State tax levels and tax progressivity

In the United States, state and local governments collect a significant share of the taxes. These include consumption taxes (general sales taxes and specialized excise taxes), property taxes (taxes on homes, businesses, and motor vehicles), and income taxes (on individuals and businesses).

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) calculates average effective tax rates in each of the US states at various points along the pretax income distribution. As the charts below show, households pay, on average, about 10% of their income in state and local taxes.

State and local taxes tend to be regressive — people with higher incomes pay a smaller share of their pretax income in state and local taxes than do people with lower incomes. (For a good discussion, see Katherine Newman and Rourke O’Brien’s Taxing the Poor.) This is clearly visible in these charts. If the line for a state slopes up to the right, its tax system is progressive, If the line is flat, the tax system is proportional. If the line slopes down to the right, the tax system is regressive.

Sales taxes are almost always regressive, while income taxes tend to be progressive. In most states, the regressive impact of sales taxes outweighs the progressive effect of income taxes. And a handful of states don’t have income taxes.

ITEP calculates a progressivity index, measured as the degree to which state and local taxes make the distribution of income in a state more equal (progressive) or more unequal (regressive). If state and local taxes make a state’s income distribution more equal by more than 2.5%, I’ll call the tax system progressive. If they make the income distribution more unequal by more than 2.5%, I’ll call it regressive. If they change the income distribution in either direction by 2.5% or less, I’ll call the tax system proportional. By this measure, no state has a progressive tax system (California’s comes closest), 19 states have proportional systems (e.g., New York and New Jersey), and 32 have regressive systems (especially states with no income tax, such as Texas, Florida, and Washington).







Effective tax rates, US states
Taxes paid as a share of pretax income. The tax rates are averages for the following groups: p0-20, p20-40, p40-60, p60-80, p80-95, p95-99, p100 (top 1%). Excludes households with a “head” aged 65 or over. Includes consumption taxes (general sales taxes and specialized excise taxes), property taxes (taxes on homes, businesses, and motor vehicles), and income taxes (on individuals and businesses) collected by state and local governments. The data are for 2018. The numbers in parentheses are state populations, with “m” = million. Data source: Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), “Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of the Tax Systems in All 50 States,” 6th edition, 2018.

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My new book: Social Democratic Capitalism

It’s available today. The Oxford University Press and Amazon pages have the table of contents, blurbs, and more. You can read the first chapter online. Here is the opening:

For nations, as for individuals, it’s good to be rich. Affluent countries are more likely to be democratic, more likely to have government programs that cushion life’s bumps and boost the capabilities and well-being of the less fortunate, and more likely to prioritize personal liberty. Their citizens tend to be more secure, better educated, healthier, freer, and happier.

The world’s twenty or so rich democratic countries aren’t all alike, and they’ve changed a good bit over the past century. Their experiences give us helpful clues about what institutions and policies best promote human flourishing. To this point in history, the most successful societies have been those that feature capitalism, a democratic political system, good elementary and secondary (K–12) schooling, a big welfare state, employment-conducive public services, and moderate regulation of product and labor markets. I call this set of policies and institutions “social democratic capitalism.”

Social democratic capitalism improves living standards for the least well-off, enhances economic security, and very likely boosts equality of opportunity. It does so without sacrificing the many other things we want in a good society, from liberty to economic growth and much more. Its chief practitioners have been the Nordic nations: Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. Contrary to what some presume, there is no good reason to think social democratic capitalism will work well only in these countries. Its success almost certainly is transferable to other affluent nations. Indeed, all of those nations already are partial adopters of social democratic capitalism.

The United States, the largest of the world’s rich democracies, is one of those partial adopters. If the United States were to expand some of its existing public social programs and add some additional ones, many ordinary Americans would have better lives. Despite formidable political obstacles, there is good reason to think America will move in this direction in coming decades.

Those are my conclusions. This book provides the evidence and the reasoning.

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Prospects for economic democracy

The most prominent forms of employee voice are worker participation, labor unions, works councils, board-level employee representation, and worker control. What do we know about them? My take is here.

One bit:

What are the prospects for a revitalization of unions in the United States? When asked, many workers say they would like to have a union or union-like organization represent them. We can point to various aspects of US labor policy that, if changed, seemingly would facilitate an increase in union membership — the 1949 Taft-Hartley Act’s permission for states to implement anti-union “right to work” laws, the lack of a Canadian-style card check procedure for forming a union, weak enforcement of labor laws under Republican administrations, and more. And there is no shortage of proposals for how the American labor movement could organize more effectively.

Yet optimism about unions’ future in America must reckon with the story told by the chart below. In a handful of countries, procedures established nearly a century ago require that workers be a member of a labor union in order to have access to unemployment insurance, and unionization rates there have remained fairly high. In virtually every other rich democratic nation, despite policies and governments far less hostile to unions than in the US, union membership has fallen just as sharply as it has here.

