Book Review: Free Lunch by David Cay Johnston

Author: David Cay Johnston
Title: Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (And Stick You with the Bill)
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2007), Edition: Abridged, Audio CD
ISBN:  0143142968


I listened to this audiobook that details the cushy relationship between corporations and politicians that has allowed the rich to become exorbitantly rich at the taxpayer’s expense.  The book is mostly anectdotes of corporate socialism in action:

  • A railroad crash that kills passengers is due to negligence of the company that owns the tracks, CSX, yet the corporation has been able to get legal protection from the government if the train damaged belongs to Amtrak and thus the government pays the legal fees.
  • The geniuses at Enron convince the governments of several states to lift regulations and allow the free market to bring about more energy at lower prices.  Yet neither happens as prices rise and rolling blackouts darken California.  Even after the accounting scandals bring Enron execs to court they never pay back the money stolen from the public purse and official documents are struck from the public record.
  • Cabela’s sporting goods store wrangles money from local governments to build superstores with “museums” and ask to pay no taxes and in return put local stores out of business and destroy the local tax base.
  • Sports’ franchises – with antitrust exemptions that prevent them from needing to compete in the free market – hold cities for ransom and pay for construction of stadiums with public money.  Most interesting is the story of the owner of the Texas Rangers who acquired the team, had a new stadium built on a tax increase, and sold the team for a tidy profit without ever investing a cent of his own money. That owner was the man who supported nothing but tax cuts and free markets as president, George W. Bush.

This quote from Kel Munger of the Sacramento News & Review sums it up best:

If taxpayers were only taxed for public services, we’d all be a lot better off. Instead, we’re taxed to support business propositions that could never make it in a truly free market economy. The people sucking wage-earners dry are not welfare mothers, illegal immigrants, the disabled, elderly, sick or needy. That giant sucking sound that comes from wage-earners’ wallets is made by rich folks with pumps at the end of their straws.

It’s a frustrating book, all the more so since in a sense it doesn’t reveal any big secrets.  Government handouts and legislation in favor of corporations at the expense of the citizens is a well-known fact of modern America that people either feel hopeless at changing or chose to be willfully ignorant (kind of like a Stockholm Syndrome to our corporate captors).  I’m not sure if Johnston’s chapter on solutions is much help.  Among other things he proposed the taxpayer fully subsidizing Congressional representatives to keep them from accepting money from corporate lobbyists. Still, knowledge is power.

Recommended books: Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights by Thom Hartmann, The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century by Paul R. Krugman and What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank
Rating: ***

Book Review: Central Park in the Dark by Marie Winn

Author: Marie Winn
Title: Central Park in the Dark
Publication Info: New York : Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008.
ISBN: 9780374120115 


This series of essays follows Winn and her cohorts over a decade spent observing the wildlife of an urban place, New York City’s Central Park.  Winn tells of encounters with red-tailed hawks, grackles, moths, slugs, robins, and owls and brings to life the excitement of waiting patiently to be there for the fly out of your favorite bird.  The title comes from the need to be in the park before dawn or after sunset to observe the natural goings-on, something that is perceived as a dangerous thing to do.  There are a lot of elements to this book that make is natural for me to like – New York, Central Park, quirky people with unusual hobbies, discovering the unexpected in a very accessible place – and yet I didn’t like the book as much as I want to.  Perhaps its the heavy detail offered by one who’s into intensive scrutiny whereas I just want a general overview or perhaps its the bad jokes that get less funny with repetition.  One things for sure, this book is best read like birding – slowly and with great patience over many days, not rushed through.

Recommended books: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, Outside Lies Magic by John Stilgoe, and Pigeons by Andrew Blechman
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: A People’s History of American Empire by Howard Zinn

Author: Howard Zinn, Paul Buhle, & Mike Konopacki
Title: A People’s History of American Empire
Publication Info:
ISBN: 0805077790


When I was a kid I inherited my uncle’s Mad magazine collection which had some comic books mixed in including a three-part series about the Civil War.  This was a hagiographic history where all the soldiers called one another “Billy Yank” and “Johnny Reb” done in the style of Classics Illustrated. 

A People’s History of American Empire is a very different comic book history.  Based on Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as well as Zinn’s own life this is a graphic depiction of the times in American history where the nation failed to live up to the standards of liberty and equality for all.  Mainly this involves the repression of people within the United States (Indians, blacks, immigrants, and labor), wars in foreign lands (Phillipines, Vietnam, and Iraq) and intervention into the  autonomy of other nations (Iran, El Salvador, and many more) for the benefit of powerful and wealth American elite. A comic version of Zinn narrates the book frequently turning over the story to characters contemporary to the events described. Interspersed in this narrative are stories of the social movements in America such as Civil Rights, labor, and anti-war.

I particular found it interesting in the parts that covered events I’d only heard of or knew nothing about, such as:

  • The Black 25th Infantry who fought valiantly at San Juan Hill but were denied credit.
  • The Jitterbug Riot
  • The counter-cultural protests of R&B fandom in the 1950’s.
  • The Diem Regime and South Vietnam “essentially a creation of the United States.”
  • The Second Battle of Wounded Knee
  • Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

This is a good introduction to the other side of American history in a brief and well-illustrated manner.

Recommended books: Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen
Rating: ****