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Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and StickYou with the Bill)

really liked it 4.0  ·  Rating Details ·  883 Ratings  ·  166 Reviews
The bestselling author of Perfectly Legal returns with a powerful new exposé.

How does a strong and growing economy lend itself to job uncertainty, debt, bankruptcy, and economic fear for a vast number of Americans? Free Lunch provides answers to this great economic mystery of our time, revealing how today’s government policies and spending reach deep into the wallets of th
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published December 27th 2007 by Portfolio Hardcover (first published 2007)
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Will Byrnes
Pulitzer Prize winner David Cay Johnston goes into real detail about how the wealthy are ripping us all off. He examines a host of issues and connects dots.

David Cay Johnson - image from Wisconsin Public Radio

Johnston does his best to raise your blood to a boiling point, going into real detail about how the wealthy are ripping us all off. He examines a host of issues and connects dots,
offering many examples of how public money is filling the pockets of private enterprises with minimal benefit
Jul 06, 2008 Xysea rated it really liked it
Shelves: political
I knew it would make me mad to read this book.

And I was right. But, I suppose that's a good thing.

Reading this book is designed to make you mad, to want to do something about the 'pigs at the trough' as Ariana Huffington calls them; no, not the welfare mothers with their $241/mo checks. Heck, that's small potatoes.

I'm talking about major corporate welfare here; the subsidization of millionaires and billionaires. Sounds absurd, doesn't it? Especially when you see it in black and white. I mean, wh
This is a great book, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you want a healthy dose of cynicism added to your literary diet. Every single one of the examples Johnston discusses makes you realize that the "haves" in our society often do not get ahead by being better capitalists, but rather by being masters of manipulating our (taxpayer) money. I think the most positive message this book has to offer is that opponents of free trade and capitalism as a system are often completely groundless in their a ...more
Jun 05, 2012 Adam rated it liked it
NYT investigative journalist David Cay Johnston explores how complex government rules and subsidies for business skew market forces despite free market rhetoric of many CEOs and politicians. The subtitle is "How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense and Stick You With the Bill," indicating its obvious bias. Interestingly, he uses free market arguments to reach "liberal economic policy" ends (e.g. less globalization, more regulations).

While I don't endorse all Johnston'
Max Kaehn
Mar 16, 2008 Max Kaehn rated it it was amazing
Johnston packs a lot of eye-opening data into this book, taking on major league sports, eminent domain abuse, health care, the laws touted to taxpayers as “deregulation”, and more. He calls upon both Adam Smith and the Bible to damn both Democrats and Republicans that have forsaken their duty to the people. There are many surprises— for instance, I had no idea that baseball was exempt from antitrust law and that big-league sports were not, overall, profitable without subsidies and tax breaks.

I h
Mary Fahnlander
Aug 24, 2008 Mary Fahnlander rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone concerned about our national debt
Recommended to Mary by: MPR Chitaqua speech by author
I learned how riled up a book can make me. When I saw how special interests and deregulation have increasingly pulled money away from the taxpayers with the theme of "letting the markets work" I was appalled. The book reminded me of "Freakonomics" as it paired unlikely cause/effect relationships, e.g. the home security industry as a major cause of increasing gang activity. The health care section was very informative as well. Johnston includes many easy first steps we could take to start us towa ...more
Mar 26, 2008 Damian rated it liked it
Pretty depressing. I mean I knew that there were a small handful of people getting rich at the public trough but it's disheartening to see facts and figures laid out for all to see. Makes you wonder how they get away with it until realize that folks with that much money and power don't answer to the same laws as you and I do. A few grains of salt are suggested as it's clear that the author has a bit of an axe to grind but if even half of what he alleges is true, I'd turn the grindstone for him.
Mar 27, 2008 Annie rated it really liked it
If you’re concerned about congressional earmarks, stock options (especially backdated options), hedge fund tax breaks, abuse of eminent domain, subsidies to sports teams, K Street lobbyists, the state of our health-care system, to say nothing of the cavernous gap between rich and poor, you’ll read this with a growing sense of anger. Free Lunch makes it clear that it’s high time for the ordinary citizens to stand up and be counted.
Jan 03, 2009 Natalie rated it really liked it
Wow! I know the few extremely wealthy American's take advantage of the system, but I did not know how much. This book reveals a lot even for a cynic like me. Check out the information on Obama's friend Warren Buffett.

Anyway, it still appalls me how people turn their noses down on a mom getting food stamps while they seem to have no interest or dismay in the wealthfare in this country.

