Washington Matters


Do Americans Pay Too Much in Taxes?

Mark Willen

The Tea Party says yes, but worldwide statistics suggest it's not that clear cut.



Nobody likes paying taxes, but it’s the only way to pay for those basic government services that everyone agrees are necessary, such as defense. There is no agreement, however, on a host of other government services that push up spending, which means there is no consensus on how high taxes need to be. In fact, the Tea Party movement grew out of a sense that taxes are too high. “Tea” is actually an acronym for Taxed Enough Already.

But are we?

Historically, taxes are actually fairly low as a percentage of personal income, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and as a percentage of GDP, according to the Organization of Economic Development. They’re also low in comparison with the rest of the world. Of 30 developed countries across the world, including all of western Europe plus South Korea, Canada, Mexico, Japan and a handful of eastern European countries, the U.S. ranks fifth lowest measuring as a percentage of GDP. And that includes state and local taxes plus payroll taxes for unemployment, etc., as well as federal income taxes.

Though 2006 is the latest year for which data are available, the rankings don’t shift much from year to year -- just one or two spots.

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Which raises the opposite question: Are U.S. taxes too low? Should they be raised to help close the budget deficit?

Not necessarily. Keep in mind that low taxes typically correlate well with high productivity gains. Ireland, Poland, South Korea and Slovakia, for example, enjoyed strong growth in labor productivity in the last expansion. All have subpar tax burdens. So higher taxes could have a negative effect on productivity, which would slow growth.

It's something to think about as Congress searches for tax hikes in order to offset spending and reduce the deficit.




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