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Opinion: Forbes talks like outsider but lacks political hardware

Eyes & Ears

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Donald Trump did what Steve Forbes could not. Twice.

Forbes ran for president and lost two times, in 1996 and 2000. He ran into Bob Dole and George W. Bush in his bids as the Republican nominee.

Similarities between the two businessmen with political aspirations don’t stop there. This occurred to me as I sat three rows from the podium where Forbes delivered a speech on free enterprise at a College of the Ozarks convocation.

Back in the ’90s, Forbes’ campaign slogans were “Steve Forbes: He wants you to win,” and “A Strategy for America’s Future.” He ran on the notion of an anti-politician.

Sound familiar?

Trump wasn’t the first “outsider.”

A 1996 campaign brochure by Forbes says, “This outsider is running for president. And that’s why I’m proposing to take power away from the Washington politicians and give it back to the American people, where it belongs.”

Forbes’ presidential bids also were reportedly some of the most expensive campaigns on record, entering Ross Perot territory. Forbes shelled out $69 million of his own money on the two campaigns combined, according to The New York Times. Perot’s tally was a few million dollars more.

Trump’s checkbook shows $66 million in personally financed campaigning, according to multiple disclosure reports. His slogan? Of course, “Make America Great Again.”

Forbes is the son of a millionaire publisher, Malcolm Forbes. His grandfather Bruce Forbes founded Forbes magazine in 1917. The company’s fortunes were made in media and land dealings.

Trump is the son of Fred Trump, a real estate magnate, who made a fortune developing and managing property in New York City.

Both moved into lead positions for their fathers’ companies – and reshaped their futures.

Forbes, chairman and editor-in-chief of Forbes Media LLC, was in the Ozarks April 10 to speak at College of the Ozarks’ 2018 Spring Free Enterprise Forum. His speech, delivered at the Keeter Athletic Complex on campus, was entitled, “Work Ethic, Free Markets and the Changing Global Landscape.”

It seemed his main agenda was to link capitalism with U.S. economic output, health care and taxes.

His position on the tax code hasn’t changed from those campaign days.

“The federal income tax code is an abomination,” he said again, this past week at the conservative college campus. “We as free people should say, ‘Enough.’ Wipe it clean and start over again.”

This garnered applause from the 2,400 attendees – students and invited guests in the college gymnasium.

Forbes went on to note the Bible is about 780,000 words, and the IRS tax code and regulations are 10 million words. While the latter word count has been debated, researchers at the independent Tax Foundation support Forbes’ claim. He gave anecdotes of federal employees regularly working with the code and not even understanding it.

Reading back on media reports in the mid-1990s, he’s held on his flat tax position. The “Forbes flat tax” – as maintained in his 2016 book, “Reviving America” – calls for a 17 percent rate on individual income and corporate profits.

What Forbes talked about at C of O is further detailed in the book. Signed copies were gifted to invited guests at the convocation. I got one.

The first 40 pages are on repealing “Obamacare.”

To the crowd in Hollister, he asked, “Can you have free enterprise in health care? Sure.”

His answer went on to identify third-party relationships as creating disconnects between doctors and patients.

“Hospitals today know their revenues depend on negotiations with insurance companies,” he said. “How about hospitals post prices for all their products and services?”

This, too, garnered applause.

College officials say it’s not customary for the convocation speakers to donate their time and travel expenses. But what the private school pays them is kept under wraps. Credit goes to the school officials who secure such caliber speakers; others over the years are Gen. Colin Powell, the aforementioned President Bush and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, back in 1997.

Forbes talked as a smart man, with a lot of ideas and a sprinkling of sarcasm. He values knowledge and ingenuity and considers those the real wealth of a society.

He relishes what the history books show: the unlikely pairing of Henry Ford and James Couzens to change the auto industry and Alexander Hamilton’s move out of poverty. He gets excited talking about the Mattel founders taking the baby doll invention and creating an adult doll: Barbie.

“It’s not just inventing. It’s how you use the inventing,” he said.

Forbes has gone on record saying Trump wouldn’t win the 2016 election. In the same breath, Forbes told The San Diego Union-Tribune he never considered his own third attempt at the White House.

In some ways, though, Forbes paved the way for Trump.

Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson can be reached at eolson@sbj.net.

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