Share of employees who are union members. 5-country average: Bel, Den, Fin, Nor, Swe. 15-country average: Asl, Aus, Can, Fr, Ger, Ire, It, Ja, Kor, Nth, NZ, Por, Sp, Swi, UK. The thin lines are for individual countries. Data source: Jelle Visser, “ICTWSS: Database on Institutional Characteristics of Trade Unions, Wage Setting, State Intervention, and Social Pacts,” version 6.0, 2019, Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labour Studies, series ud, ud_s.

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Can codetermination help fix America’s wage problem?

Since the 1970s, a variety of developments — technological advance, globalization, heightened product market competition, the shareholder value revolution in corporate governance, and looser labor markets — have increased firms’ incentive to resist wage increases and enhanced their leverage vis-à-vis workers. Things have been particularly bad in the United States, where labor unions are weak and have been getting weaker. Here’s how Elizabeth Warren put it in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed:

“Corporate profits are booming, but average wages haven’t budged over the past year. The U.S. economy has run this way for decades, partly because of a fundamental change in business practices dating back to the 1980s…. Building on work by conservative economist Milton Friedman, a new theory emerged that corporate directors had only one obligation: to maximize shareholder returns…. Before ‘shareholder value maximization’ ideology took hold, wages and productivity grew at roughly the same rate. But since the early 1980s, real wages have stagnated even as productivity has continued to rise.”

Figure 1 is helpful for assessing wage trends. The data only go back to 1995, but they give us information on wages that includes employer-provided benefits and payroll taxes and they allow us to compare across countries. What we see is that the median American’s compensation has grown much more slowly than the US economy and that compensation growth in the United States has lagged behind that of most other rich democratic nations.

Figure 1. Economic growth and median compensation growth
1995-2013. Median compensation growth: average annual growth rate of inflation-adjusted median compensation (wages plus in-kind compensation plus employees’ and employers’ social contributions). Data source: Cyrille Schwellnus, Andreas Kappeler, and Pierre-Alain Pionnier, “The Decoupling of Median Wages from Productivity in OECD Countries,” International Productivity Monitor, 2017, table 1. Economic growth: average annual growth rate of inflation-adjusted GDP per capita. Data source: OECD. The line is a 45-degree line; a country will lie on this line if its median compensation growth rate is equal to its economic growth rate. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

Strengthening unions probably would be the most effective way to ensure regular wage increases for middle- and low-paid workers. But accomplishing that is a very tall order. As figure 2 makes clear, America’s declining unionization rate isn’t a recent phenomenon. Nor is it mainly a function of Reagan administration hostility in the 1980s. Unionization in the US has been falling steadily for more than half a century. Indeed, union decline isn’t a peculiarly American problem. Unionization rates have been falling in almost all affluent nations. Only five still have a rate above 40%, and four of those (Belgium, Denmark, Finland and Sweden) are helped by the fact that access to unemployment insurance hinges on union membership. It’s well and good to wish for bigger, stronger unions, but no one has yet figured out an effective strategy to achieve that.

Figure 2. Unionization in the United States
Share of employees who are union members. Data sources: 1900-82 are from Richard B. Freeman, “Spurts in Union Growth: Defining Moments and Social Processes,” in The Defining Moment: The Great Depression and the American Economy in the Twentieth Century, edited by Michael D. Bordo et al, University of Chicago Press, 1998, table 8A.2. 1982ff are from Bureau of Labor Statistics,, series LUU0204899600, using Current Population Survey data.

Are there alternatives to stronger unions? One possibility is “codetermination,” whereby employees elect a portion of their company’s board of directors. Shareholder obsession with short-run profits is one of the key obstacles to wage growth. Giving employees more voice in firms’ decision making might mitigate this.

Opponents of codetermination tend to argue that it will weaken firms’ performance. However, it appears to have had no such adverse effect in the European countries where large firms operate under codetermination rules.

Few companies will opt for codetermination unless they are legally obligated to, so Democratic lawmakers have introduced legislation — the Reward Work Act and the Accountable Capitalism Act — requiring employee election of 33% or 40% of the board of directors in large US corporations. These bills have no hope of becoming law at the moment, but the political environment will shift at some point, perhaps as soon as 2021.

It’s worth noting that even if such a requirement eventually is enacted, codetermination’s reach would be limited. In the Accountable Capitalism Act, the codetermination requirement would apply to companies with annual revenues of $1 billion or more. The roughly 1,300 firms that meet this criterion employ approximately 45 million Americans, or about one-third of the workforce.1

Germany is a helpful test case for gauging codetermination’s impact on wages in a country that doesn’t have especially strong labor unions. While German unions and collective bargaining remain powerful in some manufacturing industries, they have weakened considerably in much of the rest of the economy, as figure 2 shows. But codetermination is solidly entrenched. German workers have been able to elect half of the directors in firms with 2,000 or more employees since the early 1950s and one-third of the directors in firms with 500 to 2,000 employees since the mid-1970s.2

Figure 3. Unionization and collective bargaining in Germany and the United States
Unionization: union members as a share of all employees. Collective bargaining coverage: share of employees whose wages are determined by a collective agreement. Data source: Jelle Visser, “ICTWSS: Database on Institutional Characteristics of Trade Unions, Wage Setting, State Intervention, and Social Pacts,” version 5.1, 2016, Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labour Studies, series ud, ud_s, adjcov.

