Presidential candidate Donald Trump continues to refuse releasing any of his income tax records. Pundits speculate about the reasons behind this secrecy. Perhaps he has not been as successful a business operator as he claims. Maybe he has not been as generous in his support of causes embraced in his campaign, like veteran’s groups, as he claims. Or maybe, as the New York Times suggests, he has paid little or no income taxes for years.
What does it say about someone who has enjoyed so deeply the fruits of American life that he did not contribute to the costs of providing for the common good? Is that fair?
Perhaps there is even a larger question we should be asking ourselves here. Why do we only ask that some politicians release their income tax records for public scrutiny? What if everyone’s tax records were public?
At first glance this idea sounds like a preposterous invasion of privacy. Yet tax transparency has been tried in at least three countries in Northern Europe, as reported by the Economist magazine. Norway, Sweden, and Finland make income tax records publicly available. Norway takes transparency to the next step by also making public those who look at someone else’s tax information.
The benefits of transparency are twofold. First, it makes people think twice about claiming dodgy deductions and exemptions. Data from Scandinavia suggest that tax receipts went up with greater transparency. Second, tax transparency reinforces the idea that we are not just a bunch of individuals out to maximize our personal benefits. We are also a society with common needs and aspirations that can only be realized if we work together and share in the burdens of creating collective wellbeing. Tax transparency lets us see who is and is not contributing to the common good.
Ironically, tax transparency has a long history in Maine, just not for income taxes. In Maine towns we have long made public the value of people’s property and the tax obligation that property value generates. We even print in the town report those who have failed to pay their property taxes. In the 21st Century this extends to making property tax obligations available on the web. My neighbors can look up my property taxes any time they wish at my town’s web site. This is perhaps how people discovered that Congressman Poliquin was claiming a Tree Growth tax exemption on his oceanfront property that did not appear to be in any commercial timber management regime.
So let’s get beyond Trump’s secrecy and think about how we might make everyone’s income taxes public in a safe and reasonable way. It could contribute to a better understanding that we are all in this together.