Saturday, September 22, 2012

Europe's payroll taxes

The Wall Street Journal made this nice graph on Saturday.

Forget "who bears," it's the totals here that are mind-boggling. In most countries, if you add up the "employer" and "employee" contributions, you get between 30 and 40%. So, if a worker produces 100 euros worth of output, 30-40 euros immediately go to the government. And there is an additional 20%+  VAT when the worker goes to buy something. So, right out of the gate, we have a 50-60% wedge between working and the fruits of labor. Income taxes, corporate taxes and property, excise, and other taxes are all on top of that! It's a wonder anyone in Europe bothers to work at all.

(I haven't looked in to the numbers, but I presume the European numbers include financing of their health systems, and the US number does not. Don't feel so cheeky.) 

The story was about a proposal to shift "employer contribution" to "employee contribution" in Portugal, as "the title" who bears the burden" suggests.

Economists will quickly tell you that who pays the tax doesn't matter. Gas stations pay the gas tax, but everyone can see that it is all passed on as higher gas prices; we're not "socking it to the rich oil companies" with gas taxes.

But if wages are "sticky," especially if fixed by union contract or law forbidding cuts, then this argument fails, and the Portugese transfer is an interesting way to lower wages without devaluing the currency, changing the overall tax wedge, or repealing laws forbidding wage cuts. 

Apparently the protesters in the streets figured that one out. If they figure out that nominal wage increases offset the whole thing, then we're back to the standard theorem.


Casey Mulligan and one commenter noticed that I oversimplified.
It's not huge but not rounding error either: you cannot just add the employer and employee rates in order to quantify the combined distortion, unless wages are held fixed, because the employer contribution is omitted from the payroll tax base. The formula typically used by tax economists is:


Eg a 100% employer tax is very different, and much less damaging, than a 100 percent employee tax. Your error is largest when the employer rate is far from zero, which it is in Europe.
Good point, and in retrospect it's better to use the right formula than simplify too much, even here. However, for everyone else, keep in mind that this is not a serious attempt to measure the overall total marginal disincentive in tax and transfer systems. The point is that this rather large social insurance wedge is at the beginning; we add income taxes, means-tested transfers, phaseouts, wealth taxes, etc to this rather large base. We keep talking about income taxes as if they existed in a vacum.

On the quesiton whether it's a tax because you get benefits: What counts is the margin. A forced savings plan has very little disincentive. If you have to save 10% of income, you get the results eventually. The wedge is only how much you'd really rather have the income today. US social security has a bit of you get more if you pay more, but not that much. And my impression is that european social insurance systems give much less marginal benefit for marginal contributions. (Commenters, I'm curious to hear facts on that)


  1. "So, if a worker produces 100 euros worth of output, ..."

    A few quibbles. I think you need to be really careful about that statement.

    First, the total cost of the employee should be less than the value of his production or there would be no point in having him.

    Second, you suggest that if the employee is paying 20% of nominal salary and the employer is paying 20% of nominal salary then the burden is 40%. In fact, the employee has to be producing at least 120% of nominal salary to justify hiring and the burden then becomes 40%/120% = 33.3%.

    As you note the European numbers will include the cost of health care. Your comment on Portugal is, of course, spot on. Shifting the burden is not just a wage cut for workers it is a cost cut for anyone in the public or private sector who has employees.

    Employees probably bear the burden of employer and employee contributions so in the United States the typical worker is paying about the same tax rate, just in social security contributions, as a certain wealthy candidate for President is paying overall.

    1. ¨First, the total cost of the employee should be less than the value of his production or there would be no point in having him¨

      Not so: its called marginalism. Because of the law of diminishing marginal returns, employers add employes until the marginal employee cost equals his cost.

      "Employees probably bear the burden of employer and employee contributions so in the United States the typical worker is paying about the same tax rate, just in social security contributions, as a certain wealthy candidate for President is paying overall"

      Not really. Capital gains is in fact double taxation, because dividends are already taxes at the corporate level. And the burden of the payroll tax, as in any other tax, is shared both by the supply (worker) and the demand (employer)

    2. Anonymous - Your comment about marginalism does not rebut or qualify my comment about the necessary relation between production and cost of an employee.

