasing the debt limit to pay the debts already incurred?
Carson: What I’m saying is what we have to do is restructure the way that we create debt. I mean if we continue along this, where does it stop? It never stops. You’re always gonna ask the same question every year. And we’re just gonna keep going down that pathway. That’s one of the things I think that the people are tired of.
Ryssdal: I’m really trying not to be circular here, Dr. Carson, but if you’re not gonna raise the debt limit and you’re not gonna give specifics on what you’re gonna cut, then how are we going to know what you are going to do as president of the United States?
Carson: OK, let me try to explain it in a different way. If, in fact, we have a number of different areas that are contributing to the increasing expenditures and the continued expenditures that are putting us further and further into the hole. You’re familiar I’m sure with the concept of the fiscal gap.
Ryssdal: Why don’t you explain that a little bit, though.
Carson: OK, well, the fiscal gap is all of the unfunded liabilities that the government owes. Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, all the departmental programs, all the agency and sub-agency programs extending into the future, which is a lot of money, versus the amount of revenue that we expect to collect from taxes and other revenue sources. Now if we’re being fiscally responsible, those numbers should be fairly close together. If we’re not, a gap begins to occur. We bring that forward to modern day today’s dollars, and that’s the fiscal gap, which sits at over $200 trillion and is continuing to grow. Now the only reason that we can sustain that kind of debt is because of our artificial ability to print money, to create what we think is wealth, but it is not wealth, because it’s based upon our faith and credit. You know, we decoupled it from the domestic gold standard in 1933, and from the international gold standard in 1971, and since that time, it’s not based on anything. Why would we be continuing to do that?
Ryssdal: Let me turn to tax policy for a second, if I might, Dr. Carson. You have come out and said you prefer a 10 percent flat tax. You base it on tithing and the Bible —
Carson: Not necessarily 10 percent, but I use 10 percent because it’s easy to work the numbers.
Ryssdal: Well if you’re gonna propose a flat tax, then, sir, you gotta give me a number. So what’s your number for the flat tax?
Carson: I think it would probably be closer to 15 percent.
Ryssdal: Closer to 15, OK. You talk to a lot of economists, they say it’s above 20. My question is how do you make up the revenue that would be lost from changing the tax system we have today to flat tax?
Carson: Well first of all, recognize that you also close all the loopholes and all the deductions, because as soon as you provide those, people start migrating towards them and the field becomes non-flat once again. That’s key. And then you also have to recognize that all the spending that we’re doing, in my opinion, is not legitimate spending.
Ryssdal: Explain that a little bit. How can it be not legitimate spending?
Carson: Well, the assumption of so many people is that every penny that the government spends is critical. You remember Nancy Pelosi saying, “If you cut one penny, the system will collapse”? And that’s not true. So in terms of what we actually need to run the government, I don’t think it’s anywhere near what we’re talking about now. Right now, we’re looking at three and a half trillion to $4 trillion. Closer to three and a half trillion right now, but a trajectory we’re on, we’d get to four trillion before long. We don’t need that when we’re talking about a GDP of only $18 trillion, and in fact our national debt will exceed our GDP this year, so we have a 103 GDP to debt ratio.
Ryssdal: 103 percent I think you mean, right?
Ryssdal: Yes. You keep saying we’re doing things in the government we don’t need to do, but when I ask you what you’re gonna stop doing, you don’t tell me.
Carson: Because you don’t understand the concept of what I’m talking about. The concept of across the board cutting of fat, because there’s so much of it in so many different departments.
Ryssdal: So will we stop health services for the poor? Will we stop supplementing nutrition programs? Will we stop corporate tax breaks? Will we stop the offshoring of corporate profits? Those kinds of things. What are we gonna stop?
Carson: See that’s what certain people always say. They come out and they pick things, and they say, particularly they try to pick things that, you know, might upset people. You remember a couple of years ago? “Well if we can shut down White House tours, and we can close the national parks, and we can do this.” You know, whatever you can do to get people’s emotions stirred up. And what I’m talking about is across-the-board everything. You cannot convince me that there isn’t any department that is completely 100 percent efficient and you can’t find fat.
Ryssdal: Let’s move on. I want to ask you about the Affordable Care Act and health care in this country. You are obviously a physician, a retired neurosurgeon. You have said the Affordable Care Act is a looming disaster. Not withstanding Republicans in the Congress, who have tried to repeal it I think 50 times now, perhaps more. Are you saying that as president, you would roll back the Affordable Care Act and take health care coverage away from the 16 million people who’ve gotten it?
