Transparency For All?

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?]

36 thoughts on “Transparency For All?

  1. Kirk A Taylor

    Last day of tax season and I’m reading SJ talk about tax returns instead of doing them.

    As a tax pro, I’ve been waiting for a candidate to stand up and defend their right to tax privacy. The law protects them from forced public disclosure and it’s nice to finally have a politician stand up for this.

    The fact that it’s Darth Cheeto and that his reasons are fit only for a reddit tax thread only slightly reduces my appreciation.

    Here’s hoping he fights disclosure to the bitter end.

    1. SHG Post author

      A far stronger case can be made for the disclosure of a pol’s tax return than some randos, and many are shocked to learn that it wasn’t required for a prez to do so but merely a matter of fairly recent tradition. That said, I can’t recall it being an issue, or anyone caring, until this president, and suspect it’s because people believe it will prove he’s not as rich as claimed and will reveal him to be a liar. While there are good reasons for the disclosure of a president’s returns, this may not be the most principled.

      Now get back to work. I wondered if anybody would notice the date.

        1. Jim Tyre

          It hit the berg on the 14th, but didn’t sink until the 15th. Similarly, Lincoln was shot on the 14th, but lingered until the 15th. I know these because 4/14 was my birthday, I was destined to be a disaster.

          1. SHG Post author

            So, despite my better judgment, I posted BM’s seemingly benign off-topic comment, thinking to myself, “nobody, but nobody, would latch onto this and take the dive down the rabbit hole.” You, Jim, proved me disastrously wrong.

      1. LocoYokel

        “will reveal him to be a liar”

        I’m confused, was there any doubt about this conclusion? I really need names so I can get some help getting my hidden fortune out of Nigeria and maybe dispose of some bridges and waterfront property.

  2. Keith

    As a local transparency advocate (and now pol), people love demanding transparency from me. They rarely like transparency when it goes the other way.

    The first time this really hit home, was when I published a map of who did and did not vote. Holy moly – despite, records being public, they flipped out at “the invasion of their privacy”.

    Barbara Ehrenreich gives a pretty good case for why disclosing all salaries helps the average Joe (spoiler: many people make less because they don’t ask for more), but we all love to hide. Hence the window curtains on our homes.

    1. SHG Post author

      Do women suck at negotiating or are they just willing to work for less? Should an employer pay more than a person asks for the sake of not discriminating on the basis of gender, or is it just good business to pay employees less if they ask for less? Of course, some would argue it’s a matter of discrimination and morality rather than transparency.

      1. Keith

        There is also a class issue, involved. Poor people, don’t have parents / cohorts, that can advise them on the true market value of their labor potential – like richer ones do (with the exception of my workplace).

        It’s been my personal experience, that transparency is a tool. Advocating for transparency, is often misplaced nosiness, on the other hand.

    2. Charles

      Just because they used an imperfect phrase to describe their offense does not mean that they were wrong to be offended.

      Just because you can agglomerate publicly available data doesn’t mean you should.

      Someone once posted a map of registered gun owners in NY(C?). That didn’t go over well either.

    3. D-Poll

      This is different from lurid mugshot websites how exactly? Just because information is legally public doesn’t make it anyone’s business, and my principles are more important to me than “help[ing] the average Joe”.

      1. Keith

        I had my reasons (they may have even been good ones – I thought it was a noble undertaking).

        But, does it matter?

    1. John Barleycorn

      Speaking to transparency…

      Do you have access to the written but unpublished works of SJ Beth?

      Those could be spun off into an R&D subsidiary or better yet a non-profit specializing in the comparison of Twitter to the Middle Ages, especially, the 12th and 13th century when it comes to outrageous spelling and grammatical errors.

      P.S. It would be cool to do a study about the conditions the nation’s goat heards are living under though, depending on which agricultural tax breaks their owners are using. And, something that has been driving me nuts, that full transparency could answer, do most contract goatherders today still fly independent and receive a, just for the goats, 1099 from the owners of the goats or has the profession been forced to incorporate other specialties to make everything pencil out and if so one or several 1099’s? And, boy oh boy, would I really like to know how they incorporate and just how they report cost sharing if they roll under multiple companies?

      Just thinking about all the cash going down the drain with tax lawyers every year does make this transparency deal sound a wee bit more attractive….And besides after the secrets of the goatherder are exposed who the fuck would want to be a tax lawyer anyway?

        1. LocoYokel


          Next time I send SHG a pastrami point to this thread and tell him he owes you a sandwich.

            1. John Barleycorn

              Sunshine, grapes, and editing…. If ever there were three things that go together to help create something new I don’t know what it could be even though I am a barley and corn sort of guy.

              And go figure….I will be visiting some goatherders that are currently working in wine country later this spring.

              So I guess the question is, what type of grape, fermenting trickery, and blending or non blending of said grapes is gonna get me the loosest directional editing* per bottle Beth?

              *Only you know Beth, but something tells me you could herd him along, without him getting any the wiser, while sharpening up his shirt tail “rage” a bit and perhaps even get him to swing on a few vines upon oak trees now and then and “shout”. If it looked like he wouldn’t break an ankle on the landings.

              Then again fuck worrying about the landings Beth. Just get him in the air and I will throw in enough Boone’s Farm, from the Strawberry Hill Collection, for him to nurse a broken ankle if need be. And don’t you worry…..if he were to break a leg on a landing, I guess I could spring for a bottle or two of something nice, distilled from grain.

            2. SHG Post author

              Save the Boone’s Farm for when you finally get lucky. On behalf of Beth, two cases of Ch. Haut Brion ’82 sounds about right. Until Beth tells me the case arrived safely, I’m sure you’ll be too busy making arrangements to comment.

            3. John Barleycorn

              Don’t you worry Beth. The esteemed one has rather traditional tastes but I am hearing some very good things from the goatherders about Big Basin Vineyards.

              So you have that going for you, even if it may be a seemingly impossible task to get Greenfield in the air.

              But I am hearing some very, very good things about the Big Basin grapes, so who knows????

              P.S. Did you know that goats can eat poison oak? And who knew our esteemed host could be so sensitive? Wine for you Beth and perhaps a goat for him?

  3. Shannon

    This will give a reason for the 99% to sharpen their pitchforks. These are the ones who believe the tax code should be simplified to only one section:

    IRC 1 – Your salary – My salary = Your Tax

  4. D-Poll

    I’ve never understood the fetish some people have with sharing their own random private information, and with seeing the private information of other people. I don’t think privacy needs to have a utilitarian argument, nor do I think it is only justified by “tradition”. For me, privacy is a good in and of itself. I don’t even use a credit card. Nobody needs to know anything about me; you don’t even know more than five letters out of my name. That’s the way it ought to be. Sure, it means, as you often say, that nobody knows me from Adam and my opinion is nothing, but I’m fine with that. It’s an easy tradeoff to make.

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