Should tax information be public?

In the US, it's illegal for government employees or contractors to publicly disclose any information about a taxpayer without the taxpayer’s consent. In other countries, it's more accessible. 

Evan Vucci/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, in Loveland, Colo.

The New York Times expose on Donald Trump’s apparent use of real estate tax losses to avoid paying income taxes for years has the political world abuzz. But the revelation raises another interesting question: Should any of our tax returns be private? 

The paper published the story after one of its reporters got partial copies of Trump’s state returns from 1995. We don’t know who sent her the information, but in the US, it is a crime for government employees or contractors to publicly disclose any information about a taxpayer without the taxpayer’s consent. 

What if it weren’t, and all of our tax information was public? Sound farfetched? Perhaps, but in Sweden and Norway the tax authorities publicly share everyone’s tax returns. 

It only takes an anonymous phone call to the tax authority for a Swede to find out how much a countryman makes and what he pays in taxes. Gert Tinggard Svendsen, a political science professor at Denmark’s Aarhaus University, told Reuters, “Trust is the foundation for Scandinavian openness about taxes… You trust that all the other people will work and pay taxes. That trust in other people gets an extreme expression in the publication of taxes.”

In Norway, you don’t even need to ask. All tax returns are online. Every October, the Norwegian government posts a summary of each taxpayer’s income (after deductions), his net worth, and how much tax he pays. The country has been doing this for 150 years, only back in 1863 it posted returns on the walls of town halls. Since 2001, returns have been online. All you need to do is search.

Do trust and such “extreme” transparency translate into tax compliance, as Svendsen suggests? A 2015 study by Erlend Bø and Thor Thoreson at Statistics Norway and Joel Slemrod at the University of Michigan concluded it does. The researchers found that when  Norway switched from paper reporting to online publication, reported business income rose by about 3 percent where the switch made returns much more accessible. 

Of course, all that transparency can have other consequences. A 2016 study by Ricardo Perez-Truglia of UCLA found when income became more transparent, low-income people became less happy and less satisfied with their lives, relative to rich people. But at the same time, greater income transparency “corrected misperceptions about the income distribution and changed preferences for redistribution.”

Three things are happening here: Tax return transparency might encourage people to report more income; it might increase envy when people learn that their neighbors and coworkers earn more than they do; and added knowledge can change the way people feel about their tax system. 

In the US, property tax records are public, but we zealously guard our income tax returns. What would happen if my next door neighbor and I could see each other’s 1040s? Would she be inspired to write her congressman about tax fairness or complexity? Would she start tuning in to House Ways & Means Committee hearings on tax reform? Or would we just stop having barbecues together because one of us thought the other was trying to be “smart” by finding ways to reduce her tax bill? 

In 2014, Norway made one change in its transparency law: No longer could people search returns anonymously. Norwegians now know who is looking at their returns, and searches have  plummeted by 90 percent. Given the drop, it’s hard to imagine that people searched just to learn more about their tax system. 

Such a constraint would be unlikely to work in the US. It would take about five minutes for commercial firms to vacuum up public tax return data and sell it. How much did Brangelina make before Brangelexit? How much does your coworker with the new flashy car earn? Inquiring minds (probably) want to know.

With so much personal information already available to those who want to buy—or steal—it, do we need to add tax returns to the mix? If neighborhood information is that important to us, we can find out plenty, rightdown to the zip code, with a quick stop at the IRS Statistics of Income website. Beyond that, we might risk becoming a nation of vulnerable peeping toms.

It is enough that we know about the tax returns of our presidential candidates. For the rest of us? In short: too much information or, as the kids say, TMI. 

The Tax Hound, publishing the first Wednesday of every month (barring news developments), helps make sense of tax policy for those outside the tax world and connects tax issues to everyday concerns. 

This article first appeared in TaxVox.

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