Yet More Charts That Should Go With Debt Discussions

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The Globe and Mail in Toronto weighs in with these "infographics," showing the total tax burden that Americans bear in both international and historical perspective.

The chart on the top shows how the share of American income that goes to taxes compares with that in other developed countries. The chart on the bottom shows how the U.S. share has changed since 1965.

TaxChart1.jpg


Now, this comes from a Canadian publication, and it's based on international data, so naturally we have to watch out. For more see the original OECD reports. But I repeat the point that came from two previous sets of charts:

Any discussion of the causes of America's public-debt problems, or any discussion of the solutions to it, that is "spending only," and excludes the role of revenues -- for instance, the discussion that raged through Congress last week -- is a pointless and unrealistic discussion. It is historically ignorant and economically fanciful. You'll note, for instance, that the last time the federal budget was in surplus, 11 years ago, total taxes were higher than they are now. That doesn't prove anything about future policy but is a crucial fact to grasp.

Like any charts, these leave a lot out -- for instance, the exact relationship between tax rates and tax revenue. Also, they have the dreaded "truncated vertical scale," which makes the difference between 24% and 36% look bigger than it is. And nothing in them would suggest that taxes should go up (or that public spending should go down) during a recession. Still, they convey a basic reality that would come as news to most Americans. If you are worried about debt, you must be worried about both taxes and spending. Otherwise, you're not "serious" but just sloganeering.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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