A simple word takes on magical meaning to some. The word “discrimination” is such a word, and when invoked, it’s bad. Isn’t discrimination bad? Except we discriminate all the time, such as when we decide whom to invite to dinner or whom to marry. Should we be compelled to marry the first person who comes along so as not to discriminate?
Transparency is another magical word, but unlike discrimination, it’s a good word. Transparency is invoked for goodness, and everyone knows it’s a wondrous thing. Don’t we all want to see the Mueller Report because transparency? So what if most of America will lack the competency to understand its significance. It’s our right to have the good thing we call transparency, is it not?
New York Times editorial board member Binyamin Appelbaum has taken transparency a step farther, arguing that not only should Trump’s tax returns be public, but so should everyone’s. Yours. Mine. His. Everyone’s.
His opening salvo is that this was once the case, and so it’s neither crazy nor unheard of.
In October 1924, the federal government threw open for public inspection the files that recorded the incomes of American taxpayers, and the amounts they had paid in taxes.
And naturally, people went wild.
Americans were gripped by a fever of interest in the finances of their neighbors. This newspaper devoted a large chunk of the front page to a list of the top taxpayers in Manhattan under a banner headline that read “J.D. Rockefeller Jr. Paid $7,435,169.” One story reported that a number of wives and ex-wives had lined up at a government office in New York to seek information about their present or former husbands. Journalists soon began to note the curious absence of some conspicuously wealthy people from the lists of top taxpayers.
Applebaum’s proposal is largely grounded in the utility to address tax evasion. It’s hard to explain how you’re a billionaire but pay $3.29 in income taxes.
Congress had ordered the disclosure as a weapon against tax fraud. “Secrecy is of the greatest aid to corruption,” said Senator Robert Howell of Nebraska. “The price of liberty is not only eternal vigilance, but also publicity.”
Poor Applebaum’s proposal was not universally embraced, with some pointing out that he, and the New York Times editorial board, should go first, while others castigated the idea as an obvious violation of privacy. There is certainly a conceptual difference between a person running for office, whether it’s president or dog catcher, disclosing their income taxes and private citizens being exposed to their voyeuristic neighbors.
He points out that many jobs, from corporate execs to public employees, publish salary information already, so it’s there for spying eyes to see and, miraculously, people survive. Then again, salary isn’t the same as tax returns, which reveal a bit more than earned income. But they do lend themselves to a better understanding of broader societal issues, such as income disparity.
Disclosure also could help to reduce disparities in income, as well as disparities in tax payments. Inequality is easier to ignore in the absence of evidence. In Finland, where tax data is published each year on Nov. 1 — jovially known as National Jealousy Day — people treat the information as a barometer of whether inequality is yawning too wide.
It’s unclear how disclosure would do anything to reduce disparities, unless it’s about generating outrage at the bottom of the income range toward the top. But is anybody unaware that corporate CEOs get paid more than you do? Sports stars? Movie stars? And even so, what do you plan to do about it, storm the Bastille?
Why are we protective of this information when we are already constrained to give it to the government? Are we afraid that our neighbors might learn that we’re not as well-off as the new car in the driveway suggests? Are we afraid that our neighbors might learn that we can afford ten new cars but are happy to drive our old Prius until it dies? Who cares?
Financial privacy has some more objective arguments in its favor, to keep our information from scammers, con-persons and profligate relatives. But then, it’s not as if those problems don’t exist anyway.
Is financial privacy a fetish, a “tradition” that we’ve carved in stone? It’s not that Appelbaum’s idea is crazy or wild, but that there’s no good reason to expose everyone’s tax returns to the public, and the prying eyes of anyone who wants to see yours or mine, as opposed to those of people who have chosen to run for high office. To the extent revelation of your tax return might embarrass you, maybe you could use some embarrassment. Being a liar or tax cheat isn’t exactly a good thing.
But aside from Appelbaum, there aren’t too many people who would willingly expose their tax return to scrutiny just for kicks. What this reminds us is that “transparency” isn’t good or bad, but appropriate under certain circumstances for sound reasons, and inappropriate when the the argument isn’t good, or at least not good enough.
So will I show you my tax returns? Are you nuts? It’s none of your business. And to be honest, I really don’t want to see yours either. I hope you’re all billionaires who pay $3.29 in income taxes. Just so you know, I’m not and I don’t. That’s all you get from me.
[What would I do without Beth?]