      You appear to confuse taxes on capital gains and dividends. Further, capital gains are not just the sum total of after tax corporate income. In Romney's case much of his claimed "capital gains" were apparently fee for service (which should be taxed as income) treated as capital gains through a characterization as "carried interest" and had little or nothing to do with corporate income which had been separately taxed.

  2. There's also the problem that a lot of services in the US are delivered and funded at least partially by states and/or by income taxes - e.g. unemployment insurance, medicaid, food stamp programs - which is 100% delivered and funded by the national government, and funded by payroll taxes in other countries.

    If you put Australia on that graph, you'd find 1.5% (employee medicare levy) and zero. But you'd have ignored state payroll taxes, and most social insurance programs are funded out of general revenue anyway.

    More generally, I think the thrust of your argument - particularly the "we have a 50-60% wedge between working and the fruits of labor" remark - is a bit silly since you're talking about insurance programs. The nature of insurance is that people who have the bad stuff happen to them get a benefit, and those who don't pay up. For instance if I suffer an injury at work, take time off and get paid, I'm not idly enjoying the fruits of other people's labor, because I funded the insurance. If you pay into insurance, then you've got the right to claim on it.

    1. No, the fact that you get benefits does not change the margin. If you work an extra hour, you pay extra taxes, but you get no extra benefits. (In fact, you may find means-tested benefits reduced.) Economics is about the margins. Even if social insurance is a great deal overall, it still reduces the incentive to work at the margin.

    2. "but you get no extra benefits."

      In many (most?) instances you do - e.g. German unemployment insurance, at 60% of your wage.

    3. "Even if social insurance is a great deal overall, it still reduces the incentive to work at the margin."

      I'm feeling cheeky!

      There isn't all that much ex ante redistribution in northern European social insurance schemes, just ex post. Given the information asymmetries involved, compulsory social insurance is not a completely unreasonable solution.

      Europe has big problems, Prof. Cochrane; this may be a small part of the whole.

  3. and yet, europe isn't doing that bad, and all the europeans who come here marvel at how hard we slave at our jobs, how little relaxation we have, how much stress we have from lack of retirement and medical security....
    geez, to bad things in the real world are so different from your graph !!

    1. And they go home to tiny apartments and pay nearly double what we pay for food. And if they should want to start a small business they have to overcome a mountain of bureaucracy and disincentive.

      Yeah, I guess if that is what you like then go for it. I have heard all of my life about how wonderful everything in Europe is and how much better and more sophisticated and more enlightened they are than we ugly Americans. Then I visited there, Well, I found out, not so much.

    2. Europe is not doing badly? By what measures? They do not grow for decades, they are in a huge debt crisis and about to blow up the eurp, their people are overloaded with taxes and cannot wait to leave to somewhere else for a better life, people are beating each other in the streets, destroying property, and so on.. I am a South European, and I have seen what "quase-socialism" does to the incentive to innovate and work hard - it kills it. It is very unfortunate that so many Americans do not seem to understand what has made thsi country great.

  4. "it's a wonder anyone in Europe bothers to work at all"

    And yet, they do. Doesn't that at least give you pause?

    Does any measure of work intensity correlate with these rates? Makes you wonder how important the disincentive effect is.

  5. Yes, I am curious to hear the explanation for the following:

    given that they have these huge distortions and a gigantic welfare state, how do we explain the fact that US is now 14th in per capita GDP

    which is the result of lower growth in the US than these countries have had over the last 30 years. Isn't this evidence that such distortions matter less than conservative economists imply ?

    1. Those numbers are not adjusted for purchasing power. You should look at the REAL (as opposed to nominal) per capita GDP data

      which show the US having a big lead (except for Norway, which has huge oil wealth and a small population).

      Also, European growth rates have been generally lower than the US for the past couple of decades. Here's an example:

    2. Well here is a quick and easy answer, The US is as much or even more of a welfare state than much of Europe. You have to add in not only the Federal taxes and spending programs but state and municipalities too. We have about half of our population now getting some sort of assistance.

      So as we moved more towards socialism, our economy has gotten weaker, seems pretty straight forward to me.

    3. PPP comparisons are not necessarily any more fair. The consumption basket in Sweden doesn't have to be the same as in the US. say people live in smaller houses AND like it, then what ? your graph conveniently stops at 2005 or 2006. Look at OECD data through 2011.

