Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the richest of them all?

From a VoxEU post by Ricardo Perez-Truglia:

“Tax records became easily accessible online in Norway in 2001, allowing everyone in the country to observe the incomes of everyone else. This column offers evidence that people primarily went online to snoop on the incomes of friends, relatives, and other contacts. This game of income comparisons negatively affected the wellbeing of poorer Norwegians while at the same time boosting the self-esteem of the rich.

Technological advances have made it possible for everyone to know potentially everything about everyone else. Sci-fi shows such as Netflix’s Black Mirror imagine dystopian scenarios that could result from these new technologies. In the real world, social media is already allowing individuals to disclose details about their personal lives with strangers. This technological change has sparked a policy debate too: should governments disclose data such as tax records?

Tax transparency in Norway

To understand how far reaching the societal consequences of transparency could be, it is useful to look at the experience of one of the pioneers of transparency, namely, Norway. Tax records have been public in Norway since the 19th century, but they have not always been easily accessible. Before 2001, an individual had to make a formal request in person at a tax agency to see someone else’s income. In the fall of 2001, the Norwegian media digitised tax records and created websites that allowed any individual with internet access to search the entire country’s tax records easily and effortlessly. Every Norwegian could find out the incomes of anyone else in the country in a matter of seconds.

In the following decade, Norwegians engaged in a heated debate about whether tax records should be easily accessible online. A similar debate took place in neighbouring Sweden, Iceland, and Finland. These other Scandinavian countries also had laws making tax records public, and thus had to decide whether to make them easily available online as in Norway.

There was no consensus among politicians or the general public on whether Norway’s transparency was good or bad. At its core, the disagreement was about what the effects of transparency actually are. Some supporters argued that public records could serve to deter corrupt politicians and tax evaders (Bø et al. 2015). Meanwhile, detractors claimed that the tax records would be used in objectionable ways, to snoop on the incomes of friends, for example. Thus far, only qualitative and anecdotal evidence has substantiated this contention. In a recent paper (Perez-Truglia 2019), I provide the first quantitative evidence on the matter.

Figure 1 shows a screenshot of one of the websites that allowed Norwegians to browse the tax records. These websites were easy to use and became incredibly popular in the country for the following decade. ”

Continue reading here.

Posted by at 8:56 AM

Labels: Inclusive Growth


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