Wrong Again, Bill!

Bill MaherBill Maher was at it again this Friday night on Real Time. It is sad to see, but he seems to be listening to a lot of Very Serious People. Last week, he was bashing disability and assuming that Americans were getting lazier. This week, he was bashing old people. He noted that we spend $4 on every senior citizen for every $1 spent on children. He also said that on average, Americans put in $150,000 into the entitlement programs, but receive $300,000 from them. I haven’t been able to verify either of these claims, but let’s just assume he’s right. (The numbers sound about right, even if they are also probably deceptive on their surface.)

On the first issue: there are a couple of ways you can look at this. You could say, as I do, that this is wrong and we ought to spend more money on our children. Or you could say, as Maher seems to, that we should spend much less on our older citizens. I don’t go along with that. We can afford just about anything we want. Our entitlement programs are miserly by European standards. When I see senior citizens on the bus, I think they can use more help, not less; they don’t seem to be getting over on the system.

As bad as all this is, it is the second issue where I get really mad. Maher completely ignores the fact that there are two numbers: inputs and outputs. If we want to make entitlements cost neutral, we could increase payments. We could, for example, raise the Social Security tax cap. But that isn’t even brought up. In fact, no mention of increased revenue is mentioned at all by anyone on the panel.

In talking about cuts, the discussion was just as bad. Sam Harris added very unhelpfully that we could means test the programs. There are two problems with this. First, it would make the programs more vulnerable as exactly those people with the most political power lose benefits. But the second issue is the killer: it wouldn’t save much money, unless we means tested down to less than middle-class incomes.

Nowhere in the discussion did anyone point out that the reason we spend so much money on entitlements is that medical care in the United States costs about twice what it does in other advanced countries. That—and that alone—is the reason we are spending so much money. To ignore this fact is to be deeply unserious about the issue. And presented as Maher did, it is nothing short of demagoguery.

I don’t know what is going on with Bill Maher these days. I fear that more and more he is hanging out with the libertarian crowd. And as I well know, they can be very seductive. But someone needs to talk to him, because it is starting to hurt his brand.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Wrong Again, Bill!

  1. There’s also the factor that pretty much every penny spent on the elderly gets immediately recirculated back into the economy (unlike, say, corporate giveaways.) If medical costs were more in line with the semi-civilized world, our spending on the elderly would be some of the most productive money we could spend.

    Harris is just a simpleton. His "The End Of Faith" had the usual amusing attacks on religious dogma, but presented the ugly idea that America should be eradicating global Islam. Like Hitchens, Harris thought our latest Iraq war a swell adventure, certain to bring secular capitalism to the Mideast.

    Morality aside, if anyone were seriously interested in defusing the appeal of radical Islamic fundamentalism, they would work to raise the standards of living and lower income inequality in Islamic nations. They would not seek to impose American-style pro-business economic orthodoxy, observing that such policies have helped bring about a rise in fundamentalism and decline in moderate church membership here.

    You’re never going to "get rid" of religion. Besides our basic superstitious cave-dwelling DNA, religion has cultural roots that go deep. What you can do is minimize its importance — like in Scandanavian countries where baptisms, weddings and funerals are generally the only times anyone sees the inside of a church. (They all know the songs by heart, like we all know Xmas songs, but actual belief in the importance of Making God Happy is virtually nonexistent.)

    Maher for years now has wanted to be thought of as more than a witty man with an anti-establishment streak. He wants credit for being a thinker/iconoclast, too — and individuals with such motivations (like Harris/Hitchens) are very vulnerable to flattery from neoconservatives/libertarians happy to welcome anyone else into the fold. Liberals bicker amongst ourselves. It’s what we do; it’s part of what we believe in, not necessarily toeing a strict party line. (I caught part of a boring Bernie Sanders/Tavis Smiley interview last night where the two were politely disagreeing with each other and Obama.) We’re less apt than the other side to pat someone like Maher on the back and tell them what they want to hear about themselves. (Well, Bill Moyer can, but he’s pretty selective with his guests — he’s more about spreading the message than having debates.)

  2. @JMF – I agree with all of that. There is a big part of the atheist community that I really don’t like. It’s sad, because Harris and Hitchens have created some excellent work. Hitchens was particularly difficult to understand. His level of cognitive dissonance is almost unimaginable. He never repudiated his earlier writing. So he ended as some kind of socialist/neocon hybrid. It was weird.

    When it comes to atheists, my favorite is Richard Carrier because he is a secular humanist. Too much of the atheist community is libertarian. I find this strange. If you know this is all we have, why do you think we should make life as close as possible to the hunger games?

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