Make everyone’s tax returns public

Whoa, what? You read that right: let’s put every American’s tax return in the online public domain—after anonymizing it to remove their name and other personally identifying information.

make-tax-returns-publicAs this Fusion piece on the idea noted, Norway and Sweden are two famous examples of countries releasing all individual tax returns for the sake of transparency. Of course, America copying this one idea certainly isn’t going to turn our country into a Scandinavian outpost, especially given the vast social, political, and demo-graphical differences. It isn’t meant to. The goal would be to reveal new insights about the nature of economic inequality in our country and economic policy as the actual lived experience of millions of ordinary people.

The proposal, in fact, has some precedence in the United States. As tax policy experts are well aware, the Internal Revenue Service already publishes anonymized data on the 400 richest taxpayers in the aggregate—key nuggets of information such as the top earners’ salaries and wages, capital gains from investments, and tax rates. Many presidential candidates also voluntarily release their individual income tax returns and often press each other to follow suit, which helps expose potential conflicts of interest and aids in vetting of candidates on behalf of voters. (Individual records gathered by the U.S. Census, which include financial information, are kept confidential for 72 years.)

If implemented in the United States, the released tax returns could include basic elements like income, tax rate, gender, and geography. The rest with identifying details, including name and address, should be anonymized in order to minimize political backlash and avoid the problems that other countries have faced as a result of publishing tax returns without redaction—bullying, harassment, targeting by burglars, and so forth.

For more information, see “How the IRS could help close the wealth gap in the United States,” Fusion (2015).