Taxes do more than just finance government, provide benefits and drive millions of taxpayers into a frenzy around April 15. They also provide something of a social and economic history lesson.

That lesson came to mind recently when the Tax Foundation celebrated its 60th birthday as a nonprofit monitor of how governments raise and distribute their funds. Sixty years ago was a significant time in U.S. tax history, as a look at the numbers suggest.At that time the total expenditures of all governments - federal, state and local - was about $17 billion, and revenues were roughly the same. In 1996, expenditures had risen to $2.93 trillion, and revenues to about $2.86 trillion.

Two obvious things to note: The growth in revenues and expenditures in those 60 years, of course, and then the size of the difference between revenues and expenditures.

The foundation's data provides some popular interpretations of what this means. Tax Freedom Day, which indicates the number of days the average American works to pay all taxes, was in late February back in 1937. It is now into the second week of May. In 1937, total taxes as a percent of total income was under 18 percent; today, it is almost twice that.

The source of the revenue has changed. In the late 1930s, a large portion of federal receipts came in the form of excise taxes, such as on alcohol, tobacco and manufacturers. Today, individual income taxes comprise 44 percent of total federal receipts.

The ways in which the revenues are distributed have changed. In 1937, Social Security consumed 2 cents of the tax dollar; in 1997, 23 cents. Health and medical expenditures took 6 cents of the tax dollar in 1937, but 21 cents in 1997.

Not everything went up - some spending declines might seem surprising. In 1937, education, training and related items accounted for 22 cents of the tax dollar, but 3 cents in 1997. Veterans benefits amounted to 7 cents in 1937, 2 cents in 1997.

All these percentages need to be viewed in relation to the extraordinary growth of the American economy, from a gross domestic product of about $90 billion in 1937 to about $7.8 trillion today, a period during which the population more than doubled.

These figures are a tabloid story of the direction in which the country has grown, and define some of today's major conservative and liberal viewpoints. To some, they describe the growth of a more concerned and benevolent government; to others, a dangerous drift.

And they pose a question that is the grist of numerous articles and debates today: Did the U.S. economy succeed and become the world's greatest because of these trends or in spite of them?

Whatever viewpoint you take, there is perhaps one great area of agreement:

In 1937 the Internal Revenue code contained 32 different personal income tax rates, ranging from 4 percent to 79 percent; in 1997, the code has only five, ranging from 15 percent to 39.6 percent.

Only a cynic would be inclined to point out that it wasn't so long ago that we had only two rates, of 15 percent and 28 percent.