Ben Carson Appears to Have No Idea What the Debt Limit Is

A group of Republicans continue to threaten to use the U.S. debt limit — the amount of money the Treasury is allowed to borrow in order to pay for obligations already incurred — as a bargaining chip for various policy asks. They did so before in order to force a significant cut to social spending.

Dr. Ben Carson, who is running a strong second for the Republican nomination for the presidency, was on the "Marketplace" radio show and was asked four times what he thinks about the debt limit. Carson appeared not to know what the debt limit is, confusing it with balancing the budget, which actually has nothing to do with whether the federal government can borrow to meet obligations it has already made.

"Marketplace" host Kai 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?

Ben 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.

KR: 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.

BC: 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."

KR: 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?

BC: 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.

KR: 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?

BC: 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.

This wasn't the only economic snafu Carson hit during his interview. The interviewer repeatedly asked Carson to name specific government programs he would axe, and the candidate kept saying he would cut 3 to 4 percent without naming any sort of actual policy he would cut back on. “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,” said Carson, which prompted the interviewer to give up and simply move on.

At another point in the interview, Carson was asked how he would approach the income gap. Carson said he would reduce the government debt without explaining how this would actually help reduce inequality. What was interesting was who he blamed for the very idea of suggesting that we redistribute income from the rich back to the middle and poor:

BC: I think our debt is horrendous. … 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.

It's unclear what Carson means when he refers to “the lower elements.”

At least the interview ended with some levity, with the interviewer asking about the Carson administration and the candidate saying he would beef up the military, get the United States back into space and confront Vladmir Putin. “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 government?” asked the interviewer. “Exactly,” responded Carson. “OK,” said the interviewer in a dry tone.

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