Had Donald Trump never entered politics, never become President, his billion-dollar-plus tax-return losses reported by The New York Times would still have happened. And no one is so naïve as to think that Trump is alone in exploiting the tax system, if not mocking it. The alternative minimum tax, in place long before the Trump-Times study decade, is supposed to curtail claimed-loss shenanigans by the 1%ers. But they don’t pay it and hardly ever have. Working people pay it. (I paid it at least once.) Sure, we should go after tax fraud. But I’d like to see our congressional leaders talking about unfairness in the tax system as it exists in law. That’s Congress’s wheelhouse, after all.
Let me issue the perennial reminder that personal income taxes are fully transparent, public, and online—for everyone—in Norway, and they always have been public, if only more recently online. Yet the sun still shines there—most places, most of the year—and people get on just fine. It turns out that knowing what other people earn in income does not undermine or destroy society. In fact, transparency might generate overwhelming positive consequences, such as a better informed therefore better functioning free market for labor, and, lo and behold, public confidence in government and tax equity.
America has a weird ethic about salary secrecy. My pay is online; you can look it up at Mass Live. Look for my wife there, too, so you know what our household income is. And then explain to me why we owed thousands of dollars in taxes this year even after we reduced our 2018 W-4 deductions to zero and supposedly got a rate cut. (Spoiler alert: Pretty sure the IRS over-cut withholding to create short-term economic stimulus at later public expense.) I’d tell you what we make right here, but I learned the hard way that people at my workplace hate when I talk openly about salary. There’s some social taboo, I guess, that I never learned. Anyway, 🤙.
Here’s my modest proposal. We don’t have to be Norway. But how about, when you’re elected to federal office, executive or legislative, your tax returns, back some number of years and going forward some number of years, are entered into a public database. We see politicians herald the release of their returns; that’s the norm we hold up as desirable. So let’s formalize it. Simple and nonpartisan. These are people holding public jobs, paid from the public fisc. So we know their earned incomes. What’s left to hide?
Maybe if we saw everyone’s taxes in Congress, as well as the President and Veep, we’d finally get meaningful and bipartisan tax reform.