Read the Fine Print
How Big Companies Use Plain English to Rob You Blind
Interviewee David Cay Johnston is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times financial reporter. He shows how the government favors corporations and the super-rich. His latest expose is "The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use Plain English to Rob You Blind". This 2012 interview is from Truthout, Oct 5.
by Mark KarlinMark Karlin: A few years back, BuzzFlash had you out to speak in Chicago about your book "Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich--and Cheat Everybody Else." Then you followed up with "Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill)." Now, this September, you released "The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use Plain English to Rob You Blind." How do the three books complement each other in showing an economic system rigged in favor of corporations and the wealthiest in US society?
Cay Johnston: "Perfectly Legal" showed how the super-rich -– from the $250 million Romney class of wealth to people who literally make 20 times that much in a year – game the tax system, in some cases legally paying nothing in federal income taxes.
"Free Lunch" revealed subsidies that go to all sorts of corporations, some of which derive all of their profits from taxpayers. The government, by the way, does not collect data on either rich nontaxpayers or most of the giveaways to corporations.
The Fine Print is about how big companies rig the rules of commerce to escape the rigors of competitive markets, artificially inflate prices, provide poor quality services compared to other modern countries, and literally put lives at risk for profit by seeking weak regulations or exemptions from safety rules.
Mark Karlin: In your author's note to "Fine Print," you ask "How have all of us consumers ended up paying to many extra charges on electric, phone and other bills?" That's something everybody asks when they get their monthly statements. What's the answer?
Cay Johnston: Monopoly utilities figured out that if they added many moving parts to your electric, phone and other bills they could raise this line item and then that one and later another and it made it easier to jack up prices. One electric utility has a bill with 26 separate charges. If there were just two -– a flat fee for connecting to the grid and a variable fee for how much juice you used -– it would be easy to spot price increases. Instead they get lost in the clutter.
Mark Karlin: Most of us feel helpless as consumers. Resolving any financial plundering of our pockets seems like something that will take hours of phone calls, letters, perhaps litigation. In the end, most of us just figure it's easier to pay the piper. We submit. In your last chapter, you offer some action steps to fight back. Can we reverse being robbed blind by corporations, who operate with the protection of the courts and various levels of government?
David Cay Johnston: We can solve any problem. We ended slavery, restored the voting rights of women (which existed in Colonial New Jersey), passed child labor laws and just four decades ago environmental protections. We can return corporations to their proper place, as our servants rather than economic masters.
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JJS: While we think of government and business as separate, they are only on the surface. In deep structure, they work together as one and always have. Politicians grant privileges such as subsidies and tax breaks while businesses grant stock and cushy jobs. They also attend the same schools and intermarry.
But none of this would be possible if people knoew they had a common wealth and demanded that it be shared fairly rather than be channeled into the pockets of a few insiders. Doing that would sure make life different for us all. And government would have to find something else to do than hand out favors.
Complexity -- so many rules -- is the enemy of equity -- of everyone getting a fair share. You can't solve the problem of favoritism and wealth gap with more rules. You have to wipe the slate clean and gather up and share the common wealth, which means having enough self-esteem to demand what the rich now get -- money for nothing. The surplus exists, not due to the actions of any one individual but due to the presence of all society. Feel worthy of a fair share of it.
Editor Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics and helped prepare a course for the UN on geonomics. To take the “Land Rights” course, click here .
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