Bill 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.