    4. "PPP comparisons are not necessarily any more fair." They are DEFINITELY much more fair than just looking at nominal income. The nominal value of income in currency units does not provide ANY meaningful information about the standard of living until you know how much things cost.

      "say people live in smaller houses AND like it" I don't know how that's relevant. To calculate the real income, you compare the price levels for units of similar things, say rental costs per square feet of housing. As long as you have more real income, you can choose to spend the difference on whatever you like, be it larger houses or anything else.

      "your graph conveniently stops at 2005 or 2006" Excuse me?? You claimed that the US growth rates have been lower for the past 30 years. The 1990-2006 period is much more representative of those 30 years than the 2006-2011 period. The 1980-2008 trend isn't any different, and this is despite the fact that richer countries generally grow at slower RATES, because they have already picked the low-hanging fruits. The first graph from this post beautifully illustrates my point:

    5. Payam: the consumption basket required to compute PPP may differ from country to country.

      look at this data

      According to this, Swedish GDP per capita increased 2.85 times between 1960 and 2010 vs US gdp per capita increased only 2.7 times

      I get the point that poorer countries grow faster than rich ones, but I am not sure the difference between Sweden and US is big enough for this effect to matter. But the question remains, Sweden has way more distortions, social programs, tax wedges, inefficiencies, etc, than we do, yet their growth doesn't seem to be affected. I would like to hear a coherent theory as to why that is, if these distortions are so important to growth

  6. Well, most of those countries have pretty high rates of unemployment (since it's so richly rewarded, among other reasons) and lots of fraud in the system as well as tax evasion. At a glance, this just illustrates how it's relatively easier to collect taxes from the middle class. It still has to produce to eat and it has less flexibility in how it takes its income because it consists almost entirely of employees, not business owners.

  7. I'm not sure there's enough information here to draw any kind of conclusions. Nobody understood how the Soviet economy survived so long until it collapsed and Western economists discovered the black market was about as large as the official economy.

  8. My guess is what matters the most is flexibility of labor markets AND what the money raised through social insurance schemes is actually spent on, or the degree to which it's wasted

  9. When I was a manager of our French subsidiary our benefit load was 44%. That is, for every $100 we gave our employees we had another $44 of social security (and a small bit of private health insurance). The employee's marginal tax rate (including social security) was around 50%. So in round numbers, for every $150 the company paid out, the employee got to keep $50 (and then pay 20% VAT on many things).

  10. John,
    If there is no minimum wage, then it does not matter who pays the tax, but if there is a binding minimum wage then it is much better to shift the tax burden to the workers. In this case, the shift will increase demand for labor and decrease the supply reducing unemployment from minimum wage.

    By the way, I really like your blog. Thank you for doing that.

  11. High overheads will hurt most businesses and economies. This partly explains the problems of most countries in the EU. Ignoring all the political issues etc, one argument in favour of the EU could have been reductions in government overheads for the member countries through economies of scale. But naturally, all it has led to is most countries increasing government spending while at the same time having to pay massive amounts for the growing EU bureaucracy on top (€133 billion budget for 2013). These costs then has to be financed through a very high overall tax burden, deficit spending and increasing debt to GDP ratios of the member countries. Central planning does not work, it's unreal even western Europe has forgotten about its old enemy, the Soviet Union, so quickly. It's absolute madness. No wonder why so many countries in Europe struggle. The political stakes of the EU failing is high, so it will become a lot worse before citizens finally realise the whole EU/EMU is a failure of historically grand proportions. The financial transaction tax is now most likely on its way as are more (banking)regulation which will add further to overheads. The economy is being choked as are tax payers. And you're right, it's a wonder anyone in Europe bothers to work at all - I think probably the black market, especially in the mediteranian countries are growing, and growing quickly. And that would be very understandable.

    Atle Willems, Norway

  12. Yes. Good point, John. The US could easily solve any social security problems (to get over the baby boom hump) by simply raising taxes and still maintain productivity growth rates like Germany, Sweden (not shown), etc... seems like a no-brainer.

  13. 15% of a typical US worker's salary is also essentially "taxed" to pay for health insurance... Who would seriously go without health insurance?

    Presumably, many Europeans work because they legitimately enjoy what they do and they make substantially more working than they would not working, even if they wouldn't starve to death or not have health care...