The wealthy use all the infrastructure in this country, take advantage of every loophole and then get downright
Mar 19, 2008 marcali rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone
Devastating-- even more so than Shock Doctrine.
The number are clear. Change in average incomes over last 30 years:
Vast majority (270 million): 3% less (from $29,968 in 1975 to $29,143 in 2005)
The Rich (3 million): 209% increase ($359,501 to $752,058)
Superrich (30,000): 650% ($3,430,164 to $22,296,801)

In the end, the controlling party in government is Greenbacks. We are now in the midst of a new Robber Baron age -- approaching the same wage inequities seen before the Great Depression. Our econom
David Brooke
Apr 04, 2008 David Brooke rated it it was amazing
This book was hugely informative about government hand outs to big corporations. After hearing the author speak about a few chapters on NPR i was sold, and I have to say I enjoyed reading it more than I thought i would. That said my enjoyment came more out of a, dear lord I'm glad I know now those fucking wanker politicians should die, but it was still interesting. If gov stuff bores you it may still tickle your fancy since you learn about the history of things like health care in America and ho ...more
Doug Dams
May 19, 2015 Doug Dams rated it it was amazing
Everyone should read this book. It explains how government is enriching the few at the expense of the many. It looks at the period from the 1980s to 2007 and shows how government subsidies, tax breaks and loopholes, deregulation have made a few rich and the rest of us poorer. The government gives more money to the richest 1% than all those on welfare. The rich also use their campaign money influence to get government to buy the land they want and then give it to them. These giveaways rob us of t ...more
Dec 28, 2012 Andrew rated it it was amazing
If you are looking for a read that will make you sick to your stomach - this is the one for you. This is one of those books that after you finish reading it (and even while you're reading it) you have the urge to make all of your friends read it as well. As a follow up on his excellent Perfectly Legal, Johnston goes after all sorts of corporate and fat cat giveaways that the rich and powerful take advantage of at the expense of the little guy. Many of these are well known - such as cities subsid ...more
May 27, 2011 Mike rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Anyone
I’m giving this book a “4” based on it’s depth of information and the clearly excellent research that the author performed.

Like many similar books, it dragged once I had gotten about a quarter of the way through it. Not because it was poorly written or because the contents were dull; these books have a style that comes close to being a diatribe after a while. How best to put it? If everything is being shouted at you eventually you lose the ability to respond to a loud voice with alacrity. On to
Sep 28, 2013 Nihi rated it liked it
This book was written just before the credit crunch, in 2007, and impressively predicts many of the themes of the next few years, including the global financial collapse at the hands of hedge funds, the subprime mortgage debacle, and Obamacare.

In a way this almost diminishes its usefulness, as its most dire portents have already come to pass (with the exception of Obamacare, which isn't particularly dire). However, it does lend credence to the author's other points, which concern issues includin
Jul 02, 2009 Michael rated it it was amazing
I need some heavy doses of liver-destroying acetaminophen after reading this. This is a sampling of how the rabble that makes up the lower 90% of our population gets screwed over by big corporations and ultra-rich peeps who have, mainly during the last three decades, figured out the mechanisms to put tax dollars to work for their bank accounts. I was familiar with such aspects as subsidies to big box stores and professional sports franchises and the legalized gambling know as hedge funds. But by ...more
Jan 01, 2011 Pamela rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I think everyone who wonders about the tax, subsidy and political systems at play in industries such as the utilities, ground transportation, retail, sports teams, hedge funds, health care, the airlines, etc., should read this book. David Cay Johnston does an extraordnary job of researching and chronicling (not without bias which he unambiguous about) a number of current cases that interrogate the distinct free pass/free lunch we extend to corporate capitalism. This, of course, at the cost to "s ...more
Jun 17, 2008 Christopher rated it really liked it
Major thesis: most Americans are not better off how than they were 28 years ago when Ronald Reagan asked, "are you better off now than you were four years ago?" If we were willing to throw Carter out on that basis, the book argues, then we should throw out Reaganomics on the same grounds because it has not worked for the vast majority of us. In this way, Johnson hoists Reaganomics on its petard. He goes on to hoist free market fundamentalism and its alliance with Christian fundamentalism on thei ...more
Susanne Clower
May 05, 2009 Susanne Clower rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: everyone who suspects that something has gone haywire since Reagan was elected
I'm on page 50 reading about outsourcing. This book is scaring the pants off of me.
Finished it today. This is hard to get into, but gets much more compelling after the first 50 pages. The writing style is annoying, and I hate how he ends each chapter with a teaser for the next, but the information is terrific and coherent. This book will piss you off, and we should be pissed off. I don't say this often but I think this is a book that everyone who has been wondering why it's so hard to keep aflo
Jan 11, 2012 Linda rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: (did) Nancy, Aunt Pat, Father Bob
Recommended to Linda by: July, 2008 Library Book Discussion
Oh, my, gosh! This book will cause your blood pressure to soar into the unhealthy range. Johnston's well-researched book works both sides of the political aisle - Republicans and Democrats don't remain unscathed. You will wonder how we can break the chain of incentives and how we ever got into this mess to begin with. Since I was leading a bookclub discussion on this book, I tried to find comments against this book. I didn't find any. From the first story about an Amtrak train which derailed on ...more
May 20, 2008 Dexter rated it liked it
"Madd Michael Moore-ish. It makes you hate the government for giving so many tax breaks to the rich.. it makes you hate the rich for getting so many tax breaks from the gom'ent."

