Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You With the Bill)

By David Cay Johnston. <i>Portfolio. $24.95.</i>

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


For its first 280 pages, the new exposé from this Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter is an engaging look at how the superrich consistently—and outrageously—rely on public handouts while preaching about free markets and wasteful entitlement programs all the way to the bank. The villains in David Cay Johnston’s tales run the gamut from railroad executives to sports-franchise owners to hedge-fund managers, all joined by a willingness to take enormous sums from public coffers while providing little or nothing in return.

Take former Treasury Secretary John Snow, whose csx railroad saved billions by skimping on maintenance; when there was a fatal crash, taxpayers footed the bill. Before entering politics, George W. Bush ran a money-losing baseball team, but ended up millions of dollars richer by getting a government-funded sweetheart deal on a new stadium. Retail chains like Wal-Mart win property-tax breaks and then squeeze out local businesses that pay their fair share. The free ride has become business as usual, but Johnston sees it for what it really is: cheating.

Free Lunch fizzles in its final chapter, where Johnston lays out some unconvincing solutions. He proposes “politician finance reform”—giving members of Congress all the money they want for dining, travel, and entertainment so they can’t be tempted by their wealthy friends. Yet the end of Abramoff-style golf junkets and free box seats would do little to curb the influence of major campaign donors. Johnston’s final appeal to handout-hungry ceos to “ask themselves how much they are willing to sully their reputations” feels naive, too. It will take more than a call for self-restraint to derail this gravy train.

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate