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: ***

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