  14. You asked about marginal benefits for marginal contributions in European social insurance programs, compared to US. An interesting comparison is unemployment benefits. Massachusetts has a high cap on weekly unemployment benefits, at around $512 per week (which could rise, depending on circumstances other than one's contribution). This is about $2,300 per month. The way the formula works, the benefit caps out at an annual salary of ~$52K (pre job loss). When a high income relative of mine in France was laid off, the monthly benefit was E6,000, or ~$7,800. So this person would have been receiving unemployment benefits of over $90K per year (to subsidize a higher lost compensation). So it seems that France has more marginal benefits for marginal contributions on the unemployment side.

  15. off topic request for understanding:

    My CPA friend’s firm had a speaker from the SF Federal Reserve Bank last week. The speaker said that QE3 would buy mortgage backed securities from Fannie and Freddie and pay for it with currency. The speaker said then Fannie and Freddie would buy more mortgages from the banks and pay with currency.

    Is this true? Are they really buying directly from the Agencies. Perhaps the Agencies do not have bank accounts with the Fed for the Fed to credit with accounting entry created money so the Fed has to have currency printed up to pay for their purchases.

    In the end, the new money can get trapped at the banks as currency in the vault is the same as reserves.

  16. I politely disagree with Cochrane’s view. Note that most European countries actually have higher Labor Participation Rates than the United States, which provides concrete evidence that their Tax system does not discourage work too much. Europe's Payroll Tax is not in fact a tax, but "a compulsory savings rate" which workers entrust to their government. Payroll is only for Social Security and Unemployment Benefits. Unemployment Benefits have some component of disincentive to work, but represent less than 10% of the tax. These pension benefits are paid as a proportion of your wage contributions. The assertion "you get benefits without paying the tax" is false.
    Europe's taxation system is less harmful for the decision of working or not than the United States, because public spending (spending without social transfers) is almost completely funded by the VAT tax. Public finance theory says that the VAT is one of the most efficient tax available. Yes, European countries also have an Income Tax (this one differs from Payroll because it does not go for Social Security). However, most workers pay little or no Income Tax. Public spending is around 18.5% of GDP in most European countries and that is why they require the 20% VAT tax to fund their army, police, free education and free health.
    In fact, "Payroll Taxes" even create incentives for people to work, since public pensions are generous. In several countries informal workers (such as housemaids) are allowed to discount payroll taxes and several of them do so. Why? They have low income and pay 0% Income Tax. However, their Payroll Discount gives them a generous Retirement Pension at an implied interest rate higher than the market.
    And why does this Payroll Tax need to be so high? Because that is required to pay those generous pensions. Let's do this simple exercise with the Future value of a payment stream that pays a risk-free real interest rate of 4%. Workers start labor at age 25 and get a wage of 1. Assume also that income grows at 1% in real terms every year and that the final pension is 80% of the final wage. Also, workers spend 8% of their time randomly in unemployment and pay no tax. Workers pay a tax T every period proportional to their wage. In the end they retire at 62, meaning they provide 34 (i.e., 37*(1-0.08)) years of discounts and then live to the age of 90. Pension is fixed at 80% of their last wage. What is the tax T required? 34%!
    The real problem? Savings disincentives. People think Government saves for them and obviously we know it doesn't.... As European states get more indebted, people will realize that Pension Benefits are smaller than promised. At some point workers may view the Payroll Tax as a real tax and not a Pension discount anymore!
    My take on the crisis in Portugal and Southern Europe:
    Law makers in Portugal are a bit similar to the Argentinean and Indian, although in a smaller degree. These Law makers see regulation for business as a Morality Play and that you must do things to prevent Suffering by the Weak. Portuguese Unemployment Severance Payment can go up to 3 years of wage. In the same way 30% of the landowners charge less than 50 euros for each apartment and raising rents is forbidden. This happens all over Business Regulations in some way. Public backlash usually pushes back Government efforts to reform laws.

    I usually tell my friends in Portugal: "Noble feelings and Charity are okay, but do not justify harmful laws. We can help through the Tax system. Companies invest when it is profitable and easy to do business, not because people are Good Catholics."

