Fairness is not as simple as 1040 EZ

Col. Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s legendary manager, once rather famously said, “I consider it my patriotic duty to keep Elvis up in the 90% tax bracket.”

Linking a star’s patriotism to the IRS is once again in the cultural conversation, with the debate raging in Washington over upper incomes paying their fair share — an issue more than likely to spill over into 2012 as a major campaign theme.

Even though calls by President Obama and congressional Democrats for the wealthy to pay more in taxes seem aimed at the richest of the rich on Wall Street, it’s inevitable that stars, movie moguls and other high-profile, well-heeled Hollywood figures will be pressed on just how willing they are to have their taxes raised. For the conservative media, always on the lookout for any sign of hypocrisy in the leftward tilting entertainment industry, such talk is not just provocative but expected.

When Harvey Weinstein appeared on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” last week, ostensibly to talk about the Weinstein Co.’s spate of Oscar-season contenders, the subject turned to taxes.

“When I hear Warren Buffett willing to give up some of his income … I am certainly willing to give up some of mine,” Weinstein said.

The host shot back, “How much?”

Weinstein responded that he had not thought much about it, percentage wise, but after some back and forth with O’Reilly over the wisdom of giving more to the government, the movie mogul concluded, “We just disagree on what is working and what is not working.”

Alec Baldwin, seldom missing a chance to chime in on Twitter, tweeted last week, “Taxes should definitely go up on ppl making + $250k by 1%. Over $500k by 1.5%. Over $1 million by 2%. Over.”

When Ron Howard appeared on MSNBC in September to promote a new Boys and Girls Club PSA, he too was asked about the “Buffett rule,” or the idea that the upper class should pay at least the equal or greater tax rates as the middle class. “To be honest, I remember on ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ when income taxes for the upper levels were as much as 90% ,” he said. “And that’s the year that we often look back to with great nostalgia, and it was a time of tremendous growth. So I’m not adverse to paying some taxes to try to help the country grow and the economy grow.”

Traditionally celebrities have been about as anxious to talk about how they divvy up their wealth as they are their dating habits.

So having a familiar figure talk about having their taxes raised ostensibly would make them powerful surrogates, particularly as the issue spills over into 2012.

Ken Solomon, CEO of the Tennis Channel and co-chair of the Obama reelection campaign’s Southern California Finance Committee, thinks having such famous faces call for higher taxes will help “for the same reasons having celebrities endorse anything cuts through clutter and gets people to hear the message.”

Yet even as such figures as Mark Cuban and Matt Damon call for higher taxes on people like themselves, not all of Hollywood is willing to declare, “Tax me more.” When the Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength, a group of well-heeled individuals, lobbied Capitol Hill last month to call for the rich to pay a greater share, there were few if any Hollywood figures among them. While Edie Falco, producer Rene Balcer and Abigail Disney have signed on, organizers say they did not recruit support in entertainment, in part because of the concern that one single very famous figure could overshadow the message.

Some famous names also are quick to point out that the nature of their tax burden differs greatly from the interest carried returns of billionaires like Buffett. Oprah Winfrey didn’t say either way whether she supported the Buffett rule, but recently told Variety that “if you looked at my income and imagined half of that going to taxes, I think I’ve done my share. Every time I come in on the interstate, I thank myself for it.” Kelsey Grammer, among the smaller pool of show biz conservatives, recently told the New York Times that his tax bill has been at 57% for years. “It includes some of my employees’ taxes and Social Security and unemployment insurance. I’m seven or eight months into the year sometimes before I’m even. I’m not hurting, but I don’t know if it’s fair, either,” Grammer said.

So far, the presence of famous figures in the debate seems to have stirred up only further debate. John Barcal, associate professor of accounting at USC’s Leventhal School, says that Buffett and others can make “a charitable contribution to the government. Why have the increase in taxes?” That response has been a common refrain from those on the right in Washington. Patriotic Millionaires have called such a concept unworkable, particularly if the goal is to reduce the deficit.

And there appears to be a point at which calls for higher taxes bumps up against just plain common sense. In accounting circles, Elvis isn’t so much legendary for linking taxes to patriotism as he is forgoing many decisions that could have saved his estate considerable wealth, like establishing a trust.

Asked recently whether he would pay more, producer Norman Lear said, “Of course. I would happily pay it. I would have the best accountants, to make sure I pay as little as possible, because that is the American way, but I would welcome the fairness.”

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