Sunday, February 10, 2013
Dr. Ben Carson's Disappointingly Cliched and Divisive National Prayer Breakfast Speech
If you haven't heard the news yet, Dr. Ben Carson spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast, and has set the GOP punditry afire with their drooling over his amazing speech. The image of a successful African -American man who came "from poverty" and a "single mother" and rose to the job of neurosurgeon is certainly impressive and worthy of commendation. However, my instinct is that Carson's veiled comments on tax policy and health care are what are really the "amazing" part of the speech.
To be perfectly honest, I don't find anything particularly impressive or powerful about his speech or message. While Carson's success is impressive, and I do appreciate the work his non-profit has done, the message of this speech is nothing but a regurgitation of cliched ideas that have become mantra in the GOP but are rather stale as part of any real policies. His own success is admirable, and he correctly attributes it to a very strict mother who demanded a focus on education. How fortunate for him that his mother was so committed. And the message that parents should be the same is important. However, unless he has ideas about how to achieve similar results with kids whose parents don't care or push them, then his own story is simply that. I am glad that Dr. Carson started a educational foundation that builds reading rooms and offers $1000 scholarships to kids who achieve. Hopefully, he will inspire more successful people to use their wealth and influence in such positive ways. Beyond that, his words were divisive despite his implications of unity.
Despite the forum of the National Prayer Breakfast being about great messages and role models for the country, Dr. Carson chose to veer off into commentary on tax policy with no credibility whatsoever, and no great ideas to offer. For example, his veiled argument in favor of a flat tax - potentially a 10% one at that - is rather weak, especially as it hints that the rich are "over-taxed." They aren't. Undoubtedly, Dr. Carson is in the upper ranks of earners and probably a millionaire. Interestingly, according to the IRS, the average millionaire pays a tax burden of 21%. Certainly, not burdensome - and nowhere near the 63% that Phil Mickelson foolishly ranted about last week. While lamenting the tax burden on the wealthy is popular among GOP pundits, it's not even supported by original free market conservatives. Adam Smith promoted the idea of a progressive income tax as correct and necessary because the rich already had an unfair advantage in the free market.
And, Carson is absolutely incorrect that people want the taxes to "hurt" the rich. That's not the point. Carson goes to the Bible for his inspiration on taxation and "tithing," but his "hurt the rich" comment ignores the Bible. As Christ noted in Mark 12:41-44 with the women who gave her only "two coins," her contribution was meaningful precisely because it was all she had - it did hurt her. When the poor and middle class pay taxes, it takes away from their money for basic necessities and living expenses. When the rich pay, it comes out of luxury. So, it's not that it has to "hurt" people, it's that wealthier people can literally afford to pay more. That basic idea is that with greater benefit comes greater responsibility. That's also a Bible lesson Carson ignores - Luke 12:48 - "To whom much is given, much will be required." And I guess Carson isn't worried that it will be harder for a rich man to pass into Heaven. Now, I am not necessarily a believer that the Bible should guide our laws - but Carson appears to be. So, the problem is that he's selective about just which verses to apply.
Additionally, Carson offers the flat tax as a solution and then sort of flippantly defers that "of course, you have to get rid of loopholes." As if that is some sort of minor issue. In fact, that's the entire issue. He notes that "people who make $10 billion will put in a billion." Yet, that's not close to being true when we speak of corporate income taxes. Companies like GE who make billions of profits often skirt their entire tax bill. Yet, Carson grossly oversimplifies his "flat tax" platform by casually noting we'll just "close the loopholes." Good luck. If he had any ideas on how to do that, or perhaps started a Carson Tax Foundation to make that happen, he might have a truly powerful message and impact. Instead, he simply notes we have to close loopholes. No great wisdom there, and actually a rather naive belief that "we'll just close" them.
Speaking as a doctor, Carson also proposes a plan to "fix" the health care situation, yet his comments are not only nothing new, but also rather naive and removed from the realities of the health care market. In discussing health care costs, he identifies health saving accounts as some sort of panacea for lowering costs. Sadly, this is neither a unique or revolutionary idea, nor a powerful message, and he provides no evidence that it would do anything to improve health care or lower costs. In fact, I would bet he doesn't have one, and I would bet he is a member of a large group plan for which he pays no out-of-pocket costs. As a consumer of health care on the open market, I'd love to talk to him about the HSA that I have had for my family for years. It's no panacea for controlling health care costs or spending. While the HSA model might be marginally effective fifty years from now for people born today, it does nothing for immediate concerns and it will do nothing to cover costs for many middle and lower class people. I'd imagine there were quite a few Medicare users and people with great group health care through their employers in that crowd, and it's rather insulting for them to cheer such a plan that will never affect them.
Dr. Carson may be a successful man and a great doctor, but he's not very impressive in terms of public policy. While political correctness may be a bad word in his world, it often means simply respecting others whose culture and views are different. Clearly, his desire to not be politically correct - especially in his comment about "Merry Christmas" as simply a gesture of goodwill - is simply his desire to have no respect for others with views and beliefs different than his. I don't find that to be a powerful message about issues facing our country. While that message seems to resonate among the GOP pundits who are writing about him - notably Hannity who interviewed him and the WSJ whose editorial claims he should be president - I don't find him to be anything special as a public speaker. This was certainly not an "amazing speech."