    Carlos Madeira

    1. Hi Carlos! Interesting viewpoint. While you provide lots of useful numbers and figures, which are helpful, I must say that anecdotal evidence when actually talking to people tells me a different story. I currently live in a major city in France, and most of the educated people here (employers and employees both) are sick and tired of all these taxes, but there are too many voters who feel dependent on government handouts (or a bit too much misplaced empathy) and perks to vote for serious change. Ultimately, the country is one where it seems new ideas and ventures are rejected out of hand. Entrepreneurship and personal fulfillment are strictly limited to what is considered "possible" by the state, regions, and the various bureaucratic entities and mountains of paperwork, taxes, experts, that citizens here must navigate. I am currently sitting in a humble little cafe where the owner just randomly started speaking to me as I sat here typing. She apparently is someone who really isn't concerned at all about money and more about quality of life literally doesn't want to hire or expand or develop her business at all, simply because of the various fees and taxes involved are just not financially feasible, and certainly not due to lack of clientele, as I see plenty of folks coming in to buy and enjoy coffees and various other treats. This is informaiton she volunteered to me just randomly, which for me really speaks volumes. I'll also note that she did not see what I was writing about and I haven't uttered a word to anyone else in the cafe besides her to order my coffee and pastry. Sure, this could be coincidence, but the sheer number of people I've talked to who have either chosen not to grow or otherwise to scale back their previously larger businesses really says a lot. If not about Europe, at least about France, which has the highest employer-side employment tax burden on this list.

      I think this tax is an economic valve that must either be done away with or controlled more rigorously. During a recessionary period, it makes sense to open the valve by temporarily lowering the employment tax to a degree that really makes a difference. In an heating economy, it makes sense to incrementally raise the employment tax until the economy shows signs of slowing growth rates. What ends up happening is preceisely the opposite, as politicians during times of excess are under little pressure to lower taxes, and during recessionary times are under a lot of pressure to maintain revenues rates in the short term.

      Another idea is to simply do away with this horribly managed tax category altogether (which really hits the most ambitious and active entrepreneurs and businesses the hardest) and replace it with a flat or progressive (depending on a given country's politics at the time) income tax category on any and all personal income, regardless of source. Because ultimately, funding future social benefits decades down the road should have nothing to do with current employment levels and salaries. It should be the responsibility of every citizen, however poor or wealthy, to make some kind of contribution, however minimal, to their own future social benefits -- this is not only good for the sense of responsibility, but also for a sense of ownership and pride in a given system, which all citizens, whether they like it or not (and whether they realize it or not) are inherently involved and invested in.

  17. These are interesting discussions and we have to thank John for having stated the ball rolling.
    From my side I have noticed a few points which seem to be lacking in many of the argumentation about taxes, growth, productivity, etc. in the USA versus Europe.
    For sure, for years now politicians everywhere in the world have been playing Santa Claus by spending money they didn’t have and only obtained by borrowing and by keeping printing presses rolling. Banks are being blamed, but in my humble opinion the politicians are the real culprits. Yes, certainly the bills are now being presented and we shall have to accept the consequences.

    I hear noises about the virtues of the USA system, but am not convinced.
    For example, is nobody in the US wondering how come that the Chinese, Japanese, Saudis, etcetera are sitting on mountains of USD and T-bonds. ? Is it not so that for decennia these countries have de facto been financing the USA ? And that already for decennia the USA has been exploiting up to the hill that the USD was the most prized currency and paying its imports with T-bonds and by liberally printing USD ?
    And when I hear people talking about the US national debt, I always ask myself: are these amounts of USD and T-bonds held by foreigners included. If not, should not they be ? Is it not so that possibly with these amounts those countries could practically buy the USA and leave the US citizens destitute ?
    What is the ratio National debt versus private savings in the USA ? Let me compare it by taking as an example Belgium, one of the European countries considered to be heavily-exposed.(by far not the worse). It is not generally known, but against its national debt of Eur 340 billion (Eur 31.000 per capita and 99% of the GNP and largely owned by non Belgians) each and every Belgian owns in average an amount of Eur 65.000,-. The official private bank savings alone are good for more than 50 % of the national debt (to which one could add the national sport of money put in tax havens, roughly estimated at 200 billion). I am curious to know the USA figures.
    In my humble opinion such factors should be considered, otherwise we are comparing apples and pears.

