PUBLIC INFORMATION -- For those who think that disclosure of what California's government workers are paid—name by name—is a troubling invasion of privacy, San Francisco open government watchdog Kimo Crossman points out an Associated Press report of a much more radical sunshine policy in the law of Norway.

It's the moment nosy Norwegian neighbors have been waiting for — the
release of official records showing the annual income and overall
wealth of nearly every taxpayer in the Scandinavian country.

In
a move that would be unthinkable elsewhere, tax authorities in Norway
have issued the "skatteliste," or "tax list," for 2008 to the media
under a law designed to uphold the country's tradition of transparency.

It's Norwegians' way of keeping up with the Johansens — from fishermen on the western fjords and Sami reindeer herders in the north to members of the committee that awarded President Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize.

To non-Scandinavians, it would seem to be a gross violation of privacy.
The tax list stirs up a media frenzy, with splashy headlines revealing oil-rich Norway's wealthiest man, woman and celebrity couple.
The data shows that former cross-country skiing great Bjoern Daehlie, who has eight Olympic gold medals, also has plenty of cash — 29.3 million kroner ($5.4 million).
Actress and director Liv Ullmann,
for instance, earned $17,300 in Norway, and has a wealth of $2.5
million. Income earned or kept abroad, or otherwise in some sort of tax shelter, is not included.

Pioneering women's long-distance runner Grete Waitz, a nine-time New York City Marathon champion, earned $13,500 in Norway, and has a wealth of $90,000.

Many
media outlets use the tax records to produce their own searchable
online databases. In the database of national broadcaster NRK, you can
type a subject's name, hit search and within moments get information on
what that person made last year, what was paid in taxes and total
wealth. It also compares those figures with Norway's national averages
for men and women, and that person's city of residence.


Defenders of the system say it enhances transparency, deemed essential for an open democracy.
"Isn't
this how a social democracy ought to work, with openness, transparency
and social equality as ideals?" columnist Jan Omdahl wrote in the
tabloid Dagbladet. He acknowledged, however, that many treat the list
like "tax porno" — furtively checking the income of neighbors or
co-workers.


Critics say the list is actually a threat to society.
"What
each Norwegian earns and what you have in wealth is a private matter
between the taxpayer and the government," said Jon Stordrange, director
of the Norwegian Taxpayer's Association.

Besides
providing criminals with a useful tool to find prime targets, he said
the list generates playground taunts of my-dad-is-richer-than-your-dad.

"The
children of people with low wages are being teased about it in the
schools," Stordrange said Thursday. "People with low salaries are being
met with comments at the grocery store, 'How can you live on these low
wages?'"

The information had been available to
media until 2004, when a more conservative government banned the
publication of tax records. Three years later, a new, more liberal
government reversed the legislation and also made it possible for media
to obtain tax information digitally and disseminate it online.

Norway's
2007 law emphasized that "first and foremost, it's the press that can
contribute to a critical debate" on wealth and the elaborate tax scheme
that, along with the country's oil wealth, keeps Norway's extensive —
and expensive — welfare system afloat.

The country of 4.8 million people had the third-highest income tax among industrialized countries in 2007, behind Denmark and New Zealand, according to the latest statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Since the latest tax data was released Wednesday, national media have
scrambled to analyze it, building top-10 lists and graphic breakdowns
of income differentials between sexes, age groups and residences.