Scan the neighbors in Scandinavia: Who’d release private tax data? A Norwegian wouldBy Ian Macdougall, AP
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Lutefisk and loot: Tax records open in Norway
OSLO — It’s the moment nosy Norwegian neighbors have been waiting for — the release of official records showing the annual income and overall wealth of nearly every taxpayer in the Scandinavian country.
In a move that would be unthinkable elsewhere, tax authorities in Norway have issued the “skatteliste,” or “tax list,” for 2008 to the media under a law designed to uphold the country’s tradition of transparency.
It’s Norwegians’ way of keeping up with the Johansens — from fishermen on the western fjords and Sami reindeer herders in the north to members of the committee that awarded President Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize.
To non-Scandinavians, it would seem to be a gross violation of privacy.
The tax list stirs up a media frenzy, with splashy headlines revealing oil-rich Norway’s wealthiest man, woman and celebrity couple.
The data shows that former cross-country skiing great Bjoern Daehlie, who has eight Olympic gold medals, also has plenty of cash — 29.3 million kroner ($5.4 million).
Actress and director Liv Ullmann, for instance, earned $17,300 in Norway, and has a wealth of $2.5 million. Income earned or kept abroad, or otherwise in some sort of tax shelter, is not included.
Pioneering women’s long-distance runner Grete Waitz, a nine-time New York City Marathon champion, earned $13,500 in Norway, and has a wealth of $90,000.
Many media outlets use the tax records to produce their own searchable online databases. In the database of national broadcaster NRK, you can type a subject’s name, hit search and within moments get information on what that person made last year, what was paid in taxes and total wealth. It also compares those figures with Norway’s national averages for men and women, and that person’s city of residence.
Defenders of the system say it enhances transparency, deemed essential for an open democracy.
“Isn’t this how a social democracy ought to work, with openness, transparency and social equality as ideals?” columnist Jan Omdahl wrote in the tabloid Dagbladet. He acknowledged, however, that many treat the list like “tax porno” — furtively checking the income of neighbors or co-workers.
Critics say the list is actually a threat to society.
“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.
Besides providing criminals with a useful tool to find prime targets, he said the list generates playground taunts of my-dad-is-richer-than-your-dad.
“The children of people with low wages are being teased about it in the schools,” Stordrange said Thursday. “People with low salaries are being met with comments at the grocery store, ‘How can you live on these low wages?’”
The information had been available to media until 2004, when a more conservative government banned the publication of tax records. Three years later, a new, more liberal government reversed the legislation and also made it possible for media to obtain tax information digitally and disseminate it online.
Norway’s 2007 law emphasized that “first and foremost, it’s the press that can contribute to a critical debate” on wealth and the elaborate tax scheme that, along with the country’s oil wealth, keeps Norway’s extensive — and expensive — welfare system afloat.
The country of 4.8 million people had the third-highest income tax among industrialized countries in 2007, behind Denmark and New Zealand, according to the latest statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Since the latest tax data was released Wednesday, national media have scrambled to analyze it, building top-10 lists and graphic breakdowns of income differentials between sexes, age groups and residences.
So who’s Norway’s richest man? Tobacco mogul Johan Henrik Andresen, worth $2 billion, has surpassed last year’s No. 1, industrialist Kjell Inge Roekke, according to Dagbladet. Andresen now owns the Ferd investment group, whose assets include the Elopak packaging company and ski wax maker Swix Sport. Roekke is chairman of Aker ASA, a holding company in the fishing, construction and industrial sectors.
Norway’s richest woman is stock market investor Tone Bjoerseth-Andersen, whose wealth of $107 million placed her behind 24 men, the paper said.
Members of the royal family are not on the list because they don’t pay taxes. Also excluded are the homeless and people whose details are kept secret for security reasons.
NRK’s online edition compared the income of Norwegian celebrity couples — called “super-duels” — while newspaper Aftenposten’s Web site ranked common Norwegian first names by wealth under the headline “How rich is your name?”
It found that men named Terje tend to do very well, while among women, Marit is a winner.
Most other Europeans, including residents of Britain, Italy and the Netherlands, have very different attitudes toward transparency and privacy and would be horrified at such a setup. Last week, the Spanish government for the first time released information on how much each Cabinet member is worth, but data on ordinary citizens is still private.
In neighboring Sweden, anyone can order a printed edition of the Taxation Calendar, which lists the earnings of people in mid- to upper-income brackets. The information is also available online, although Swedes whose financial information has been searched are notified by mail of who checked their details.
Christine Ingebritsen, a professor at the University of Washington, said the Norwegian tax list exemplifies a time-tested, distinctly Scandinavian custom of egalitarianism.
“This is how you make sure that you’re being legitimate in the eyes of the community — you show that the wealth of a CEO isn’t off the charts,” she said, adding that unlike the U.S., Norway “places the wealth and health of all as a priority above the individual success stories.”
Still, there are plenty of opponents of the list in Norway. A 2007 survey by research group Synovate revealed that only 32 percent of the Norwegian public wanted the tax list published, and 46 percent were against it.
Georg Apnes, director of Norway’s Data Inspectorate and a member of the Conservative Party, called publishing and combing through the tax list “repulsive” and “disgusting.”
“It reflects very poorly on our culture and on our society,” he said on an NRK morning news program.
Tags: Cross Country Skiing, Europe, Norway, Oslo, Outdoor Recreation, Personal Finance, Personal Taxes, Recreation And Leisure, Skiing, Sports, Western Europe