It happens to many of us. We open our computer to do a specific task but get waylaid by incoming emails and the next thing you know we are off on a totally unplanned tangent. As we approach April 15, "tax day," I was attracted to an article about how Swedes really don't mind dealing with their Tax Agency the way Americans do with the IRS. Swedes also rate their Tax Agency very highly when compared to all other governmental agencies. Not so much here. It's an interesting tale of two tax systems.
My fondness for Sweden goes back over 30 years when Maury had a sabbatical in Stockholm and we and our two teenage daughters spent an exciting year living there. At that time, most of our Swedish friends weren't thrilled with paying taxes and we even learned of some ingenious semi-legal ways to avoid very high taxes. At an earlier time, taxes on upper level earnings were reportedly so high that many people went to great extremes to avoid them.
Over the years, Sweden apparently has lowered its tax rates. According to current data, those making less than about $40,000 (based on current exchange rates) pay no taxes and those making more pay about 30 percent to 60 percent, depending on the total of their federal, state and local assessments. Yet, while no one loves paying taxes, paying them in Sweden doesn't invoke the same ultra-negative responses typical of Americans. Swedes understand that their taxes actually help provide security regarding their health care, education and social services. True, it's a form of socialism, which makes many Americans see red.
If America's IRS had the same type of cradle-to-grave involvement as the Swedish Tax Agency, nationwide riots would occur. It starts with birth when all births must be registered with the Tax Agency, which then sends the infant a "personnummer" which is essentially a Social Security number on steroids. When we lived in Sweden for just under a year, we, too, needed a personnummer to access the ATMs, pay our rent and for school enrollment. Even more amazing is the fact that the taxing authority can reject the choice of a newborn's name. Apparently, they have already denied naming babies Sickboy, Superman and Dotcom.
The Tax Agency even plays a role in relationships. Before the wedding, a couple must apply for "an investigation of impediments to marriage." Apparently, this is a good way to avoid bigamy and other potentially thorny situations. When you change your address, the Tax Agency wants to know within the week. And when the end of your life comes into view, the Tax Agency is still part of your social circle. They insist that you let them know when someone has died to get a certificate for "burial or cremation."
While it sounds like "big brother" is watching over life in Sweden, the Tax Agency prides itself on being accessible and friendly to its customers and arranges for tasks to be done quickly and electronically. When a taxpayer receives communication from the Tax Agency, the contact person provides his/her name and a direct phone number that works.
So, as we Americans approach tax day when many must file their returns, complaints abound on the difficulty of getting clear advice on our new tax law and problems with tax refunds. Most Americans find nothing positive to say about the IRS. We'd never permit the IRS to have the kind of control Sweden's Tax Agency has, but perhaps we can learn something useful by comparing these two tax systems.
Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.