AMERICANS increasingly use international comparisons to measure this country's social and educational policies.President Bush's budget, for example, cites the dramatically low math and science scores of students here in relation to those abroad to make the case for a shift in funding. But there's another comparison that gets less attention. The tax burden in the United States -- counting federal, state and local taxes all together -- is significantly lower than in any other industrial democracy.
A great cry is going up here among people who govern at all levels that they they haven't enough money to do the job that the taxpayers expect of them. One reason is that the taxpayers are, by the standards of any other rich country, carrying a very light load. Raising revenues will not by itself resolve social ills or raise the 9th graders' math scores. But there tends to be a relationship between resources and results. Americans are keeping public resources lower than does any other technologically advanced country. Whether that's right or wrong is a judgment for Americans to make at the polls. But it helps explain some of the growing disparities between life here and in the other rich countries.
It's not only that American kids' scores on certain tests are lower. They are generally less well prepared than their counterparts -- and competitors -- abroad for jobs in the highly advanced economy they are inheriting. In another area, the United States is the only industrial democracy in which some citizens have no health insurance and some children have no access to basic health care. An indicator of a still different kind is the growing number of homeless people on the streets of American cities. You will find far fewer in the cities of Europe and Japan.
No doubt there are many deep and complicated reasons for the increase in homelessness and for the low test scores and the rest. But Americans' determined efforts to hold down the public sector for the benefit of private income are certainly part of the explanation.
Beginning around 1970, nearly all of the rich democracies began to spend more on public pensions, health benefits, housing allowances and, in general, care for people in need. It was a worldwide phenomenon. The rich were getting richer, and they decided to spend a lot of their new wealth on social security in the broad sense. Most raised their expenditures on personal security and on public benefits such as education faster than the United States did. (The chief exception was Britain.) Most did a better job of raising taxes to pay for the new benefits. The results are beginning to be visible.