December 20, 2007
Not Such a Hot Meal: FREE LUNCH: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill) by David Cay Johnston (Portfolio, Dec 27, 2007)
FREE LUNCH: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill by David Cay Johnston (Portfolio, December 27th, 2007)
Review by Nancy Yanes Hoffman, www.writingdoctor.typepad.com, email@example.com.
“The rich,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Roaring Twenties’ chronicler of corruption, “are very different from us.” Now, 80 years later, David Cay Johnston’s brilliant new book, FREE LUNCH: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill) (Portfolio, December 27th, 2007), demonstrates how much the richest of the rich are different from you and me.
Yes, “They have more money,” as Hemingway, unimpressed, replied to Fitzgerald. But Johnston, Pulitzer Prize-winning tax expert of the NEW YORK TIMES and Rochester resident, makes clear how much money the super-rich steal from the rest of us--and what they cost us. Addicted to money, the rich buy themselves ever-bigger chunks of political power--and we must pay the bill.
Who are these super-rich? How do they fill their already bulging pockets? In 2005, 300,000 individuals, constituting the top tenth of the top one percent of Americans, had incomes greater than the poorest 150 million Americans struggling to make ends meet at the bottom of the economic pyramid. The much-squeezed middle class--you and me?-- squirm between them. Our pockets are increasingly empty, picked by political and corporate grabbers to make the very rich even richer. The poor, middle classes, and even the moderately rich (the group that my mother called “comfortable”) have neither hors d’oeuvres nor a place at the super-rich’s free lunch buffet. Never sated, the super-rich think their billions aren’t enough.
Feeding the ever-hungry super-rich at the campaign finance table takes a high-powered team. More than 35,000 lobbyists crowd Washington’s K Street. They act as free lunch’s waiters, sommeliers, and maitre-d’s. This horde of lobbyists doesn’t act alone. They require chefs--politicians all-too eager to serve access and influence to the highest bidder. Without their connivance—and contrivance, there would be no free lunch.
Johnston reminds us how Ronald Reagan asked prospective voters “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Their resounding “no” elected Reagan. Three decades later, the bottom 90 percent of Americans, Johnston’s “vast majority,” living models for Edward Hopper’s paintings, must answer with another “NO.” “Getting by on about $75.00 less each week than it did a generation earlier,” their annual income continues to skid downhill.
With the economy flourishing--at least ostensibly, what happened to everybody at the bottom of the pile? “Where,” asks Johnston, “did all the money go?” It went to the top, where super-rich money usually goes. Ready to be skimmed, it soared into corporate profits, options, CEO’s salaries. It went to the top tenth of the top tenth of Americans (got that?). Their portion of the economic pie was the greatest since 1929, just before the Twenties stopped roaring and fell flat.
In its rampantly unequal distribution of unbridled wealth, Johnston finds the United States unlike its democratic colleagues, Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Our wild concentration of money at the top follows in the footsteps of three major nations: Russia (yep, Russia), Mexico, and Brazil. Like us, these countries have an explosively burgeoning class of billionaires at the top mirrored by an even more explosively growing poor class and an increasingly stressed—and downwardly spiraling middle class. Even though “these four countries are societies in which adults have the right to vote,” says Johnston, “…real political power is wielded by a relatively narrow, and rich segment of the population.”
Johnston, a Socratic gadfly, makes the case for restoring old-fashioned rules, which “define a civilization.” For “Without rules, there is no civilization…Wherever the world has civilizing rules based on some moral or practical principle, we see prosperity and freedom.” But the rule book has changed. At least, in this country: “In America, the long expansion of who plays a role in deciding the rules has ended. The base of influence has begun to contract. In part, because of the campaign finance system, which transfers power to those who donate and who steer donations.”
Selling power to the highest bidder invites abuse: “To those who lust for power, of what use is acquiring power unless they can abuse it? …The philosophy of the power monger is no different from that of the cancer cell, which mindlessly seeks growth for the sake of growth until it overwhelms its host.”
Johnston is a great phrasemaker. His supporting cast covers the waterfront from Aristotle, Plato, and Virgil, to Jeremiah, Adam Smith, John Locke, and the Founding Fathers. Every page brims with quotable lines: “Karl Marx never envisioned commercial sports as the opiates of the masses.” “Cheating, like pregnancy, is not a halfway condition.” In “Selling the Furniture of Modern Society,” Johnston seeks solutions to where the money goes, “Instead of a Whodunit, this one is a Whogotit.”
FREE LUNCH is replete with nauseating examples of political sales crying out for moral Prilosec—or better yet, Ipecac. Johnston indicts governmental actions that deliberately enrich irresponsible corporations and individuals. He arraigns the rich for steering American jobs to less expensive workers in other lands. The list of corporate, individual, industrial predators is endless: HMOs, big Pharma, “Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, MBNA, Citibank…exploit the poor, the unsophisticated, the foolish”; Donald Trump, Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, John Snow, Kennie-boy Lay, George Steinbrenner (before the Mitchell Report on steroids), Mike Keiser, builder of the most expensive golf courses in America, Tom DeLay, Dennis Hastert, Thomas Scully (head of Medicare), Bush, Cheney, and their minions, the golden parachutes of Jack Welch and Bob Nardelli, and a host of followers.
After all that, what can we do? How can we get the country back on track? Tellingly, FREE LUNCH contains 26 chapters accusing the super-rich buyers and political sellers of stealing the power rightly belonging to the rest of us. Yet only one chapter details what we might do to stop free lunches for the super-rich and anyone else pigging out at the trough.
Still, Johnston has faith in arousing Americans to participatory democracy. In both PERFECTLY LEGAL: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super-Rich—and Cheat Everyone Else and FREE LUNCH itself, he argues that we have a moral obligation to be active members of society. He urges us to remember that “when they invented taxation based on ability to pay, they invented democracy…We are not the United States of Me or the United States of You. We are the United States of America. We are a society.”
Apparently worried that Johnston's current litany of super-rich political cheating may be a Christmas “downer,” the publisher delayed its release till December 27th. Yet the timing of this must-read book is perfect. For Johnston’s call to arms is a great way to begin 2008, to “get us thinking as a nation about how every single free lunch cheats us all (because) in the end, we must be the ones who make our government work, fulfilling the preamble to our Constitution. No one else,” concludes Johnston, “is going to do it for us. Reform begins with you.”
It’s a tall order, but with FREE LUNCH’s exhortations at hand, we may awaken to ways of proving Johnston right. 2008 may be a better year--because we will finally try to make it so.