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Uff da: 2008 tax records go online in Norway

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Imagine being able to flip on your computer and find out the annual income of your neighbor. Or your favorite teacher. Or the guy that serves you coffee every morning. If you lived in Norway, it's quite possible that you could.

Tax authorities in Norway have issued the "skatteliste," or "tax list," for 2008 under a law designed to uphold the country's tradition of transparency. The list includes personal income and tax burden -- as well as where that individual ranks on a list of national averages. The list is made available to the media and can be found online (though be warned that it is written in Norwegian).

The law which makes the information available is not without controversy. Unlike in the U.S., personal tax returns have been available to the public in Norway since 1863, but the process for viewing the records was quite burdensome.
In 2002, a searchable database of tax records was made available but it was severely restricted in 2004, when a more conservative government led by Kjell Magne Bondevik banned the publication of tax records. Three years later, the government reversed the ban and allowed the data to be published online.

The law is driven by the notion of transparency, which many believe is essential in a democracy. Some Norwegians, however, feel that the list is a threat and leads to inevitable unhappy comparisons.

"What each Norwegian earns and what you have in wealth is a private matter between the taxpayer and the government," said Jon Stordrange, director of the Norwegian Taxpayer's Association.

Nonetheless, Norwegians can, with the stroke of a key, find that tobacco giant Johan Henrik Andresen is the country's wealthiest man while stock market investor Tone Bjoerseth-Andersen is Norway's wealthiest woman.

There are some Norwegians who won't be found on the list. The royal family is notably absent, not for security reasons but because they don't pay taxes. Additionally, income which is sourced from other countries and not taxed in Norway is not included.

Those who worry that the list spurs some kind of "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality can take some solace in the fact that most Norwegians live well. Norwegians enjoy the second highest GDP per-capita (after Luxembourg) and third highest GDP (PPP) per-capita in the world, according to the Human Development report. And this system of revealing pay is favored by a majority of the country.

So does that mean that other countries are likely to jump on the Skattelist bandwagon? Hardly. In the US, revealing private tax information to a third party without prior consent (or as a result of another public record, like a criminal case) is prohibited.

Many western European countries similarly frown on the idea of making financial information public, including countries like Switzerland and Luxembourg which pride themselves on financial security. But neighboring Sweden share's Norway's sense of transparency, revealing some information about middle to upper class taxpayers, through the Swedish Tax Authority.

But it is an intriguing idea. Just think, you could research officials for public office, potential employees... the possibilities are endless. What do you think? Would you favor such a system in the U.S.?

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