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Pay Day

In Norway, a different view of transparency

David Brancaccio Aug 20, 2012

In America, the last taboo may be talking about your paycheck. But that’s not the case in Norway where anyone can peek at anyone else’s income.

I’m working this week on a series called “Payday,” examinging the issue of compensation, and it has become clear to me that many of us are more likely to talk about our sex lives than share what we actually earn.

There are lots of possible reasons for this. First, your paycheck info could be used against you. When a woman from Brooklyn, N.Y., told her aunt about her new salary at the great job she got right out of college, the aunt replied “So low?” A sociologist surmises that the reason people across the income scale believe they are “middle class” in the U.S. is because we tend to keep our pay a secret.

Norway is a different story. In the spirit of transparency, the income of every Norwegian is a matter of public record. For years, people could go onto websites set up by newspapers, broadcasters and other media and look up their neighbor’s tax return.

To non-Norwegians this level of disclosure seems bizarre. One British commentator once called the level of private financial information about individuals in Norway “almost pornographic.”

The Norwegian Ministry of Finance is quoted saying “It is highly important to make the tax rolls public, as not only do they provide information about earnings and income tax paid but are a prerequisite for public debate.”

Each year, people would flock to the “skatteliste” or tax list, boosting traffic on the websites of media companies that posted the links to the information. That is, until the most recent tax year. Suggesting that the level of disclosure had gotten out of hand, Norwegian officials have placed restrictions on viewing the tax returns. Now, if Norwegians want to look at income of the person they were thinking of dating or a co-worker or any other Norwegian, they have sign up for the privilege and log in. That is still not difficult to do. However, the media can no longer put up a simple website to be viewed willy-nilly by anyone anonymously.

The suggestion was the government didn’t like private websites making money off the tax records. Also, the media can still publish stories about the tax rolls, but some information in those tax returns must be withheld. Transparency, unbound, may not have been such a good idea.

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