Chart of the day: America’s small tax revenues

By Felix Salmon
July 31, 2011
Barrie McKenna's great article on US tax rates, and pretty much speaks for itself.

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This chart comes from Barrie McKenna’s great article on US tax rates, and pretty much speaks for itself. While the rest of the developed world has seen its tax rate rise as it got richer, the US stands out as the one country where tax rates have been going down. In the OECD, only Chile and Mexico have lower tax burdens, and neither of them have been decreasing: both have relied very much on state-owned commodity wealth to stand in for tax revenue.

As McKenna reports,

The total tax burden on Americans, as a percentage of gross domestic product, stood at 24 per cent in 2009 – lower than it was in 1965 and still falling. That compares to 31.1 per cent in Canada, 34.3 per cent in Britain, 42 per cent in France, 37 per cent in Germany and 43.5 per cent in Italy. The Japanese, Australians and South Koreans all pay significantly more.

The United States is the only major country without a national value-added tax and its sales taxes are lowest in the OECD. Likewise, U.S. fuel and sin taxes are at the bottom among rich countries. And generous tax breaks mean many businesses and individuals pay few taxes, placing a heavy burden on a relatively narrow tax base…

Bill Frenzel, a former Republican congressman and now a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, agrees no budget fix is possible without tax hikes…

Americans, he said, will never accept the kind of tax levels that exist in most other countries.

“The U.S. has always been a low-tax country,” he explained. “And we like it that way.”

This raises two questions. The first is why America’s taxes are so much lower than anybody else’s. Its system of government, after all, is a pretty standard democracy, so it’s not exactly baked in to the Constitution. The second question is why Americans don’t actually appreciate how low taxes are here. It’s a standard talking point in US politics that taxes are too high, and must be lowered; Republicans are adamant that even modest tax hikes, to levels still well below the rest of the developed world, would be economically devastating.

Right now a deal seems to be getting done in Washington which reduces the deficit by means solely of spending cuts, with no tax hikes at all. That makes no sense: just as it’s right that people should pay a higher tax rate as they get richer, the same is true of countries as well. Instead, the US seems to think that it can work as an advanced democracy while maintaining a tax rate more commonly associated with tinpot basketcases. Up until now, it’s managed to do that by borrowing the difference. But if it wants to try to cut spending to a level commensurate with its tiny tax base, it’ll soon learn how economically disastrous that can be.

(Via Kedrosky)

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