In between touting his “9-9-9” tax reform plan and quoting a song from “Pokémon: The Movie 2000,” former presidential candidate Herman Cain told students about his desire to “rewrite the future history of the United States of America” on Tuesday night.
Cain, the former chief executive officer of Godfather’s Pizza and a one-time frontrunner in the Republican presidential primaries, withdrew from the presidential race in December amid allegations of sexual misconduct. He spoke in Low Library at the invitation of the Columbia University College Republicans, discussing the economy in a passionate speech before answering audience questions on topics ranging from foreign policy to his favorite pizza toppings.
Cain spent much of his speech arguing that decades of excessive regulation, taxation, and legislation—which he referred to collectively as “the ‘ations’”—are killing the American economy.
“How did we get into this mess?” he asked. “If you don’t believe we are in a mess, you’ve been living under a rock somewhere. You’re not paying attention.”
Drawing on his business experience at Godfather’s Pizza and the Pillsbury Company, Cain said that the so-called “9-9-9” plan he proposed during his presidential campaign would “unleash the economic potential in the country.” Under the plan, the entire U.S. tax code would be replaced by a 9 percent tax on individual income, a 9 percent tax on business income, and a 9 percent national sales tax.
“The biggest albatross around the neck of our country that is holding growth back is the tax code,” Cain said. “Let’s start over.”
Cain explained that he came up with the 9 percent figure by asking the chief economist on his campaign to calculate the lowest the three taxes could conceivably be while still pulling in the same amount of revenue that the federal government currently receives in taxes. The economist calculated the figure to be 8.7 percent, which Cain said he rounded to 9 percent to make his plan easier to pitch to voters.
“If 10 percent is good enough for God, 9 percent is good enough for the government,” he added, in reference to the traditional practice of donating one-tenth of one’s income or possessions to religious organizations.
Cain also encouraged students to help change the country, telling them to “stay involved, stay informed, [and] stay inspired.” Reiterating a point that he made several times on the campaign trail, Cain said that he has found inspiration in the song “The Power of One” from the 2000 Pokémon movie, which he said he “committed to memory” after hearing it during a broadcast of the 2000 Olympic Games.
Cain recited the lyrics: “Life can be a challenge, life can seem impossible. It’s never easy when there’s so much on the line, but you can make a difference—there’s a mission just for you. Just look inside, and you will find just what you can do.”
In addition to giving his analysis of the economy, Cain argued that the U.S. has become “a nation of crises.”
“We have economic crises, spending crises, energy crises. We have an illegal immigration crisis,” he said. “We have a moral crisis going on in this nation.”
After finishing his speech, Cain took questions, some of which were submitted in writing by event attendees and some of which were tweeted to CUCR before the event. Asked about University President Lee Bollinger’s recent pledge to commit $30 million to increasing faculty diversity, Cain responded that “you cannot improve race relations by edict.”
“You can’t improve with programs that pander,” he said. “It’s the knowledge and understanding of differences, and respecting those differences, that matters.”
Cain, who was criticized during his presidential campaign for having a tenuous grasp of foreign policy issues, was also asked about U.S. foreign policy in Iran. He began his answer by arguing that the U.S. “should not cancel the missile defense system that was being built in Turkey,” before changing gears and arguing that the U.S. should “not have cancelled our space shuttle program.”
The termination of the space shuttle program “mitigated some of the technological capabilities that we were going to develop,” he said.
Additionally, Cain dismissed concerns over hydrofracking, a controversial natural gas-harvesting method that critics have said can release dangerous chemicals into water supplies. Cain said that hydrofracking is not detrimental to the environment.
Columbia University Democrats Media Director Sarah Gitlin, CC ’12, who attended the event, was particularly skeptical about Cain’s discussion of hydrofracking.
“We always knew Herman Cain is crazy,” Gitlin said. “We didn’t expect him to come up with a lot of his own facts as well as his own opinions—especially his comments on the environment.”
The audience at the event, which was cosponsored by the Columbia Political Union and partly funded by the Student Governing Board, was a mixture of Cain supporters and detractors, with many of Cain’s lines drawing enthusiastic but scattered applause. CUCR President Tyler Trumbach, CC ’13, said that Cain was “very charismatic” and “an excellent speaker.”
“I think a lot of what he said was noncontroversial,” Trumbach said. “A lot of people agreed with what he was saying. They may not agree with individual policy, but they may agree with his analysis of the economy and the government.”
Asked about whether more businesspeople should go into politics, Cain encouraged students to get involved in both business and politics.
“I would recommend you graduate from college, get educated, and make some money first, so you don’t become a crooked politician,” he said.
The last question Cain answered was about his favorite pizza topping, which he said is “the all-meat combo.”
“I don’t like anchovies on there,” he said. “Pepperoni, bacon, sausage, ham—the all-meat pizza is my favorite topping.”
He ended on a more serious note, though, urging students to take action and paraphrasing 18th-century philosopher Edmund Burke.
“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing,” he said. “I will not die doing nothing to help this nation, and I challenge you to not die doing nothing to help this nation.”