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What Bill Maher got wrong about spending on young vs old: Everything.

What Bill Maher got wrong about spending on young vs old: Everything.
Funny guy, but not real: Bill Maher on the set of his HBO show in 2012. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Funny guy, Bill Maher. And he got lots of yuks on his HBO show Friday 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." (An accurate transcript is here.)

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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, as Maher parroted it quite accurately, is that all that money the government spends on seniors is the reason child services -- Head Start, school lunches, etc. -- are being impoverished. We addressed this argument, and these statistics, a year ago. The time plainly has come for a refresher course, because the argument is a con job.

Bill Maher, pay attention.

To begin with, almost all the government dollars spent on children comes 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.

Henry Aaron, a leading expert on social insurance at the Brookings Institution, demolished the argument about generational theft here, and Monique Morrissey of the Economic Policy Institute took a credulous Washington press corps to task here.

The more important thing Maher missed in his quest for jokes -- most of his routine was devoted to some salacious cracks about sexuality among seniors (warning: Not safe to be overheard at work) -- is that spending on seniors has nothing to do with how much we spend on children.

For one thing, most of that spending is in 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 healthcare costs are out of line. In general, seniors require more medical care than kids, so inevitably their healthcare will cost more, even though the federal government does in fact fund a very comprehensive healthcare program for children -- CHIP, the Children's Health Insurance Program.

The reason that public spending on children is lower than it should be isn't 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 1960, especially in relation to that of the middle class. As Thomas Piketty and Emanuel Saez have documented, the overall progressivity of the U.S. 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.

The old versus young idea is pushed most vigorously by front groups for the wealthy, many of them backed by the hedge fund billionaire Peter G. Peterson, whose quest is to eviscerate Social Security and Medicare, as we described here. Their tactics include driving a wedge between old and young, and nothing's more effective for that than implying that grandma and grandpa are picking their grandkids' pockets.

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.

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