David Cay Johnston’s new book explains how big companies rob us blind
In his late teens David Cay Johnston started to ask questions. “Why do we have these guys in uniforms with guns driving around in cars all day?” “Why is the Santa Cruz County Courthouse being built in such an unusual shape?”
He wrote an article, while still living in his hometown of Santa Cruz, proving that the off-kilter courthouse building, which officials had promised would save money, actually cost more than a conventional building.
Johnston is now 63 and the president of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). He is a former Reuters reporter, a 13-year veteran of the New York Times, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for exposing loopholes and inequities in the U.S. tax code. He wrote the best-selling tax books “Perfectly Legal,” which won an IRE medal, and “Free Lunch.” His latest book, “The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use ‘Plain English’ to Rob You Blind,” illuminates the legal loopholes in this country that make it possible for a handful of people to thrive while the rest struggle.
“How can 90 percent of people’s incomes be slipping while corporations are making money hand over fist?” he asks. His book offers the answer: there are a multitude of rules and regulations in place in this country that act to redistribute wealth upwards.
“The Fine Print” reveals the numerous avenues by which major corporations work with the government to relax the rules and rewrite regulations to their own benefit, at the cost of the consumer, and without the consumer’s knowledge.
Johnston will talk about “The Fine Print” at Capitola Book Café on Nov. 28 and plans to spread a message of hope despite the seemingly insurmountable issues his book reveals.
You will not find most of the information in Johnston’s book via a Google search.
“This is stuff you have not heard from the news media—none of the news media,” he says. “Not the mainstream, not the alternative media. This is four years of original reporting about the reason your job doesn’t pay more, you’re not doing well, and this handful of people is doing so well.”
A large part of “The Fine Print” dissects the shortcomings of this country’s public infrastructure, from Truman and Eisenhower-era public utilities, to our slow (26th in the world) Internet speed ranking.
For example, Johnston recalls the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion of 2010 that sent 1,000-foot flames into the air, destroyed homes, and killed eight people. Despite events like this pointing to obvious flaws in the public infrastructure, nobody thinks about pipelines, says Johnston.
“A pipeline laid when Truman was president or Eisenhower was president should be replaced, and we’re not doing that,” he says. “And the companies that own these pipelines are making huge money.”
In fact, visit the Forbes “400 Richest People In America” list online from any given year and the source of wealth for many listed is “pipelines.”
“Infrastructure is what makes things work,” Johnston says. “And we’re not figuring out how we maintain the public furniture so that our society endures.”
Another section of “The Fine Print” explains how corporations bill consumers extra fees, keep money that should not be theirs, and do so legally.
“Take a look at your pay stub,” the book suggests, pointing out that workers in all but six states will see a deduction for state income taxes. “You probably expect that money to finance public schools, the state university and college system, law enforcement and the other services that businesses and individuals rely on. Mostly it does, but in a growing number of states, your state income taxes will also be increasing the profits of your employer.”
So, how do you fight back against the wealth discrepancies Johnston’s book lays out? It isn’t easy, but it can be done, he says.
“These companies aren’t stupid, they’re very smart,” he says. “[They] have lots of lawyers and lobbyists and they are building [language] into the law protecting their profit positions and escaping the rigors of the competitive market.”
Johnston emphasizes this point because there are many who would call him a socialist or communist for criticizing corporations. The exact opposite, he argues, is true.
“I believe in competitive markets,” he says. “If there’s any socialism going on here, it’s the companies who are the socialists.”
Johnston says one way to level the competitive playing field is for individuals to join groups and take action.
We abolished slavery, women regained the right to vote, child labor laws were put in place, and environmental laws protect the natural world today because people took action, Johnston recalls.
“We can solve any problem we have, but we have to first of all know what the problem is,” he says. “That’s what my book’s about.”
David Cay Johnston will speak about “The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use ‘Plain English’ to Rob You Blind,” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 28 at Capitola Book Café. No cover. For more information, call 426-4415. Photo: Cheryl Amati Martin