Update: Wow. This brief post--really just a link to another blog--proved more controversial than I expected. Matthew Yglesias accuses me of irresponsibly misleading America's youth. Scott Sumner responds to Yglesias, pointing out "if you are going to argue that people who make mistakes should be ostracized, it’s best not to make a serious mistake in your attack."
The issue is what to make of this table:
Click on graphic to enlarge.
Over at the Yglesias blog, a commentor named Peter Whiteford very usefully explains the table as follows:
I am the person who wrote the chapter in the OECD report that is the basis of these figures. It is part of a report on the distribution of income to households, so it doesn’t include taxes that are not directly paid by households, since these are not included in income surveys....[T]he table also calculates the distribution of taxes for the household as whole after adjusting for the number of people in the household, so it will differ from data calculated on income tax returns which are not adjusted for household size.
As others have pointed out this measure includes all direct taxes on individuals so it includes income taxes and employee social security contributions, but not employer payroll taxes. It also doesn’t include sales taxes, but these are much heavier in most other OECD countries, and not as progressive as direct taxes, so if you added indirect taxes in through some sort of modelling it is almost certain that the USA would still have the most progressive overall tax system.
However, as the OECD report points out, progressivity is not the same as redistribution. Progressivity measures how the distribution of the tax burden is shared, while redistribution measures how much the tax system reduces inequality. Redistribution is influenced both by the progressivity of taxes and the level of taxes collected.
In fact, the US system of direct taxes actually reduces inequality more than any other country as well. But overall, the USA reduces inequality a lot less than most other countries, because the other thing that you need to take into account is what taxes get spent on.
Now the US system of social security and cash benefits reduces inequality by less than any other OECD country except Korea. The US social security system is marginally less progressive then the OECD average, but the level of spending is very low – only Mexico and Korea spend less in the OECD.
So while the US tax system is progressive and reduces inequality, the US welfare state is much less effective at reducing inequality. And because the US has a very unequal distribution of income from capital and a much wider wage distribution than many other OECD countries, it ends up as a relatively unequal country after taxes and benefits.
If you look at Nordic countries, they all have much less progressive tax systems than the USA, but they collect a lot more in taxes (including in VAT). They then spend this much higher tax revenue on social security and services, and it is this side of the equation that is most important in reducing inequality.
So the implication is not that the USA either needs to increase or reduce the progressivity of the tax system. If you want to reduce inequality, you need to increase the level of taxes collected and spend it more effectively.