Matt Yglesias posted a familiar graph on Friday, showing how low American taxes are compared to those paid in other 1st-world countries. Basically, if you live in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, other than enjoying a recent rebirth of your countries' mystery-novel exports, you spend your time sending quite a bit of your salary to the government. In exchange, you get lower budget deficits and national debt, higher levels of public services, and public-subsidized TV series that the U.S. rips off with abandon. (Seriously, watch "The Killing.")
This post reminded me very much of something my mother often says: "Well, it could be worse." This is true in just about every situation, and it is never, ever helpful to hear. When I sprained my arm in middle school and was -- not making this up -- sidelined from a promising intramural season of roller hockey, Mom kindly pointed out it could have been worse: I could have broken that arm. Many other kids, in fact, had broken their arms at that exact same skating rink! Didn't I feel better, thinking how unbroken my arm was?
Answer: no. I still couldn't skate. It sucked.
Likewise, if the case that progressives and liberals would like to make on taxes starts with, "So many other countries pay so much more," I don't think this argument is going anywhere. In fact, this is an argument that plays only to a crowd that is already convinced Americans should be paying a higher rate of tax comparative to GDP. This crowd is known as "the choir," and even if your graphs are black-and-white and read nowhere, they'll cheer and post them to Facebook.
Should Americans be paying more in tax? Yeah, probably so. I'd like to see more money available for public goods like schools and roads and mass transit projects. I'm not averse to more money showing up for scientific research, and I feel sad whenever I hear people bemoan their taxes in the same year that we're cutting the Space Program for a lack of government wherewithal to pay for it.
No one, however, is going to volunteer to pay more in taxes out of a feeling that, well, it could be worse. Instead, perhaps a campaign in showing everyone how much worse it could be -- we could be a nation without income taxes but with a 10 percent national sales tax! -- would be more effective.