Ben Carson already has worldwide fame as a gifted pediatric neurosurgeon who made medical history in 1987 when he was the first surgeon to successfully separate twins who had been joined at the back of their heads. His accomplishments were even more remarkable because of his life story. He and his brother were raised in poverty by a single mother. He struggled academically, had a violent temper and got into trouble. But with a no-nonsense mother who believed in him, he straightened out. After graduating from the University of Michigan Medical School, he would become Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins at age 33.
As he approaches retirement this year, he has gotten even wider notice in the political arena. In a keynote address at the Feb. 7 traditionally nonpolitical National Prayer Breakfast, he criticized President Obamas health care law and advocated for a flat tax, all while Obama looked on. Those stands drew praise from conservatives. That speech led to an invitation for Carson, an independent, to speak at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference next week.
Carson, who will speak in Charlotte on March 21, talked with associate editor Fannie Flono on Monday. Here are excerpts:
Q. In your National Prayer Breakfast talk, you said something thats not getting much media attention and its about education, about intellectual superstars being ignored. Will you be talking about that in Charlotte?
Ill be talking about the way that education empowers people, basically giving them the ability to not only control their own lives but to be able to interpret whats going on around them without the necessity of the news media or some commentary to tell you whats going on with their spin on it. That really is essential to the well-being and development of our nation. We as a general society benefit not only from our personal education but from the education of the young people around us because if they become highly efficient and effective people, we dont have to support them. But more importantly, they may be able to support us.
The thing that will sustain our nation is not so much the ability to throw a football 50 yards down the field but rather the ability to solve a quadratic equation. And this is especially the case now that weve moved into the technological age.
Q. How do we address that?
One of the things that were doing is the Carson Scholars Fund, which is in all 50 states now. Basically what we do is take those who are academic superstars and who demonstrate they care about other people youve got to have both and put them on a pedestal, like you do the athletic superstars. We particularly target Title I schools because a lot of those kids come from homes with no books and go to schools with no libraries, and theyre the ones who are very likely to become disenchanted. We as a society really have to be serious about programs that really promote academic achievement.
Q. Do you see a role for government?
I dont think you can depend on the government. This has to be something that people demand and promote themselves. Governments change. You unfortunately have groups who are diametrically opposed to each other, so even if the other was doing something good, the next one that comes in doesnt want to have anything to do with it.
Q. Some people are saying that your Prayer Breakfast comments were aimed at Obama. Were they?
My aim was to put out in front of people some of the major issues facing us, threatening quite frankly to destroy our society and offer solutions. The people who think that this was all aimed at Obama, their heads are completely in the wrong place. They think that anything you say that is in opposition to the president is an attack on the president. Well, I didnt get the memo that we live in a monarchy and cant have an opinion. Thats a reason that we are having so much trouble solving problems. Everything is an attack, then you have to retrench. Thats just a third-grade mentality.
Q. You did mention things you disagree with the president on, including the health care law. But you focused on health savings accounts, which are part of the new law. Where do you differ?
The key thing about health savings accounts is recognizing that 80 percent of encounters between patients and health care providers can easily be handled through health savings accounts without the need for bridge insurance or catastrophic insurance. Thats a huge number of medical interactions and yet the system currently and the system in Obamacare does not take advantage of that and continues to insinuate administrators and levels of bureaucracy that suck out a large amount of money. That does not have to be done except for that bridge insurance and catastrophic insurance thats handled through another mechanism.
Q. You advocate for a flat tax. Why?
A couple of reasons. First, everybody needs to have skin in the game because if everybody doesnt have skin in the game, a lot of people really dont care what the government does. They dont care if the government is being irresponsible because it doesnt affect them. You want everyone to care. You want the government to have to be responsible to everybody. The other reason is that traditionally when people dont feel persecuted in terms of their finances, then they dont have any reason to try to hide money. You want to stimulate an environment that encourages growth, not one where people feel theyre being persecuted.
Q. Youre most well known for separating conjoined twins and for other medical advances, but what stands out in your mind as your most significant achievement?
Those things simply provided a spotlight and a platform from which to do the thing thats most important that is to encourage young people to develop their minds and learn how to think for themselves. I have literally 100,000 letters from people saying thank you so much for helping me realize who I am and what I can do. I think thats much more important than what I can do in an operating room.