Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Highest Tax Rates

Seemingly everyone has an opinion about taxes. As one of the largest economic and political issues of any country, the subject of how high taxes are (and upon which segment of society they predominantly fall) can be counted on to engender heated debates among politicians, academics, and ordinary citizens. However, beneath all the heated rhetoric and opinions are hard facts and numbers. Certain tax rates in certain countries correlate with certain outcomes, regardless of whether these are acknowledged by various strains of financial opinion. Today, Business Pundit takes an honest look at twelve countries – six with the highest tax rates, and six with the lowest – and examines other facets of those economies with an eye toward possible correlations. Naturally, there are several different ways to assess the income tax burden a nation imposes – the lowest rate of income tax in a country, the highest rate, income tax on corporations, and the like. Depending on who is being taxed (say, someone making $10,000 per year vs. someone making $100,000), a nation’s income tax structure can look very different. For the sake of using one uniform measure, our article uses marginal income taxes on average income workers in a given country.

The Highest Tax Rates


As will be seen throughout this article, most of the world’s highest tax rates can be found in western European nations. Belgium tops the list, with a marginal tax rate that goes as high as 54%. Despite such a high tax rate, Belgium ranks relatively highly on various economic measures. NationMaster.com, for instance, reports that Belgium’s $392 billion GDP ranks 18th out of 203 countries, and exports over $322 billion worth of goods and services yearly. However, other statistics show Belgium’s high tax rate coming back to haunt it. The International Monetary fund ranks Belgium 18th on its list of Gross Domestic Product based on purchasing power parity, at $36,416. It is also noted that Belgium was “likely to have negative growth, growing unemployment, and a 3% budget deficit.” Canada’s Trade Commissioner Service similarly reported “a slowdown of the activity in all sectors” during the last two quarters of 2008. In sum, it seems that Belgium’s high tax rates stifle economic vitality to some extent, despite the social safety net it provides.


With a marginal tax rate of 46.6 on average workers, Finland has the fourth highest such rate in the world. However, unlike many similarly taxed countries, Finland has managed to have a stronger overall economy despite its taxation. Unemployment currently sits at 6.8% – surprisingly low given the current economic crisis and double-digit unemployment in the United States. Additionally, Finland’s $36,320 GDP per capita ranks 20th on the International Monetary Fund’s list. The CIA Factbook likewise states that Finland has “a highly industrialized, largely free-market economy with per capita output roughly that of the UK, France, Germany, and Italy.” It is also worth noting that Finland has been one of the best performing economies in the entire European Union in recent years, owing in no small part to the country’s having avoided the worst of the banking crisis.


Clocking in just beneath Finland is Germany, with a 45% marginal tax rate on average income workers. Despite having the largest national economy in Europe (and the fourth largest in the world measured by nominal GDP), Germany has effectively traded off having a comprehensive social safety net against more robust economic growth. Its GDP measured by PPP is $35,539 according to the International Monetary Fund – 21st on the list, behind Belgium. As recently as 2007, TheNewEditor.com reported that Germans were emigrating at their highest rate since the 1940′s, resulting in a “brain drain” on the nation’s brightest and most motivated people. As a result of “high taxes and bureaucracy, thousands of Germans have upped sticks for Austria and Switzerland, or emigrated to the United States” — 155,290 during the year in question, which rivals “levels last experienced in the 1940s during the chaotic aftermath of the Second World War.” Furthermore, emigrants are generally said to be highly motivated and educated, while those immigrating to Germany are increasingly poorer and less educated — perhaps more inclined to consume Germany’s generous social benefits.


Denmark clocks in as having the fourth highest tax rate in the world at 44.4%. On the surface, high taxes have not had the chilling effect on Denmark that they appear to be having on other highly taxed nations. An ABC News story, for instance, reports that “Danes Rank Themselves as Happy and Content” – indeed, the happiest nation on Earth – despite the tax burden they bear. Furthermore, the high taxes mean that “a banker can end up taking home as much money as an artist” so that “people don’t chose careers based on income or status.” However, outsiders are skeptical of whether high taxes impose a bigger burden than is acknowledged. The New York Times (hardly an enemy of high taxation) reported in 2007 – the same year of ABC’s story – that Denmark’s tax structure was worsening a labor shortage. As in Germany, the Times found that “the Danish labor force had shrunk by about 19,000 people through the end of 2005″ (significant in a country of less than 6 million) because “Danes and others had moved elsewhere.” To its credit, Denmark does boast the 16th highest GDP per capita at $37,304 – impressive for a small and highly taxed nation.


As of 2006, the highest tax rate in Italy has been roughly 43%. Unfortunately, Italy also has the lowest GDP per capita of any country covered so far — $30,631, good for 27th on the International Monetary Fund’s list. Various economic indicators portray Italy negatively, not the least of which is debt as a percentage of GDP being higher than 100%, according to EconomicsHelp.org. Italy also appears to have a sluggish male work population. According to Mint.com’s article on bizarre tax breaks around the world, Italy once toyed with the idea of offering males 30 and over a tax incentive to leave their mother’s homes and start their own lives. The problem, Mint writes, is ” is apparently so bad that a third of all men over 30 live at home” in Italy. Naturally, this segment of the population is not participating in economic growth by having their own homes or apartments, utility bills, and the like. The case could be made that overly generous government benefits have softened the population’s will to work.


Finally, no discussion of highly taxed nations would be complete without including France. With a top marginal tax rate on average workers of about 40% (and a top tax on high-income workers of nearly 50%), France is long-known for sacrificing economic growth to social benefits handed out by government. As Charles Wheelan writes in his book Naked Economics, “France is a good place to be a struggling artist, and a bad place to be an Internet entrepreneur.” Despite being the fifth largest economy in the world, France’s GDP per capita stands at just $34,205 – only 23rd on the IMF’s ranking. A study done several years ago by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that “France’s tax burden as a percentage of gross domestic product last year rose to 43.7%, from 43.4% a year earlier”, according to ThisFrenchLife. A 2009 Wall Street Journal piece likewise finds France’s popular universal healthcare system “has been in the red since 1989″, with an expected 2010 shortfall of €15 billion.