Taxes, Taxes Everywhere

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The overwhelming fact about Danish public policy is that taxes in Denmark are really high. There’s a substantial VAT and also a substantial income tax. You pay taxes to buy a car, and you pay higher taxes for heavy cars. Gasoline taxes are high (gas costs almost $7.50 a gallon) as are taxes on electricity, which account for more than half the cost of electricity to consumers. In exchange for all this, the Danes have basically achieved all the stuff progressives say they want. The country is rich, clean, and highly egalitarian. The high taxes finance generous public services, and the high levels of expenditure allow the country to do without a lot of extraneous business regulation which helps keep the place economically dynamic. According to surveys, the people are all very happy, which is exactly what you would expect from a very rich, very egalitarian society. And as this trip has emphasized, they do it all while doing much less polluting than Americans do, despite a higher average material standard of living.

There’s more to that than taxes, of course, but the high taxes really are integral to the whole thing. And that includes the environmental piece. In part because there are directly pro-environment taxes. But also, I would say, in large part because it’s the egalitarian income distribution and robust redistributive state that makes the environmental policies tolerable. Cheap gas and electricity are, in part, what we do in the United States instead of real social policy.

All of which is just to emphasize a point I’ve been making a lot over the past few months: there’s no way to have a progressive renaissance in the United States unless progressives find some politically feasible way of directly making the case that higher taxes for better services can be a good trade. And it’s worth trying to be honest about this. The other American journalists I’m traveling with, all lefty environmentalist types, can’t stop complaining about how expensive basic consumer goods are here. And it’s true, stuff’s expensive! But college and preschool and doctors and hospitals are all free, and the carbon emissions are low. This is, I think, a good trade but it really is a trade. Low taxes plus cheap dirty energy and large numbers of poor people will give you cheaper restaurants.