Taxes, in context

TAXES, IN CONTEXT…. Last week, Bruce Bartlett, a former Treasury Department economist in the Bush administration, wrote an interesting column comparing U.S. tax rates with countries around the world. Bartlett, a conservative, found that the United States “is a relatively low-tax country no matter how you slice the data.” In 2006, total taxation (federal, state and local) amounted to 28% of the GDP. Of the 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only four had a lower tax ratio than the U.S.

But, conservatives said, who cares what kind of taxes are imposed by other industrialized democracies? Since when do we care? So, this week, Bartlett went with a different approach, comparing the current U.S. tax structure with recent generations.

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The exercise is straightforward enough. Bartlett identified the “effective federal income tax rate — taxes paid as a share of income — for a family with the median income. The median is the exact middle of the income distribution — half of families are above and half are below. It’s as close as we can get, statistically, to the typical American family.”

He found that the median family, in the most recent year available, “paid 5.91% of its income to the federal government in the form of income taxes.” In 1981, the median family paid double, and current rates are “well below the rate that prevailed from the 1950s through the 1990s.”

What’s more, the 2009 numbers are almost certainly lower than 2007, thanks to Obama’s middle-class tax cut.

Given all of this, Bartlett draws the right conclusion about the “Tea Party” events this week, where Tea Baggers complained bitterly about a crushing tax burden: “I believe this was largely a partisan exercise designed to improve the fortunes of the Republican Party, not an expression of genuine concern about taxes or our nation’s fiscal future. People should remember that while they have the right to their opinion, they are not entitled to be taken seriously.”

Post Script: For the record, I made this chart, using the table in Bartlett’s piece. I’m hoping to break into the lucrative world of chart blogging someday.