Saturday, September 19, 2009

Free Lunch; How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (And Stick You With the Bill), by David Cay Johnston

Let me tell you right off, this book made me mad. I'm sure that's what Johnston wanted to have happen considering the subject of the book.

Johnston, a journalist by trade, digs into the shady world of government subsidies and subsequent corporate fleecing of American taxpayers. I knew government subsidies were supposed to encourage/assist certain necessary industries, but I didn't realize how thoroughly some companies exploit them to lower ordinary operating costs and enrich themselves.

This book came out in 2007, and thus doesn't look at the current administration, but I wish I had read it when it first came out. I might have had a few more questions for the last rash of candidates. It seems the more I learn about how politicians work, for special interests, the more hopeless it seems that anything but an all out revolt could stop the corruption that's running rampant.

Oh it's all supposedly legal. Unfortunately there are a lot of things that are legal that aren't right.

A couple of things I learned:

Health insurance companies got very wealthy when they made the move from non-profit to profit seeking, publicly traded stock issuing, businesses. I don't think all the hooha about tort reform is the main reason for rising health care costs anymore.

That Medicare drug prescription program that Bush got through Congress without any way to pay for it? Yeah, the government is BARRED from negotiating price discounts for the drugs based on volume. That's right. The government pays TOP DOLLAR for those drugs. Doesn't make sense does it?

The "jobs" that are created when a big box store moves into a little town, are on the lower end of the pay scale. Some of the stores get the land for a cheap price, or concessions from the local governments that lets them off the hook for sales taxes, or property taxes, besides the crushing noncompetition that forces mom and pop stores out of business. This is capitalism?

Politicians often get hired by the very lobbyist companies that lined their pockets while they were in office. And here I thought they just went back to the careers they had before the got in office. Just put a big NAIVE sign over my head. Those professional lobbyists are into everything - the IRS rules, the budget committee, government contracts - What citizen without millions of dollars has a chance at bending a Senator's ear? Um no. NAda.

This is the kind of stuff the press should be digging into ALL THE TIME. The press are supposed to be the watchdogs that let the people know what our leaders are doing, because it's certain the politicians aren't going to tell us. What do we get instead? Celebrity tantrums, glowing support of politicians while paying lip service to "holding Congress accountable" with their little stories about government pork barrel projects. It's systemic. It's both major parties having a party at our expense.

Johnston holds out hope that ordinary citizens can make a difference but I am increasingly cynical about that. I like his thinking on one solution: Pay for all the stupid little perks politicians think they need as long as they report everything, and then jail them if they take any gifts from ANYBODY. I like the jail idea. I don't necessarily like the giving them a blank check to go anywhere they wanted for a vacation because I'm sure they'd find a way to hide their expenses that would seem excessive. It wouldn't be enough to jail them. I'd want them to pay back four fold whatever they bought that didn't have to be purchased. The problem is that the only people that police Congress, is Congress. How do we do that?

I think everybody needs to read this. Yes, take it with a grain of salt, but if you know it's possible for government/business to do this, maybe you can ask better questions the next time the mayor/governor/president says that government needs to help this business or that business create jobs.

Check out his website here.

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