Norway publishes all income on line

Published On Thu Oct 22 2009
Avots: thestar.com

OSLO–It's the moment nosy neighbours have been waiting for – the release of official records showing the annual income and overall wealth of nearly every Norwegian taxpayer.

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In a move that would be unthinkable in most countries, tax authorities in left-leaning Norway have issued the "skatteliste," or "tax list," for 2008 to domestic media under a law designed to safeguard the country's tradition of transparency.

The annual list includes data about fishermen on the western fjords, Sami reindeer herders in the north, city folk in Oslo and even members of the committee that awarded President Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize.

To non-Scandinavians, it appears to be a gross violation of privacy. At home, it has stirred up a media frenzy, with splashy headlines revealing who is oil-rich Norway's wealthiest man, woman and celebrity couple.

The data shows that former cross-country skiing great Bjoern Daehlie still has plenty of cash – 29.3 million kroner ($5.4 million) to be exact. The finances of other famous Norwegians, including actress and director Liv Ullmann, former marathon champion Grete Waitz or writer Jostein Gaarder, are also unveiled.

Defenders of the system say it enhances transparency, which is essential for an open democracy.

"Isn't this how a social democracy ought to work, with openness, transparency and social equality as ideals?" wrote Jan Omdahl, a columnist for the tabloid Dagbladet. He acknowledged, however, that many treat the list like "tax porno" – furtively checking neighbours' or co-workers' incomes.

Critics say the list poses a threat to the very society whose freedom it's meant to protect.

"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 claimed the list generates my-dad-is-richer-than-yours taunts in the playground.

"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?"'

Many media outlets use the tax records to produce their own searchable online databases. In national broadcaster NRK's database, you can type a name, hit search and within moments get information on exactly what that person made last year, paid in taxes and his or her total wealth.

It also gives an overview of how those figures compare with Norway's national averages for men and women, and averages for that person's city of residence.

The information had been available to media until 2004, when a right-wing government banned the publication of tax records. Three years later, a new, left-leaning government reversed its predecessor's 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 vast 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, according to the latest OECD statistics, behind Denmark and New Zealand.

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, cities and towns.

So who's Norway's richest man? Tobacco mogul Johan Henrik Andresen, worth 11.1 billion kroner ($2 billion), has surpassed last year's No. 1, industrialist Kjell Inge Roekke, according to Dagbladet.

Norway's richest woman was stock market investor Tone Bjoerseth-Andersen, whose wealth of 594 million kroner ($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. Others excluded from the list include people whose details are kept secret for security reasons and the homeless.

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 men named Terje tend to do very well, while among women, Marit is a sure winner.

Most other European countries, including Britain, Italy and the Netherlands, have very different attitudes toward transparency and privacy and would be horrified at such a scheme. Last week the Spanish government for the first time released information on how much each member of the Cabinet is worth – assets and debts – but data on private citizens is still private.

In Norway's neighbour Sweden, however, anyone can order a printed edition of the Taxation Calendar, which lists the earnings of people in mid-to-high-end income brackets. The information is also available online, but anonymous checks were barred in 2007 after a public outcry. Swedes whose finances have been viewed online are now notified by mail about who checked their details.

Christine Ingebritsen, a professor at the University of Washington who studies Scandinavian economics, 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. Unlike the U.S., Norway "places the wealth and health of all as a priority above the individual success stories."

Still, even in egalitarian Norway the tax list has plenty of opponents. A 2007 survey by research group Synovate revealed that only 32 per cent of the Norwegian public wanted the tax list published, while 46 per cent were against it.

Georg Apnes, the director of Norway's Data Inspectorate and a member of the Conservative Party, called the tradition of publishing and combing through the tax list "repulsive" and "disgusting" on an NRK morning news program.

"It reflects very poorly on our culture and on our society," he commented.

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