Transparency is not healthy for American politics. That was the argument a lawyer for President Trump made to the IRS last week, explaining why the agency should reject House Democrats’ request to see the commander in chief’s tax returns. (See Controversy.) Releasing those documents, attorney William Consovoy wrote, will open “Pandora’s box.” Lawmakers from both parties will start to demand the returns of rivals and deploy them as weapons in primaries and general elections. “The ensuing tit for tat,” he said, “will do lasting damage to our nation.” To which I can only say: Bring it on. Our politicians keep getting richer—the representatives and senators seated in 2017 were together worth at least $2.4 billion, 20 percent more than the preceding Congress—and many voters understandably wonder whether lawmakers put their own interests ahead of the country’s. Given access to politicians’ tax returns, we could find out if they’ve profited from tax laws they helped write, or if their investments have colored or might affect how they legislate on certain industries.
Of course, few lawmakers will willingly release their returns—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she’d do so only if she ran for president. To get those records, we might all have to embrace transparency and become a little more Scandinavian. In Sweden, most citizens’ income tax details are publicly accessible. Norway has published tax returns since 1863, when they were posted on the walls of town halls. That information is now published online, but if you do look up what your neighbors or co-workers earn, they’ll be sent an email saying you’ve checked on them. This openness not only helps keep politicians honest, it also combats the gender pay gap—because companies can’t hide paying different salaries to men and women doing the same job—and discourages businesses from paying executives wildly more than ordinary workers. So what do you say, Donald and Nancy? I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.