Carson: No. What I am saying is that we need to take health care out of the political realm and actually come up with something that actually works. And I have proposed a system that actually works.
Ryssdal: And it’s going to keep those 16 million people covered, and it will not as you said —
Carson: It will provide much better coverage than they have right now, and they will not be second-class citizens. Everybody will be of equal value under the system that I propose and it will cost us less money.
Ryssdal: Explain to me a little bit how people are second-class citizens. You’ve compared the Affordable Care Act to slavery, sir.
Carson: Well that has nothing to do with that part. I will explain why I said that in a minute, but because the kind of care that they’re getting doesn’t necessarily reimburse the health care provider the same way as regular insurance. A lot of them have difficulty finding a primary care physician or the kind of health services they want, and now they end up in the emergency room. With the system that I’ve proposed, everybody is of equal value and you have choice. Now in terms of why I dislike the so-called Affordable Care Act so much—
Ryssdal: I think it is called the Affordable Care Act, sir.
Carson: Because the country is supposed to be of, for and by the people. The government is supposed to be there to facilitate life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the people. With this act, the government comes along and says, “We don’t care what you people think. This is what we’re doing, we’re cramming it down your throat, and too bad.” Well that fundamentally changes the relationship between the government and the people. The people are supposed to be the pinnacle, and the government is supposed to work for the people, not the other way around. And we have become so accustomed to taking orders from the government that many people didn’t even realize what was happening with this. And that’s why to me, it is so alarming, and that’s why people need to be awakened to what America was supposed to be, and not what somebody is trying to fundamentally change it into.
Ryssdal: What do you think, Dr. Carson, is the biggest economic issue facing this country today?
Carson: I think our debt is horrendous. You know, one of the things that happens with this level of debt is that it’s very difficult for the Fed to raise interest rates. And why is that such a problem? Well it used to be that Joe the Butcher would take 5 percent of his earnings every week and put it into a savings account. And he would watch that grow over two, or three, or four decades. And by the time he was ready to retire, he was in good shape. Now, poor people and middle-class people really don’t have a mechanism to grow their money. The only people who can grow their money are people who have a certain risk tolerance. And those tend to be upper-income people who can utilize the stock market. And therefore you see that income gap growing. The other thing that’s growing — that income gap, I think that’s a severe problem for us — are the numerous regulations, and every single regulation costs in terms of goods and services. It is passed on. But who is most adversely affected? Poor people and middle-class people. It doesn’t hurt the rich very much. So again, you see the buying power of the middle class and poor people going down. These things are increasing the gap. And when people come along and say, “It’s the rich people, it’s their fault, and if we can take their money and redistribute it, somehow that’s gonna solve the problem.” That’s an emotional argument, and I think it appeals to our lower elements but it has nothing to do with reality.
Ryssdal: Reality then is that the rich ought to stay rich and the poor ought to stay poor?
Carson: No, reality is that we need to drive down our national debt. Get that GDP ratio below 90 — that GDP-to-debt ratio. Many economists will tell you that as soon as it gets beyond 90, you get great sluggishness. Bear in mind that from 1850 to 2000, our economy grew at an average of 3.3 percent. From 2001 into 2014, it grew at an average of 1.8 percent. That’s a big difference. Extend that out over 20 years, at 1.8 percent, you’re talking a $26 trillion economy. At 3.3, you’re talking about a $35 trillion economy. That’s a huge difference, particularly when you’re talking about unfunded liabilities. Those are the kinds of things that are killing the poor and the middle class. It’s those silly, asinine policies. It’s not because of rich people.
Ryssdal: I’d quibble with you there, sir, and talk about the financial crisis and what that did to GDP growth, but let’s move on once again. Since you brought her up, what do you think of Janet Yellen and the Federal Reserve?
Carson: Well, you know, I’ve known Janet Yellen for a long time. We’ve served on boards together, and she’s a very intelligent individual, very responsible, and obviously is trying to do what she thinks is right. But she’s caught between a rock and a hard place, and I understand that. And that’s why I would tend to really put the emphasis on driving down our debt, because that’s how we begin to correct the problem. You know, unless we correct the fundamental problems, all the other stuff we’re doing isn’t going to matter that much.
Ryssdal: Assuming you win, and we have in January of 2017, President Carson, what is your government going to look like?