    Secondly, and as important: are we living to work, or do we work to live ? Looking to the number of US citizens suffering from burn-out, having no decent vacations and being over-stressed, not knowing how to cope with medical expenses, etc. the European attitude towards working as a means to be able to enjoy living looks to me more pleasant than working so hard one is not really enjoying life.
    When I see comments about the poor housing conditions in Europe I am thinking back to the slums I have seen in the USA. Note that I have seen slums in many countries and no more in NW-Europe than in the USA. And still they don’t tell us the whole story. Nearly the whole of black Africa is a slum, but nowhere have I seen more people laughing and enjoying life than there.

    For me the important question should be: are not we humans a social community in which the richer should support the needing, the healthy support and confort the sick ? Can and should everything be calculated in money without regard to other values ? I am a firm believer that the commandment “love they neighbor” as the only way in which we can build a peaceful society and avoid wars. That this can only be achieved by fully considering our neighbors.
    Please don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that sitting on one’s bum should be our goal, only that there are other values than money to be taken into account and one should be weighed against the other.

  18. Hi from Greece, i run a business and if you're interested i'd like to tell you whats happens in my so called country and its insurance planning. Governmental insurance if i can call it like that is mandatory, we kinda have companies offering private insurance but its an extra (for both parties) so both parties cant choose should they wish to avoid national insurance. As a businessman i pay 500 euros a month for mandatory insurance which in the long run it is suppose to give me a pension which i highly doubt it, also, our pension in greece is more than 50%-60% of your,once, basic salary (if you are an employer and/or employee). If i hire someone i usually hire them by the hour since in my line of work i dont have full time employees, so, lets say this employee has never worked in my line of business hence he has no experience, which let me tell you experience is calculated by the government based on the years you worked as a carpenter plus age marital status, kids etc etc and the list goes on and on and this table of analysis is based on a three-year-experience, and money+insurance is accordingly calculated. So, this worker of mine has no experience (0-3 years according to the table) and i hire him for 5 hours of work. His salary (according to other factors decided under negotiations government-labor unions-third parties) is 4 euros and 30cents an hour. His insurance is 1,90 euros and hour on my behalf and his percentage would be 0.50-0.60 cents and hour. So basically this guy costs me 5,90 and hour out of which 0.50-0.60 cents is his part of the insurance which im supposed to not give it to him but take it from his salary and add it to the 1,90 which is my part and pay the government for HIS insurance, so this guy earns 3.50-3.60 and hour. My insurance is calculated differently, based on years of work and nothing else and ends up 500 euros a month. This insurance-pension plan is for businessmen-women and companies. If you are a new farmer you start paying 600 eyros a year but you end up getting a 300 euros pension a month, and farmers in greece are taxed according to acres and pretty much thats it for them. This is just a really small in-a-nutshell and not 100% analyzed, im sure you can find all weird stuff on taxation and insurance on the net for other countries. Other e.u. countries dont share greek taxation-insurance methods applied by the government. Thanks for sharing some thoughts

  19. I think the real problemm behind all this tax issue, is where the taxes actually go. There are countries where people are frustrated about the way the money is used by governments.

  20. This is actually beyond my concern but I can't help not to drop by knowing I'm in a country of same situation. Well, I could just say one thing about this common issue, luxembourg was right, people of their country don't even know where these taxes are actually handed or if the government used these taxes wisely for the betterment of the country. Frustrating indeed, seeing no results after-all.

  21. I support an extended payroll tax cut is because it is targeted and controllable. We are in a balance sheet recession on the household sector. Households need to cut their debt load in order for these debt levels to stabilize so that the economy can achieve organic growth.

  22. I don't understand the impetus of taxing employment. By creating a direct cost of employment, the various governments of the world accomplish only one thing: minimizing employer willingness to employ people, which itself has some less-than-enticing cascading effects:
    - lower employment
    - lower available work hours
    - lower net productivity by total population
    - lower potential net gdp and per capita gdp
    - less earned income available to tax
    - less tax revenue

    The only function I can see for employment taxes as an alternative to (part of) income or other taxes wold be to regulate employment levels depending on the whims and requests of certain of a given economy's "important" employers. Considering the downfall of The US's historically most important employers, however, I'd say that this tax/economy valve has been either mismanaged over the last 40 years or so, or is not a greatly useful valve in the first place. When you look at the employment taxes numbers, Europe seems like they'd be even worse off, but I'm really not so sure about that.


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