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Back To 1956

Please take a look at the following two charts, from an April 2 report by the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, because I want you to note an alarming trend.

The average federal income tax rate for a median-income family of four—a reasonable indicator of how heavily America taxes its citizens—has been rising since President Obama took office. This year the average family of four at the median income can expect to pay 5.6 percent of its income in federal income taxes. If present trends continue, the collective tax burden will soon approximate its level in—yes!—1956!


In case you missed the joke: 5.6 percent is not, by historic measures, very much to pay in income tax. (And, incidentally, the rates haven’t changed; the upturn probably reflects the downturn in incomes during the recession.) The general trend has been downward since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981. This is just a wild guess, but I think that may help explain why federal deficits have been out of control for most of the time since then. (The overall average federal tax rate on a median-income family of four is 14.3 percent, mainly because of the regressive payroll tax. Most people pay more in payroll taxes than they do in income taxes.) I spend a lot of time complaining that the rich don’t pay enough in taxes, and that’s true. But it’s also true that the entire country doesn’t pay enough in taxes. (That doesn’t mean I want to “broaden the base” by taxing poor people, as many conservatives want to do; these soi-disant “lucky duckies” may not pay much in income taxes but they pay plenty in payroll and other federal taxes and in state and local taxes.) 

The next time someone tells you that taxes are too high in the U.S., show them this second chart, from the same CBPP report. You know those spendthrift Greeks, who can’t balance a budget to save their lives? Their taxes are higher, as a share of GDP, than ours. So are just about everybody else’s.