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11/02/2018 12:03 pm ET

This Country Publishes Everyone’s Income on ‘National Jealousy Day’

Meanwhile in the U.S., President Trump won’t publish his tax returns.
Helsinki, Finland. Every year on Nov. 1, the country publishes the taxable income of all of its citizens.
Lingxiao Xie via Getty Images
Helsinki, Finland. Every year on Nov. 1, the country publishes the taxable income of all of its citizens.

How much money do you earn? It’s a difficult question to ask and to answer. Money is something that feels intensely personal, especially as society so often drills into people the message that income is wrapped up in self-worth. Few people are open to friends, or even their family, about how much they earn.

In Finland, however, any stranger can find out. Every year on Nov. 1, dubbed “National Jealousy Day,” every Finnish citizen’s taxable income is revealed, searchable by anyone.

“The annual orgy of financial voyeurism might raise eyebrows in other parts of the world, but it remains an important national event in Finland,” says Finnish news broadcaster Yle Uutiset.

Finnish journalists trawl through the data to discover the highest-paid Finns, to uncover what celebrities are paid ― this year the country’s most famous porn star, Anssi Viskari, reportedly earned 23,826 euros ($27,200), according to The New York Times ― and to shame those who haven’t been paying their fair share of taxes.

For some of those who paid the most in taxes, there is a palpable sense of pride. Among the top earners this year, and indeed for several years now, are the founders of Supercell, a Finnish game developer; Ilka Paananen and Mikko Kodisoja earned the equivalent of about $74 million and $65 million, respectively. In 2014, Paananen said, “We’ve received so much help from (Finnish) society, it’s our turn to pay it back.”

Of course, there are ways for some of the richest to minimize their taxes, and the Finnish data does not capture everything. For example, it’s not broken down into individual income items and doesn’t include most non-taxable income, but it is a good snapshot of income in the country of 5.5 million people.

Being able to find out people’s pay can serve a broader purpose. For advocates of transparency, Finland’s openness is a good thing, allowing open and clear debate about earnings and helping screen out discrimination as well as denting the reputations of those seen not to be paying their fair share.

Finland has one of the lowest income inequality levels among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. However, Finland still has a gender pay gap issue, with the average woman earning 16.5 percent less than the average man (the equivalent figure is 18.5 percent in the U.S).

Openness about how much tax people pay is not just a Finnish phenomenon. Sweden and Norway also publish citizens’ tax returns. In Sweden, you only have to pick up the phone to ask about someone else’s financial details, although the person you are snooping on will be informed. 

The policy could be seen as part of a broader push toward trust and transparency in these Nordic societies. Michael Birkjær, an analyst at the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark, told HuffPost that “trust (both in other people and in the system)” is one of the reasons these countries are consistently ranked best in the world to live.

However, the benefits of this transparency are not clear-cut and there is a lack of data around its impact on equality. “Whether the publishing of tax lists has a positive or negative impact on the society is a controversial question,” says Kristiina Äimä, who specializes in tax law at the University of Helsinki. “Some people think that transparency promotes democracy in the society and some think that it violates the protection of privacy.” 

Some critics point to the “jealousy” element of the disclosures and argue that knowing what others earn is more likely to tie happiness to income. A University of California study from 2011 found that, overall, there was a negative outcome from employees knowing co-workers’ salaries. Those earning less than the median pay reported lower job satisfaction and were more likely to want to find another role, while those earning above the median reported no effects. But there is other research that points to positive effects. A 2016 Cornell study, for example, found knowing what co-workers make can increase performance.

It seems next to impossible to imagine this kind of transparency in the U.S., where a long debate still rages over whether President Donald Trump should make his tax returns public. He has consistently refused to release his returns despite a long precedent for presidents to do so.

Many public sector salaries are public. And there is movement in the corporate sector, with some U.S. companies adopting pay transparency policies ― for example, Whole Foods and social analytics company SumAll. Social sharing startup Buffer has gone a step further, making salaries available to the public, as well as internally. These companies remain very much in the minority. A 2010 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that 25 percent of private companies in the U.S. prohibited staff from talking about salaries.

Not many organizations can go down the route of total transparency, said David Burkus, associate professor of leadership and innovation at Oral Roberts University, “but most can do a way better job communicating how salaries are determined and why an employee was given the salary he or she was given. And we know from the research literature that both of those things are motivating and engaging for employees.”

And it does seem there is an increasing movement for more transparency, at least at a corporate level. Thousands of Google staff across international offices staged a mass walkout Thursday. Among their demands: an end to pay inequality. Writing in The Cut, organizers said: “This must be accompanied by transparent data on the gender, race and ethnicity compensation gap, across both level and years of industry experience, accessible to all.”

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