Conservatives and the Lucky Duckies

Lucky Ducky PanelOn 20 November 2002, The Wall Street Journal editorial page used the term “lucky duckies” to describe people who made so little money that they owed no federal income taxes. It is a ridiculous claim. The implication is that its hard to be a billionaire paying a 13% tax rate on your income, but it’s very easy to live in poverty. It also depends upon a common conservative distortion by focusing on the one tax in America that is moderately progressive. The payroll tax is never mentioned, given that it is highly regressive. Similarly, state taxes tend to be flat, meaning that the poor pay a far higher percentage tax on their expendable income.

When the editorial came out, it was widely criticized. Jonathan Chait at The New Republic then, wrote, “One of the things that has fascinated me about The Wall Street Journal editorial page is its occasional capacity to rise above the routine moral callousness of hack conservative punditry and attain a level of exquisite depravity normally reserved for villains in James Bond movies.” Following off this, Farhad Manjoo at Slate, wrote:

Chait and countless others pointed out that the Journal’s argument was both factually wrong—it considered only the federal income tax, not all the taxes that poor and middle-class people pay, in particular hefty payroll taxes like Social Security—and culturally out of touch. Had the editors ever met a person of little means? Did they realize that being poor, while perhaps an attractive tax shelter, tended to come with such hard-to-bear downsides as not knowing where your next meal will come from?

Even better is Ruben Bolling‘s Lucky Ducky cartoon. Here is a typical episode:

Lucky Ducky

But by far the best response came from Pier Petersen, who offered a modest proposal to the editors of The Journal:

I am one of those lucky duckies, referred to in your June 3 editorial “Even Luckier Duckies” who pay little or nothing in federal income tax (at least by the standards of Wall Street Journal editors; $800 is more than a chunk of change to me). I am not, however, a stingy ducky, and I am willing to share my good fortune with others.

In this spirit, I propose a trade. I will spend a year as a Wall Street Journal editor, while one lucky editor will spend a year in my underpaid shoes. I will receive an editor’s salary, and suffer the outrage of paying federal income tax on that salary. The fortunate editor, on the other hand, will enjoy a relatively small federal income tax burden, as well as these other perks of near poverty: the gustatory delights of a diet rich in black beans, pinto beans, navy beans, chickpeas and, for a little variety, lentils; the thrill of scrambling to pay the rent or make the mortgage; the salutary effects of having no paid sick days; the slow satisfaction of saving up for months for a trip to the dentist; and the civic pride of knowing that, even as a lucky ducky, you still pay a third or more of your gross income in income taxes, payroll taxes, sales taxes and property taxes.

I could go on and on, but I am sure your editors are already keen to jump at this opportunity to join the ranks of the undertaxed. I look forward to hearing from you.

But despite all this well deserved derision, not only did The Wall Street Journal not back down, the term “lucky duckies” has become something of a staple in right wing media. One hears it all the time on Fox News, for example.

The thought occurred to me this morning after reading Paul Krugman about the current state of Obamacare. Conservatives seem to have the same attitude toward health insurance. The poor are “lucky” to get insurance. They aren’t unlucky to be poor—most of them born poor with virtually no opportunities. But I wasn’t going to write about this connection until I saw an article by Ed Kilgore this morning, Blaming the “Losers.” At the end of the article, he even uses the term, “Lucky duckies.”

The article is about new research from HuffPost/YouGov. The results are stark and horrible. Conservatives believe that the rich are rich because they earned it and the poor are poor because they are lazy. The numbers are overwhelming. Among Republicans, 48% of Republicans think the poor are just lazy as opposed to just 23% who don’t think that. Democrats skew even further in the opposite direction: 14% to 61%.

This shows the same kind of callousness as the editorial in The Journal. And I think it is very much in line with Manjoo’s question: haven’t they ever met a person of little means? It strikes me as typical of racist beliefs: it is much easier for people to be racists when they have no actual contact with people of the race they hate. Watching Fox News, people get the impression that the poor are just losers who spend all their time gaming the system. But if they knew actual poor people, they would see them struggling to make ends meet. If there ever was a welfare gravy train, it is long gone.

I’ve been concerned about this issue for a long time. This is why gay rights have made so much progress: gay people are evenly distributed throughout society. But poor people are not. It doesn’t matter how badly Tagg Romney screws up in life, he will not be poor. If he is convicted of murdering his wife, when he gets out of prison, he won’t have to find a job working as a busboy at Denny’s. There will be people who will take care of him and find him a respectable job. So there will never be a groundswell of support for the poor, because they will always be The Other. And increasing income inequality only makes the situation worse

So it is no surprise that conservatives continue to think that not paying federal income taxes and not paying for healthcare make people lucky duckies. Because the rich do mind paying for those things. And they have no experience with the other aspects of the supposed lucky duckies’ lives.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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