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Opinion Ben Carson’s striking ignorance

A 17-year-old video surfaced of Republican candidate Ben Carson claiming that the Biblical figure Joseph built the Egyptian pyramids to store food. The Fix's Chris Cillizza explains why this comment will only help Carson's campaign. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)
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The political press is chortling at BuzzFeed’s story that Ben Carson believes Egypt’s pyramids were built for grain storage, not as burial chambers. “My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain,” he said in a 1998 commencement speech, referring to Genesis 41, which tells of Joseph storing Egypt’s grain during the “years of plenty” for the coming famine. Carson confirmed to CBS yesterday that he still believes this, but I’m not sure why this is such a big story. Before Wednesday, we knew that Ben Carson takes the Bible literally. After Wednesday, we knew the exact same thing. Frankly, I don’t care whether the president believes the pyramids were built by Joseph, aliens or the Egyptians themselves levitating the stones into place. What matters are the ideas — and that’s where the focus should be with Carson, since it’s clear he has no idea what he’s talking about.

In the same week, Carson also said that Medicare and Medicaid fraud is “huge — half a trillion dollars.” If true, that would be almost 50 percent of our total spending on the two programs. The real number is somewhere between 3 and 10 percent — still a problem, but handing the program to a Carson White House would be like handing the drug war over to someone who believes half the United States is hooked on heroin. In the same Miami Herald interview, Carson was completely stumped by basic questions on U.S.-Cuba policy, before having no qualms about holding forth on the president’s Cuba policy.

And on Wednesday night on Facebook, Carson defended his lack of experience by claiming, “Every signer of the Declaration of Independence had no elected office experience.” That is utterly false: Many of the signatories, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, had been elected to colonial legislatures or other positions (and indeed were partly chosen for the Continental Congress precisely because of their prominence as elected officials). It’s one thing to be wrong about the pyramids, but Carson can’t cite the Founders both for the basic idea behind his outsider candidacy and for many of his policies when he can’t get their biographies right.

That’s just the past week. Zoom out farther, and we find that Carson has changed his Medicare plan from “End Medicare” to a new version that doesn’t make any sense. He refuses to acknowledge that his tax plan would force trillions of dollars in spending cuts to reach the balanced budget he wants, partly because he or his advisers appear to have no idea what does and doesn’t get taxed. (For example, Carson’s calculation would include taxing all government spending, including defense.) And he has confused the budget and the debt ceiling. Those are just some of the specifics he has actually talked about — even the conservative Heritage Action says he needs to release more detailed plans. We haven’t even touched on his many offensive comments about women, the Holocaust, Muslims, gays and so on.

As more and more debates have passed this fall, several commentators have suggested moderators should retire more confrontational questions (such as “Is this a comic book campaign?” or “another candidate said something bad about you last week; please respond”) and ask more basic things like, “Should the Federal Reserve raise interest rates?” Carson’s lack of knowledge backs up this strategy: If you ask him a more confrontational question, he can just brush it off as an attack by the lamestream media. But give him a wide berth, and he’ll expose his own ignorance. Carson’s words clearly show he will trip up all by himself.