If America Had Scandinavia’s Tax Rate

American Taxes

Jonathan Cohn celebrates tax day by calling for higher taxes:

[T]axes in the U.S. are among the lowest in the developed world. The average for countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an organization of rich countries, is higher. And in countries like Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands countries, the average is much higher. In those nations, taxes account for more than half of total national income.

That level may sound scary but, as many of us have written before, you could make a good case that the people of Scandinavia and Northern Europe know what they are doing. They are far more secure, thanks not only to national health insurance but also to generous provision of child care and unemployment benefits. And despite the high tax burden, their economies have historically been strong—in part, because the combination of investment and a secure safety net makes people more comfortable with a dynamic, ever-changing economy. The wonks used to call this economic model “flexicurity.”

Douthat pushes back:

Cohn concedes the very general point that we can’t simply impose Swedish structures on the United States and call it a day, but he doesn’t address the more specific problem suggested by that concession:

Namely, that a lot of liberal proposals essentially ask us to assume that American government — the quasi-imperial government of a vast, diverse, immigrant-heavy continent of three hundred million people — can somehow, in some future dispensation, approach the efficiency of welfare states administered on a much smaller scale and for a much more homogenous population. Which is to say, they wave away one of the central problem with existing public outlays in the U.S., which in other contexts they’re happy to highlight — the absence, in core areas like health care and education, of a clear link between increased spending and better outcomes. Or else they acknowledge the link, but assert that the best way to reform our kludgeocracy is to pursue greater efficiency in program design while simultaneously pouring more money into the system overall — using a heaping-full of sugar to make the medicine go down, if you will. (This was the basic theory of Obamacare, and also of more bipartisan reforms like No Child Left Behind.)

It isn’t a crazy theory, but I think it’s reasonable to worry that in a system as inefficient and cross-pressured as ours, the sugar simply offsets or counteracts the medicine’s effects. And that possibility makes a strong case for holding the tax burden constant while seeking de-kludge-ification, rather than pre-emptively handing more money to bureaucracies and programs that aren’t exactly being managed with Nordic efficiency, and aren’t showing the most impressive of results.

Mona Chalabi provides some perspective with the above chart:

On individual taxes as a percentage of GDP, U.S. rates are consistent with the OECD average. But when it comes to corporations, the overall U.S. tax rate (2.3 percent) falls below the median (2.7 percent) and the average (3 percent):