So has Germany had healthy wage growth? No, it hasn’t. As figure 1 above shows, Germany’s record has been similar to that of the United States: growth of median compensation has been much slower than growth of the economy, and it has lagged well behind compensation growth in most other affluent democratic countries.3 Germany’s slow wage growth owes partly to its reunification with the former East Germany in 1990 and its intentional creation of a low-wage (“mini-jobs”) segment of the labor market in the early 2000s. Still, its wage performance gives us little reason for optimism about codetermination’s ability to boost wages in the US.

There are other arguments for codetermination. It might do better at restraining top executives’ pay. It might make firms less likely to downsize during recessions. Perhaps most important, there is a good case on fairness grounds for enhancing employees’ ability to influence decision making in the company they work for. But the evidence supporting codetermination as a remedy for wage stagnation isn’t, in my view, especially strong.

  1. This is an estimate. The 1,000 companies in the “Fortune 1000” have 34 million employees in total, and the firm at the bottom of the list has revenue of $1.8 billion. 
  2. There is only one other rich democratic nation, the Netherlands, that has strong codetermination and a moderate-to-low unionization rate. But unlike in Germany, in the Netherlands collective bargaining coverage remains very high — 85% as of 2014. 
  3. This is true for household income as well. 
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Is Sweden failing on immigration?

Tyler Cowen poses a question:

“There is a Swedish election on Sunday [September 9], and to counter the Sweden Democrats many of the other Swedish parties are moving to the right on immigration, the median voter theorem in slow motion, so to speak. Exactly what kind of institutional failure is this? Political? Intellectual? Democratic? The absence of real democracy? I should stress that I am happy to live near Somali and Yemeni women in hijab (and not) in northern Virginia, and I believe American assimilation continues to work reasonably well, including for Muslims and in fact especially for Muslims overall. But the formula seems to work less well in Sweden, with its tighter social structures and more generous welfare benefits. What exactly went wrong? What is the final equilibrium? Will anyone ever be able to say again ‘if only they had a Nordic-style social welfare state’?”

He’s right that Sweden is struggling with this. If you want to know more, I found James Traub’s “The Death of the Most Generous Nation on Earth” and Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s Go Back to Where You Came From particularly helpful.

Comparison with the United States is problematic. Sweden’s refugee inflow since 2000 has been the largest among the rich democratic countries, and it has dwarfed America’s.

Refugee entrants
Asylum seeker inflow as a share of the population. Data source: OECD. The other 19 countries are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea (South), the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

From 2000 to 2016, a total of 1.2 million refugees entered the United States. Had the refugee inflow in the US matched that of Sweden, the number would have been 21.6 million. That’s more than the population of Nevada, New Mexico, Nebraska, West Virginia, Idaho, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming combined.

Is Sweden doing badly on immigration? If the benchmark is its own performance in other areas — poverty, employment, health, happiness — or its successful absorption of refugees from World War II through the 1990s, then the answer, at least as of 2018, may be yes. What if the benchmark is US immigration performance? Here are a few relevant indicators:

Employment rate among immigrants with less than secondary education

  • Sweden: 53%
  • US: 65%
  • 2012. Data source: OECD, Indicators of Immigrant Integration 2015, figure 5.2.

Share of immigrants with income below 60% of the country’s median household income

  • Sweden: 27%
  • US: 37%
  • Data source: OECD, Indicators of Immigrant Integration 2015, table 8.1.

Immigrant life satisfaction

  • Sweden: 7.2
  • US: 6.9
  • 2005-2017. Average response to the question “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?” Data source: Gallup World Poll, via the World Happiness Report 2018, online appendix.

Migrant acceptance index

  • Sweden: 7.9
  • US: 7.3
  • 2016-17. Three questions: “I would like to ask you some questions about foreign immigrants — people who have come to live and work in this country from another country. Please tell me whether you, personally, think each of the following is a good thing or a bad thing? How about: Immigrants living in [country name]? An immigrant becoming your neighbor? An immigrant marrying one of your close relatives?” “Bad thing” response is scored 0, “it depends” or “don’t know” is scored 1, “good thing” is scored 3. The three items are added together, so the index ranges from 0 to 9. Data source: Gallup World Poll, via Neli Esipova, John Fleming and Julie Ray, “New Index Shows Least-, Most-Accepting Countries for Immigrants,” Gallup, 2017.

Vote share for the anti-immigrant party or candidate in the most recent national election

  • Sweden: 20% (2018, Sweden Democrats, projected)
  • US: 46% (2016, Donald Trump)
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