That's a person with a loser mentality would say. Winners like me say, it's time for me to get on the path to being rich so I can get these tax breaks.

It's wordy and and full of anecdotes, but you get the point that rich folk get free lunch on my tax dollar. I can't beat them so I might as well make some moves to join t
Dec 21, 2009 Michaela rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Much better documented from a factual standpoint than many books in this genre. May leave reader so angry that they want to hit something. Utterly disgusting behavior by those highlighted as examples. Interesting that modeling not previously done under economic umbrella shows deregulated utilities are a failure for the public. (Interesting from the standpoint that an economist didn't previously computer model the behavior; merely sad from a consumer standpoint.) Adam Smith would be ashamed and d ...more
Kristi Richardson
This is the perfect book for anyone tired of seeing the corporations taking over our country. David Cay Johnston is a New York Times prize winning journalist who details how big business and the top 10% get extra special deals from the government for nothing.

We all hear about cities being enticed to get certain businesses to come to their community but have to forgo taxing them or giving them special corporate rates that small business owners don't get to share in. If Cabela's is opening a mega
Jul 06, 2009 Jennelle rated it liked it
Shelves: policy, politics
Interesting book, but not all the facts and conclusions are fully thought out. A perfect example is a chapter discussing subsidies for Cabela's. Johnston uses simplified math to show that most Cabela's stores are only profitable due to the large subsidies they lobby for and receive. However, he is comparing the lifetime value of these subsidies with only the first year's sales.

Good food for thought, but definitely has a strong liberal bias. Just don't take everything he writes at face value!
Aug 25, 2015 Iain rated it really liked it
In 1980 Ronald Reagan famously asked, "Are you better off than you were four years ago? The answer then was perceived collectively as NO, which got Reagan elected. Thus began the 1980s and the biggest push in deregulation of the financial industry since the Great Depression. Now ask yourself that question again, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" The unfortunate answer is NO. Since 1980 all of the average income measures have gone down and the amount of debt per household as gone ...more
Jan 31, 2011 Sue rated it really liked it
I don't care what your ideology is -- this book should make you very angry about how politicians at all levels make sure corporations and fat cat CEOs are taken care of at the expense of the ordinary citizens. Don't think that money should be spent on social programs, okay, fine. But I can't imagine that anyone wants to see companies like Walmart and the insurance industry be given anything they want, while at the same time not paying their fair share in taxes and killing small business.
May 26, 2008 Katrin rated it really liked it
My goodness I wish everyone would read this book. It's extremely readable, at the same time as it's unbearably frustrating. I tend to be foolishly optimistic about the potential our governemnt has for doing good work, but as I read this I'm filled with anger and dispair. We have to make it stop, people! Save the libraries and parks!
Jul 02, 2014 Daniel rated it really liked it
Good populist economics book by an economic scholar. Quotes various Adam Smith pieces about 500 times to establish his framework for the book. Selects about 10 case studies detailing laws and individual examples of subsidies/corporate protectionisms/deferred taxes/giveaways for the rich at the expense of 90% of Americans, what he calls free lunch. Best case examples are the railroads, corporate subsidies, energy prices, alarm systems, hedgefund setups, privatization leading to U.S. losing weapon ...more
Jan 17, 2009 Russ rated it it was amazing
Don't like paying taxes? Read this well-written, non-partisan book explaining just who DOES LIKE YOU paying taxes. Highly recommended read for everyone.
Feb 24, 2009 Jeffery rated it it was amazing
I'm actually only halfway through reading this book, but the remaining pages could be filled with bible verses and I would still give it 5 stars.
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