With all the talk among the presidential candidates about cutting taxes and giving the middle class a break, you'd think American taxpayers were the most overburdened in the world.
Far from it. In fact, the tax burden on American workers is one of the lowest on Earth.
Still, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney wants to cut tax rates by 20 percent for workers in every income bracket, and kill or reduce a bunch of other taxes. President Obama wants to raise taxes on the wealthy to help pay down the $16 trillion national debt, while keeping middle-class taxes where they are and lowering the corporate tax rate. While their proposals differ, both candidates emphasize the need to give more help to the middle class, rather than calling on ordinary families to help reduce Uncle Sam's mountain of debt.
But the bulk of American taxpayers are already getting a break compared to other advanced nations.
Overall, Washington's tax revenues are just 24.8 percent of GDP, according to data gathered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That's the lowest level of taxation for any developed nation, and the third lowest among 34 nations tracked by the OECD, with only Mexico and Chile having lower levels. In most of Europe, taxes are at least 35 percent of GDP. In Canada, they're 31 percent; in Australia, 26 percent.
Here's how the tax burden breaks down by different categories, as a percentage of GDP:
Income tax payments: U.S.: 9.8 percent; OECD average: 11.4 percent
Taxes on goods and services: U.S.: 4.5 percent; OECD average: 10.7 percent (The higher OECD number is due to a value-added tax, or national sales tax, in many countries.)
Social Security taxes: U.S.: 6.6 percent; OECD average: 9.2 percent
Taxes on property: U.S.: 3.3 percent; OECD average: 1.8 percent
So in only one category—property—are Americans taxed higher than citizens elsewhere. And since those are mostly levied at the local level, Washington has little to do with them.
In most of the other OECD nations, higher taxes help pay for one important thing many Americans must pay for separately: health care. On the other hand, taxes in America finance the world's most expensive military, which in turn helps protect many other nations.
The real reason the burden on U.S. taxpayers is so low is that Washington has had the unique ability to borrow money, to help pay for as much as half of the government's annual spending. That's why the effective federal income tax rate has fallen from an average of about 22 percent in 1979 to 17.4 percent today, according to the Congressional Budget Office. It also helps explain why nearly half of all taxpayers end up with no income-tax payments at all, as Romney notoriously pointed out to a group of donors earlier this year.
But that can't go on forever, which is why Washington now faces the prospect of sharp tax hikes—part of the so-called fiscal cliff—if Congress doesn't come up with other ways of starting to pay down the debt by the end of the year.
Instead of addressing that, however, Romney and Obama are dickering over tax cuts for a nation that already has one of the lowest tax burdens in the world—and by some measures, the most unmanageable debt. The United States shouldn't try to out-tax other nations, but it could certainly look around and see how it measures up in terms of what taxpayers give, and what they get.
The most likely answer is too little, on either end.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.