Lucky ducky: An American who pays no federal income tax because his or her income level falls below the tax line after deductions and credits.
Lucky ducky was first used in this sense in “The Non-Taxpaying Class,” a Wall Street Journal opinion piece published November 20, 2002:
The actual number of people filing without paying comes to 16 million (after subtracting those getting earned income tax credits and thus, presumably, still somewhat sensitive to tax rates). So almost 13% of all workers have no tax liability and so are indifferent to income tax rates. And that doesn't include another 16.5 million who have some income but don't file at all.
Who are these lucky duckies? They are the beneficiaries of tax policies that have expanded the personal exemption and standard deduction and targeted certain voter groups by introducing a welter of tax credits for things like child care and education. When these escape hatches are figured against income, the result is either a zero liability or a liability that represents a tiny percentage of income.
The following month, Jonathan Chait parried in The New Republic that the WSJ editorial was based on “a giant factual inaccuracy—it completely ignores sales and excise taxes, which consume a huge share of the working poor's income.” He went on:
When I try to visualize the editorial meeting that produced this bit of diabolical inspiration, I imagine one of the more rational staffers—maybe Dorothy Rabinowitz—tentatively raising her hand and asking, “Isn't that idea a bit, you know, immoral?” Then Robert Bartley or Paul Gigot would emit a deep, sinister laugh and press a hidden button, depositing the unfortunate staffer into a tank of piranhas.
Cartoonist and political commentator Ruben Bolling seized on the Wall Street Journal’s language to introduce a new character, “Lucky Ducky,” to his long-running comic strip, “Tom the Dancing Bug.” In a 2003 strip that reran earlier this month, Lucky Ducky’s plutocratic nemesis, Hollingsworth Hound, fumes that because Lucky Ducky is in jail, he’s “eating a square meal on my dime.”
In the decade since its coinage, lucky ducky “has outlived its original use to become a part of the informal terminology used in the tax reform debate in the United States,” according to a Wikipedia entry. It was resurrected after last week’s release of secretly filmed video of a Mitt Romney fundraiser in which the Republican candidate dismissed “47 percent” of Americans as “people who pay no income tax” who are “dependent on government” and will vote for Obama “no matter what.”
Economist Paul Krugman has devoted several posts in his New York Times blog, The Conscience of a Liberal, to the fundraiser video. A September 18 post invoked “lucky duckies,” although Romney himself never used the term:
The “lucky ducky” trope is clearly, obviously nonsense; equally obviously, it was originally created in an effort to dupe people who didn’t know better. It was and is what Orwell called “prolefeed”, junk aimed at the ignorant masses (ignorant by design), the people who are ready to believe at a moment’s notice that we’ve always been at war with Eastasia.
Why “lucky ducky”? The rhyme certainly helps, as does the fact that “duck” has been a term of endearment since at least 1600, when Shakespeare used it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“O dainty duck, o deare!”); in addition, “ducks” is a term of familiar address in British (and especially Cockney) slang. In American political slang, “lame duck” has referred to an elected official or legislative body whose term of office is nearing an end; it first appeared in print in 1910, according to Grant Barrett’s Hatchet Jobs and Hardball: The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang.
For more animal metaphors used in American political discourse—including dog whistle, pork barrel, and vet—see my September 2008 column for the Visual Thesaurus, “Political Animals.”