What have the Romans ever done for us?
“What have the Romans ever done for us,” Reg, played by John Cleese, asks his fellow anti-Roman insurgents in a memorable and amusing scene from the movie The Life of Brian “apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order?” You could ask a similar question when looking at your paycheck or tax return and discovering how much you are paying in tax, i.e. “what has the Government ever done for us?” The answer to that will vary greatly depending on where you live. If you live in Europe, the Government probably does quite a lot for you, regardless of whether you want it to or not. The Scandinavian countries stand out as providing the most comprehensive “cradle to grave” welfare states. But Austria must come pretty close. Indeed, I discovered recently that Austrian families are supported more generously by government than any other country in Europe, to the tune of almost three percent of the country’s GDP. Child care for example is heavily subsidized, and parents are encouraged to keep their children in education as long as possible, with monthly credits which can last until the “child” is 26 years of age. And, like neighboring Switzerland, Austria invests heavily in infrastructure. Despite extremes of temperature between winter and summer, the roads don’t seem to crumble away every year like they do in some countries with more temperate climates, and, of course, the trains are reliable and punctual. But at what price do trains run on time? A lot of tax, that’s what. Indeed, the reason I bring this up is because of a news story on the Government’s tax cut plans. I had to read the following fact more than once to make sure I hadn’t misread it: you start paying income tax at almost 40 percent in Austria when your salary hits EUR25,000 a year. That means Austria’s lowest tax bracket (leaving aside the 0 percent allowance) is at roughly the same as the top rate in the United States. What’s more, the 50 percent rate kicks in at EUR60,000, which seems criminally low; the Brits are currently tearing themselves apart about a 50 percent rate on incomes above GBP150,000 (USD225,000). The tax reform bill will ease the tax burden somewhat for those earning up to EUR18,000, but the introduction of six brackets instead of three isn’t likely to have much of an effect on everyone and will probably just complicate things. Ok, most Austrians might be content with this arrangement, but boy do they have to pay for it! Reg and his gang had to suffer the iron fist of Roman rule to enjoy some of the benefits of civilization. And so Austria’s citizens must suffer some of the highest tax rates around for first-class public services. Too high in my opinion.