By Derek Thompson
No, the U.S. is not a high-tax country. But saying exactly how not-high-tax we are gets a little tricky.
The graph at the top of this article comes from a KPMG report excavated by Henry Blodget. It shows personal tax rates on $100,000 around the world. The U.S. comes in at 55th out of 114.
But these numbers might understate how low taxes have been in the U.S. Unlike most advanced economies, the U.S. don’t supplement personal income taxes with a national sales tax, or value-added tax (VAT). Consumption taxes accounted for about a fifth of total U.S. revenue in 2008 (mostly at the state and local level) compared to an OECD average of 32 percent. In other words, the U.S. relies uniquely on personal tax rates to raise revenue — and we have relatively low personal tax rates.
The best way to answer the question “Are U.S. taxes high or low compared to other countries?” is to look at taxes as a share of the economy. Here’s how the U.S. stacks up to other OECD countries in a graph from the Tax Policy Center. (We’re at the bottom of the stack, 25 percent below the average.)
For the next few years, there’s no particular reason to expect there will be another major tax increase, but after 2020 the government’s health care bill will start to make our spending levels look, for lack of a better term, European. There are any number of ways to stop the trend, from the extreme — turning Medicare into a voucher-support program — to the incremental — tweaking Medicare and hoping that medical inflation slows down on its own. But either way, the U.S. won’t have historically low interest rates forever, and it’s probable that the third-lowest tax/GDP ratio in the developed world is a good deal for now, but not a sustainable deal for the long run.
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