Forget about Donald Trump’s tax returns. I want to know how much my neighbors paid in taxes.
Scratch that. I have wonderful neighbors, most of whom have lived on my street longer than the 27 years my wife and I have been there.
It’s the people a few blocks away I wonder about. How much did they earn last year and what did they pay?
I’m kidding, sort of. But underlying the struggles, the political name-calling and the demands for tax transparency from the nation’s top political leaders is a larger question we ought to consider.
Why isn’t everybody’s tax return public?
This isn’t the first time I’ve asked this. It tends to make for an interesting conversation starter, especially with the federal income tax deadline looming so close.
When it comes to President Trump, his enemies want to know his actual earnings and how low he was able to finagle his actual tax obligation. The demand is grounded in a reasonable assumption that transparency (and perhaps embarrassment) is a great weapon against corruption and privilege.
But if it would work at the highest level of government, why not elsewhere?
For the answer, you can turn to the land of my ancestry — Norway. Ever since the 1800s, individual tax records there have been public.
A schoolteacher in a town south of Oslo told the BBC a couple of years ago that she remembers people lining up in the old days to have a look through the huge books of personal tax information as soon as they were available each year for public inspection. You could learn anyone’s net income, net assets and how much they paid in taxes, but you had to hurry because people were waiting in line behind you.
You can imagine what the digital age did to this ritual. Starting in 2001, the information went online, and Norwegian media put it all on easily navigated websites. Someone developed apps that would automatically rank your Facebook friends by income or that would compare individual earnings by geographic area.
The editor of continentaltelegraph.com said the nation became so obsessed with seeing how much neighbors made that the media began calling this pastime “tax porn.”
Transparency is one thing. But when it leads to something akin to stalking, that’s another. Freedom’s inherent weakness lies in its vulnerabilities. At one extreme, tax cheats are exposed and the wealthy are pressured into paying their fair share. At the other, kids bully wealthy classmates, adults become resentful of their friends and criminals can zero in on wealthy targets.
After several years of this, Norway adjusted its laws. Tax records remain open, but to access them people now must first enter their national ID numbers. Any citizen has free access to see exactly who has been snooping around their data. As a result, the volume of curiosity-seekers has dropped to one-tenth of what it had been, the director of Norway’s tax authority told the BBC.
Given the tenor of discussions I see on social media, often by people using their real names, that might not be such a deterrent in this country.
You do, whether you realize it or not, have access to most public employee salaries. Websites such as openthebooks.com can tell you every one of these from U of U football coach Kyle Whittingham to the humblest of charter school teachers.
But income tax returns are not public, and the salary information generates little, if any, interest.
The question over whether to make all returns public in this country is not new. It raged a century ago, right after the income tax first was made legal.
The New York Times back then argued for total openness, even citing the Bible in its defense.
“All privacy is scandalous,” the paper said. “These are the scriptural days when there is nothing covered which shall not be revealed and nothing hid that shall not be known. … Every man ought to prove that he is or is not taxable.”
Of course, that was back when the idea was that only the richest citizens would have to pay income tax. That idea vanished quickly, and I’m glad the idea of complete transparency did, too.
We can keep pressuring politicians to release their returns, but civility is hard enough to maintain without having regular folks snooping in each other’s assets and deductions, regardless of the good it might do.