Catherine Rampell used her column to give readers a short quiz on government spending. There are a couple of questions that could use a bit further examination.

The first question asks readers:

"An elderly person receives about how much in federal spending for every $1 received by a child?"

The correct answer is $7 according to Rampell. There are two problems with this question. First, the most important government program for the young is education, which is prmarily a state and local expense. So it is wrong to simply focus on federal spending as a measure of public priorities.

More importantly, the main reason for this ratio is that we have a retirement program (Social Security) and a senior health insurance program (Medicare) that are run through the government. These are benefits that people have paid for during their working lifetime.

In the logic of the Rampell quiz we could say that something like $100 in federal spending goes to the very rich (the top 0.1 percent) for every $1 received by a child. This would be based on the assumption that 10 percent of their $6.4 million annual income comes from interest on government bonds. Of course the rich paid to buy these bonds, but the elderly also paid for their Social Security and Medicare. If we're ignoring that fact in talking about benefits from Social Security and Medicare, then we should also ignore it when talking about interest on government bonds. (According to the Urban Institute, the discounted value of Social Security benefits received by current and future retirees is slightly less than the taxes they paid into the program.)

The possibility of a privatized Social Security system demonstrates the illogic of Rampell's quiz. Suppose we required that workers pay an amount equal to their current Social Security taxes into a private account which would then pay them a benefit comparable to their currently scheduled benefit. The situation of the elderly will not have been changed (ignoring the problems of a privatized system), but now we would not have the same inequality between federal payments to the elderly and the young.  

There is also a serious problem with question 5 in which readers are supposed to answer there is a $127,000 difference, "between what you paid in Medicare taxes and what you can expect to receive in Medicare benefits." The problem with this description is that the gap is due to the fact that we pay health care providers about twice as much as they receive in other wealthy countries. In other words, people get back more in Medicare benefits than what they pay in Medicare taxes because are doctors are very rich (average earnings @ $250,000, net of malpractice insurance), drug companies are very rich, and medical supply companies are very rich. If we paid our providers the same as providers in Canada or West Europe then the value of benefits would be close to what people pay into Medicare in taxes. By the logic of question 5, every time we up what we pay doctors and drug companies, the elderly are better off.

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