By Jeffrey Stinson, USA TODAY
LONDON – Every year, Sweden publishes everyone's income tax returns. So do Finland and Norway. And nobody really cares.
By contrast, U.S. law prohibits releasing
anybody's tax information. Imagine the howl if the IRS put tax returns
online, so co-workers, neighbors and mothers-in-law could see what
That happened in Italy earlier this year, when
the outgoing government of prime minister Romano Prodi briefly posted
taxpayers' incomes on the Internet, and newspapers picked up the list.
Magnus Graner, state secretary for Sweden's
Justice Ministry, says people's tax returns are available for viewing
in a series of "tax calendars," or books, each year.
"If it's what you want to do, you can see what
your brother-in-law made, your neighbor made," Graner says. "Not
everybody does it, although we joke about it and say, 'Have you checked
on your future in-laws?' No one in my family has done it – I don't
Two weeks ago, Sweden published the tax returns
of ordinary wage-earners. In November or December, Swedes can see how
much high-rollers made – with their income from dividends and other
investments – plus how much they paid in taxes for 2007.
Sweden's policy of making tax returns public –
as in Finland and Norway – stems from a tradition of open records and
transparency in government, except in cases of national security and
some aspects of criminal investigations.
"The right of public access to documents is laid
down in the constitution," Graner says of Sweden's practice since the
Making the data public demonstrates the Scandinavian tradition of jantelag,
which translates roughly as nobody is better than anyone else, says
Veera Heinonen, spokeswoman for the Finish Embassy in London.
"Finland is a very egalitarian country, and it's a very high-tax society, so it provides checks and balances," Heinonen says.
She says people's earnings can be a good source
of gossip. Is anybody embarrassed? "Well, maybe some chief executives,"
Ida Ragnarsson, 22, of Helsingborg, Sweden, says
she doesn't mind if anyone sees what she earns. Ragnarsson, who coaches
sales people, says she has checked up on her family. "It's fun to know
how much they earn," she says.
Italians didn't think so in April when Vincenzo
Visco, a deputy economy minister who spearheaded Italy's fight against
tax evasion, posted 2005 tax returns on the agency's website.
The gesture, Visco told Italian news organizations, was to encourage greater "transparency and democracy."
The information was quickly removed from the
website, but it was available long enough for newspapers to grab and
publish figures about the rich.
Among the incomes posted: Silvio Berlusconi, the
conservative media mogul who replaced Prodi as prime minister. His 2005
earnings: $43.5 million, on which he paid $18.6 million in taxes.
Philip Lindquist, 19, a student in Stockholm,
says he doesn't understand the fuss in Italy. "The model on which
Sweden is built demands this" public information, he says.
Norway had parliamentary hearings several years
ago on whether to continue making the information public, but nothing
came of it, says Marietta Christophersen in Norway's embassy in London.
It's very popular, she says. Norwegians can go
on newspaper websites, she says, and "search for celebrities' tax
details or those of your neighbor or in-laws."
Americans would likely be outraged, says Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.
That won't happen, says Internal Revenue Service
spokesman Rob Marvin. "Federal law prohibits the release of that
Contributing: Christoffer Braw in Stockholm
News10 / KXTV