(JD Hancock / flickr)
The most important debates in U.S. politics today center on the cost and the role of government. Cutting taxes, limiting expenditures, and reducing debt have become the chief concerns of Republicans, whereas Democrats generally seek to preserve or even expand government spending and are willing to raise taxes to do so. The looming expiration of the George W. Bush tax cuts at the end of 2012 and the economy's weak recovery give these debates special urgency, as decisions made in the next few months are likely to shape the nation's economic, social, and political trajectory for years to come.
Behind each party's position lies not only a particular collection of interest groups but also a story about what the government's role in the U.S. economy is and what it should be. Democrats think Washington can and should play a more active part, using taxation, regulation, and spending to keep the economy growing while protecting vulnerable citizens from the ravages of volatile markets. Republicans, in contrast, think Washington already does too much; they want to scale government back to liberate markets and spur economic dynamism.
When mulling these stories, it can be useful to put U.S. fiscal policy in perspective. Compared with other developed countries, the United States has very low taxes, little redistribution of income, and an extraordinarily complex tax code. These three aspects of American exceptionalism deserve more attention than they typically receive.
EXTREMELY LOW AND INCREDIBLY CONSISTENT
The first striking feature of the fiscal state of the United States, when compared with those of other developed countries, is its small size. As of 2009, among the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a collection of the world's most economically advanced democracies, the United States had the third-lowest ratio of taxes to GDP (see chart). But it is important to look at pre-recession data, which better reflect long-term trends. In 2006, before the financial crisis struck, OECD tax statistics showed that total taxes