Should Rich People's Tax Returns Be Made Public?

Should Rich People's Tax Returns Be Made Public?

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because being careful about what you ask for should be part of any policy discussion.

By Eugene S. Robinson

OZY's electrifying TV show serves up provocative questions each week.OZY's electrifying TV show serves up provocative questions each week. We want to hear your thoughts:

The late philosopher René Girard ran it right into the heart of the matter. Most of our misery, he claimed, came from what he pegged as mimetic desire. We see what others have, and wanting to have what they have puts us right in the crosshairs of all kinds of empty misery — if not future conflict.

Witness a University of Belgrade School of Medicine study correlating internet use and depression. Not the only one of its kind by far at this point, it charts 336 teenagers and finds a positive correlation between bathing in the endless comparative horror that constitutes modern social networking and, unsurprisingly if you’re a Buddhist, depression.

So when we consider how much the haves have and whether the 1 percenters should be a little more transparent about what that means, let’s exercise due caution. While it’s one thing to want public servants to disclose how they make their money and how much they end up paying purely to avoid conflicts of interest, it’s another thing to want the “rich” to do so.

Imagine how many people would be targets for fraud if everyone knew all their sources of income.

Steve Larson, accountant

Besides, “who defines ‘rich’?” asks 32-year-old accountant Steve Larson from his office in San Jose, California. According to Jenny Bourne and Lisa Rosenmerkel, in a published report on, income actually reveals very little about true economic status for the very wealthy, but “additional information about the types and timing of income received may help clarify the underlying relationship between yearly income flows and overall wealth.”

In other words, even if we knew it, it probably wouldn’t help us figure anything out. Moreover, even if in the age of oversharing it just might happen that many of us wouldn’t mind telling the world how poor we really are, letting the world know how rich we really are could have drawbacks, according to Larson. “Imagine how many people would be targets for fraud if everyone knew all their sources of income.”


A sentiment largely seconded by Canada’s heavy metal accountant Jesse Matthewson. “I don’t see a good case for every citizen’s taxes to be public,” Matthewson says. Still, if we parse out certain kinds of rich folks — the aforementioned “rich” participating in public life by holding public office, for example — he also sees a case for including corporate heads. “Executive compensation should be explicitly revealed in publicly traded companies, not buried in their financial statements.”

A case that Larson makes when he suggests a somewhat redacted format for public consumption so that, at least in the case of who we vote for, we’re sure the person is working for us. “I’ve yet to hear an argument as to why it should not be a requirement,” Larson winds up. “I’m curious if anyone has come up with a good one yet.”

The Internal Revenue System (IRS) clearly, despite not infrequent calls for its abolition, works in mysterious ways. Which at this point involves mostly keeping our tax info secret even from people at the other agencies who still need court orders if they want to peek.

But aren’t you just a little bit curious even if knowing would plunge you into a miasma of jealousy, envy and a possibly misplaced sense of entitlement? Sure you are.

So, what do you think, should rich people’s tax returns be made public?