Funny guy, Bill Maher. And he got lots of yuks on his HBO show recently with a riff on government spending on our seniors vs. our children.
"In the battle for government giveaways," he said, "we have to stop thinking in terms of rich versus poor, or black versus white, and admit it's really a war between the young and the old. And the old are winning."
He cited these statistics about federal spending, citing Harper's Magazine as the source: "Federal yearly spending per child: $3,822. Federal yearly spending per senior: $25,455."
He continued: "Seniors keep asking, what kind of world are we leaving for our grandkids? Well, one where Head Start, nutrition assistance and child welfare are being cut. These days, when Grandpa finds a quarter behind your ear, he keeps it." (Cue audience laughter.)
Close followers of fiscal policy will recognize these figures as familiar weapons in the "generational theft" argument. The implication is that all that money the government spends on seniors is the reason child services are impoverished. But the argument is a con job.
Bill Maher, pay attention.
To begin with, almost all the government dollars spent on children come from state and local governments, mostly for education. State and local per capita spending on kids swamps the federal government's spending 8 to 1. And there are twice as many children 18 and under as seniors 65 and over (this 2008 figure comes from the Urban Institute, the source of the federal spending comparison).
Add up everything, and spending by governments at all levels in 2008 came to about $1 trillion on seniors and $936 billion on children. In other words, virtually 1 to 1.
The more important thing Maher missed is that spending on seniors has nothing to do with how much we spend on children.
Most spending on seniors is through Social Security and Medicare, for which most seniors paid for during their entire working lives. To the extent it's out of line, that's because America's overall health-care costs are out of line. In general, seniors require more medical care than kids, so inevitably their health care will cost more, even though the federal government does in fact fund a comprehensive health-care program for children -- CHIP, the Children's Health Insurance Program.
Public spending on children isn't lower than it should be because seniors suck up all that cash, but because the wealthy suck it up. They receive most of the interest payments on U.S. Treasury debt. While their share of all income in the U.S. has been rising inexorably, their income tax burden has been coming down almost steadily since the 1960s, especially in relation to that of the middle class. The overall progressivity of the tax system has plummeted over the last four decades.
In other words, despite what Maher said, it really is about "rich versus poor." And the rich are winning.
Maher has made a career about being not just funny, but brainy and funny. This time around the problem isn't that he took a cheap shot for cheap laughs -- even cheap laughs are funny -- but that his cheap shot was brainless.
Michael Hiltzik is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Email: email@example.com.