Ben Carson Knows Nothing About Public Policy and Does Not Seem to Care

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GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Milwaukee
Ben Carson was not ready for this, or any, question.Photo: Justin Sullivan/2015 Getty Images

Ben Carson is an inspiring story of an American who has managed to rocket himself to the polling lead for a major party nomination for president of the United States while overcoming the handicap of knowing extremely little about public policy. Actually, Carson is not so much “overcoming” this handicap as simply carrying on despite it, like a blind person who decides to go ahead and wander through busy streets anyway. Carson is obviously a highly intelligent individual, but his medical training has not informed him about public policy, and he appears to have done nothing to change this. Instead he has learned that if he speaks slowly and at a level of extreme generality, Republicans will be satisfied with any sequence of words he emits in response to any question, however irrelevant they may be.

Carson’s response at the Thursday night debate to a question of whether he favors breaking up the big banks is remarkable. Carson begins by vaguely denouncing low interest rates, then moving into a denunciation of regulation and progressive taxes. Here is his answer in its entirety:

Well, I think we should have policies that don’t allow them to just enlarge themselves at the expense of smaller entities. And certainly some of the policies, some of the monetary and Fed policies that we’re using makes it very easy for them, makes it very easy for the big corporations, quite frankly, at these very low interest rates to buy back their stock and to drive the price of that up artificially. Those are the kinds of things that led to the problem in the first place.

And I think this all really gets back to this whole regulation issue which is creating a very abnormal situation. This country was — declared its independence in 1776. In less than 100 years, it was the number-one economic power in the world. And the reason was because we had an atmosphere that encouraged entrepreneurial risk-taking and capital investment. Those are the fuels that drive it.

And what we’ve done now is let the creep of regulation turn into a stampede of regulations, which is involved in every aspect of our lives. If we can get that out, it makes a big difference. And even for the average person, every single regulation costs money. And it’s shifted to the individual.

So — and it hurts the poor and the middle class much more than it does the rich. They go into the store and they buy a bar of soap, it costs 10 cents more, they notice it. And the middle class, when they come to the cash register, have a whole cart full of things that cost 5, 10 or 15 cents more, they notice it. It is hurting the poor.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton won’t tell you that that’s the thing that’s really hurting middle class in the core. They’ll say it’s the rich, take their money, but that won’t help. You can take all of the rich’s money and it won’t make a dent in the problem that we’re having. We have to come back to the fundamental principles that made America great.

At this point, the crowd is applauding (!), and puzzled moderator Gerald Baker has not heard anything in the same universe as a response to his question, so he politely follows up, “But just to be clear, just — just to be clear, then, you wouldn’t — you wouldn’t favor breaking up the big banks? You think they’re big enough — they’re okay as they are, as big as they are?” Carson’s elaboration is even less specific than his original, rambling answer:

I would have policies that wouldn’t allow that to occur. I don’t want to go in and tear anybody down. I mean, that doesn’t help us. But what does help us is stop tinkering around the edges and fix the actual problems that exist that are creating the problem in the first place.

That’s it! That’s his whole response. He will not allow “the problem” (big banks? something else?) to occur, and his policies will stop it without tearing anybody down, but he won’t provide the slightest hint as to what those policies are, or even what objective they would be designed to accomplish.

And now we have Carson’s interview with the Seventy Four’s Campbell Brown. The thing to bear in mind about Brown is that it is a publication about education policy. Brown used to work as a television news reporter covering a broad range of topics, but her current work is entirely in the field of education policy. She has invited all of the candidates to do interviews on education policy, and Carson submitted to such an interview despite quite obviously lacking a passable knowledge of the area.

To his credit, Carson did come to the interview prepared to tout one concept: school choice. The trouble came when Brown kept asking him what he planned to do to encourage school choice. At one point she noted that there are a lot of barriers at the state level that prevent the spread of more charter schools — mainly, constituencies that oppose them in state and local government. Carson replied:

There are travel barriers, there are financial barriers, there are social barriers that people say, you stay over there, I’ll stay over here. There’s all kinds of things. We’re a can-do nation. If we have a will to do something, we can get it done. We can always find a reason not to get something done if we really don’t want to do it.

That is not an answer. The polite but clearly incredulous Brown tried again, asking what, if anything, the federal government should do to encourage the education reforms Carson wants. Here’s his reply — again, in its entirety:

The federal government can play an important role. Right now, for instance, we’re behind in STEM education, substantially, particularly from other developed countries, and it’s a national problem. There are computer programs that are available that for instance can look at the way a kid solves five algebra problems, recognize what the kid doesn’t know, can bring them up to speed, tutor them on that, which is the same thing a good algebra teacher can do. But a teacher can only do it for one student at a time, a computer program can do it for a whole class, a whole school, a whole city. So making that kind of technology available broadly can help us tremendously. Virtual classrooms, where you can take the very best teachers and put them in front of a million students instead of 30 students. There are ways  that we can have a national focus on getting our people caught up, there’s no question on that.

So the federal government’s role is … something with computer programs? Again, this was Carson’s answer in a long-planned interview that he knew would deal exclusively with education policy. He didn’t even have the shame to call in sick.