Today's rude quiz: What's the fastest rising element in the cost of living? Choose from the answers below:

• Gasoline and energy

• Food

• Housing

• None of the above.

While energy prices, food, and housing have received a great deal of attention in recent months, the fastest rising element in our cost of living is never discussed in the news releases from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It's our tax bill.

Taxes are curiously missing from the monthly CPI announcements. This is curious since taxes of all types dwarf any of the expense categories we usually think about.

Worried about the rising cost of medical expenses? Don't. It's only 10.8 percent of income for the median two-earner family according to a study by the Tax Foundation. Nor should we worry about transportation. It's only 6.9 percent. We certainly shouldn't worry about the 3.9 percent spent on clothing, the 8.9 percent on food, or the 5.2 percent on recreation. Even the 15.9 percent spent on House and Household is minor compared to the burden of taxes.

According to Tax Foundation figures, Federal taxes (income, employment, and other) take 25.9 percent of income while state and local take 13.1 percent. All taxes combined take 39 percent of the median two earner family income.

There could, of course, be quibbles about how the Tax Foundation defines median family income--- their definition includes the Census's Bureau's definition plus family share of corporate income taxes and the employer portion of the employment tax. But even if you adjust back to actual paychecks, the tax burden remains very high.

In the late seventies, when I first started writing a newspaper column, it wasn't necessary to go to the Tax Foundation for such figures. Then the Bureau of Labor Statistics did a regular release on the cost of living for a "Standard Family of Four" at three different levels of income. The cost of living for the same three imaginary families was then calculated for each of our major cities. With little effort you could compare the cost of living in, say, Boston with the cost of the same standard of living in Austin, Phoenix, or Denver.

Most people would call that very useful information. I frequently used it for columns.

Unfortunately, the information was also embarrassing for the government.

Why?

Because a few of us mean spirited journalists took out our calculators and found that the fastest rising component in the cost of living wasn't fuel or food or housing--- the things most people were worried about in the late seventies. It was the federal income tax and the employment tax. After a few years in which taxes were the fastest growing cost of living, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that providing this information was too expensive. The famous "Standard Family of Four" disappeared, without a trace.

I like to think that they are still out there, living normal lives under the Witness Protection Act.

Fortunately, we can still ferret out this kind of information from organizations like the Tax Foundation.

Their recent study not only shows the benefits of the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997--- reducing the level of federal income taxes in 1998 back down to the level that prevailed in 1955--- but it also compares broad changes in income and taxes from 1955 to 1975 to 1998. If you sit down with those figures and calculate their growth rates relative to the Consumer Price Index, the long-term message remains.

Whether you examine 1955 to 1975, 1975 to 1998, or 1955 to 1998, the total burden of federal taxes for the median family has risen faster than the consumer price index and, more important, faster than income. The growth rate figures are shown in the table below.

The Rising Price of Civilization

Item 1955 to 1975 1975 to 1998 1955 to 1998
2 earner income 5.95 percent 6.14 percent 6.05 percent
Federal income taxes 6.89 5.40 6.09
Employment Taxes 12.10 7.46 9.60
Inflation Rate 3.40 5.04 4.28

Sources: the Tax Foundation, Bureau of Labor Statistics

As you can see, the income tax burden has basically kept pace with the rise in income over the last 43 years. The rise of the employment tax, however, has been much faster than the rise in income or inflation. Indeed, when you combine both the employee and employer portions, the employment tax was only 35.1 percent of the Federal income tax on the median two-earner family in 1955. But, by 1998, it had quadrupled to 142 percent of the Federal income tax on the median two-earner family.

Each of our political parties likes to blame the other when it comes to taxes but, over a 43 year period of unrelenting increase in the employment tax, I think it's fair to say that both parties have failed to address the single fastest rising cost of living--- the employment tax.