Carson: Well it’s going to look like something that is looking out for every segment of our society. It’s going to be a government that recognizes that we only have 330 million people, and we’re competing on a global scale, global stage against China, India, both of whom have over a billion people. We need to maximize the potential of every single one of our people. You know, we need to understand that education is the great divide in our nation. There’s going to be a much more emphasis on educational choice. Also, recognizing that if we get defense wrong, nothing else matters, because we live in a hostile world. So you’re going to see our military capabilities improve quite substantially. You’re going to see us really taking care of our veterans rather than just talking about it. Recognizing that we have a 14 percent decrease in people applying for our volunteer military. That’s going to hurt us badly in the long run. You’re going to see us concentrating on our vulnerabilities, like our electrical grid, which is woefully vulnerable right now, from a number of possibilities. You’re going to see us beef up our cyber capabilities substantially, you’re going to see us respond to people who attack us in a way that they will never forget. You’re going to see us get back into space, understanding that so many inventions came out of the space program. We cannot get behind in innovation, and in the future, he who controls space controls the Earth.
You’re going to see much more proactive stance towards someone like Putin, you know, we’re going to be much more active throughout the whole Baltic basin area, Eastern Europe, we’re going to reestablish missile defense program, we’re going to have more than one or two armored brigades in that area. We’re gonna stand up to him, every place in the Middle East, we’re not gonna back down. We’re going to use our energy resources in an appropriate way, get rid of the energy exportation rules uh, that are archaic, put into place in the 1970s. We don’t need those anymore. We’re going to use the EPA to work with business, industry and academia to find the cleanest, most environmentally friendly ways to exploit our tremendous energy resources. We’re going to use those to make Europe dependent on us for energy rather than Putin, put him back in his little box where he belongs. We’re going to be taking a whole geopolitical strategy that is proactive, and not reactive.
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. I have a question about campaign finance and the dollar amounts that you raised in the most recent quarter, reported to be about $20 million. Most of it comes from Facebook, and I wonder how you are besting Donald Trump on Facebook, besting Hillary Clinton on Facebook, how — what is your social media strategy? I imagine the whole political world wants to know.
Carson: Well, why would I tell them? But you know, we just try to be open, honest and interactive with people so they get a chance to really understand who I am. That’s really been the secret to why we’ve been growing, why the poll numbers are getting better. It’s because I don’t hide, I go out there, I talk to people, they get to actually hear me, I explain things to them. And for instance, you won’t hear any traditional politician talking about the fiscal gap. Not one, will you hear them talking about that. Why? Because it’s a frightening concept, and they want to get re-elected. Well, I’m not so much interested in that as I am in making sure that the American people really understand what’s going on, because our founders said that our system and our freedom is based upon a well-informed and educated populace. And if they ever become other than that and they’ll be easily led astray.
Ryssdal: Last thing, sir, and then I’ll let you go. I appreciate your time. A lot of what we have talked about today is very large in scope. But the economy, as it works in reality, is person-by-person, as I’m sure you can appreciate. So my question to you is, what do you think the economy feels like today, to the average participant in it, making $53,000 — the median salary — trying to get by, car payments, home payments, the whole deal. What does it feel like to that person out there?
Carson: I think it feels very, very frightening. And you know, that’s what I was talking about when I’m talking about the regulations and how they hit that person. And talking about the fact that they cannot seem to grow their money, and they see this income gap widening, and they’re feeling that they’re being left behind. And I think we need to readjust our policies and aim them, once again at the middle class. Recognizing that that’s how this nation quickly reached the pinnacle in the beginning. We emphasized education. And we had people who, quite frankly, were very wealthy. You know, the Europeans, they looked over here and they saw the Rockefellers, and the Vanderbilts, and the Fords, and the Kelloggs, and the Carnegies, and the Mellons, and they said you can’t run a country like that. You’ve gotta have an overarching government that receives all the funding and equity that redistributes it, so we actually inspired socialism. But all of those people that I just mentioned, they didn’t just hoard money and pass it down from generation to generation, they built the infrastructure of our country. They build the transcontinental railroads and seaports and textile mills and factories that enabled the development of the most powerful and dynamic middle class the world has ever seen, which rapidly propelled us to the pinnacle. That’s what we have to start thinking about once again.
Ryssdal: Not that I’m implying that you necessarily need it, but who do you get your economic advice from? Who are your advisers on your campaign staff?
Carson: Well, I have a number of economic advisers. Tom Rustici is the primary one but we have a number of very, very excellent people.
Ryssdal: Dr. Ben Carson, thank you very much for your time, sir.
Carson: Has been a pleasure, thank you.
Correction: Rockefeller was briefly misspelled in a previous version of this story.
There’s a lot happening in the world. Through it all, Marketplace is here for you.
You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible.
Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.