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

4.04  ·  Rating details ·  1,103 ratings  ·  176 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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 ·  1,103 ratings  ·  176 reviews

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Start your review of Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and StickYou with the Bill)
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
Jun 21, 2008 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
Jun 27, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: politics, economics
Reading this book made it very clear to me that this is not the America I grew up in. It's also not the America our Founders were supposed to have created. What I was taught and what is true are two entirely different things, and what I was taught is not the way the world works.

Everything is turned on its ear. Every right we seem to have according to our Constitution is denied until it's ruled to be our right by the Supreme Court. Laws, rules, policies and procedures that violate our rights are
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
Max Kaehn
Mar 16, 2008 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
Jul 30, 2008 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
Jan 04, 2008 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'
Sarah Ewald
Jan 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book is guaranteed to make you angry, and this was published in 2007, well before the age of Trump (which is another angry denominator..)
From tax 'gifts' given to companies such as the Walmarts and the Cabelas in exchange for building in communities, to the gift of eminent domain used to further connected companies (for example sports teams), Mr. Johnston lays it all out. Some of it is reading that is complex, but each chapter begins with a story. Industries studied are healthcare, homeown
Phoenix Ward
Feb 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Free Lunch, written by David Cay Johnson, is a New York Times best seller. This book talks about how the wealthiest of Americans enrich themselves with much money and benefits and leave us paying for their expenses.

The book goes and comments on the many occurrences of safety issues, ranging from the accidental derailment of an Amtrak train, owned by the CSX, to the transformation of a park into a stadium, wrought with gangs, unseen to the public eye. David brings up points that many people of t
Feb 04, 2008 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.
Feb 11, 2008 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.
Jul 06, 2008 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
Shalon Montgomery
Free Lunch is a book that would be excellent in a class on how to manipulate the government, but as a book to be read at leisure it is between good and OK. For me and maybe other at leisure readers it could have been shorter. I did not read the last seventy pages. Its like the writer had all these examples and wanted to make sure he got every one in. After you get the jist of the book the rest becomes pretty predictable. The bad or greedy guy always win. I rented this book from the library and r ...more
Mar 19, 2008 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
Mar 29, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone who shops in a big box--or lives near one
Shelves: politics
What do George W Bush and Walmart have in common?

Quite a few things: I've never had any direct contact with either one [I said, sanctimoniously]; they're a scourge on our country [you already knew that]; Johnson's answer: they've received millions and millions in government subsidies as they do business. Johnston investigates the health care industry, a destination golf course here in Oregon, sporting goods stores, Enron, the home alarm industry--the list goes on--and exposes how often politici
David Brooke
Apr 04, 2008 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
Dec 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
This was a scathing indictment of the recent (past 30 years or so) change in the policies of the government that have lined the pockets of the rich and enabled them to become ultrarich. The author looks at the subsidies and corporate welfare that has systematically gutted the middle class. He calls the bottom 90% of the Americans, economically, the 'vast majority' - these folks have mostly been on a slide since the early 70s when the average income peaked at $33K a 2005 it was just ove ...more
Apr 02, 2011 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
Jan 18, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A disturbing but enlightening eye-opener!

Johnston shows how the top 1 percent are utilizing the government to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else. Johnston shows how these wealthy individuals are receiving government subsidies (Free lunches) with America’s tax dollars resulting from the buying out of politicians’ who in turn gladly hand over our tax dollars to these wealthy donors (Socialism for the rich; Capitalism for the poor). The book will definitely raise your blood level an
Sep 12, 2013 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 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
Aug 20, 2010 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
I was hoping for more tax focus because I've read Johnston in that context and learned. I did learn some specific ways that specific businesses benefitted from government laws or regulations (Cabela's aggressively pursues subsidies to build a store near you), none of which would be all to surprising to the informed citizen. It is nice to have so many examples researched for you and put in one place and read to you by the author with a certain fun, cynical conviction that's entrancing.

However, I
Doug Dams
May 07, 2015 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 25, 2012 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
Jun 17, 2008 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
Mar 25, 2008 rated it liked it
I didn't manage to get all the way through this book before I had to return it to the library (I couldn't renew it -- it's a hot title here in the Hudson Valley). It's an interesting read which gives plenty of ammunition to anyone who suspects we're being screwed by big corporations (we are) or who thinks laws are rigged for the benefit of the extremely wealthy (they are).

It's fairly turgid prose, so you have to want to press on, and I found I couldn't read more than a couple of chapters in a si
Bob Duke
Jan 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A convincing brief for the prosecution of the policies that have been followed in the USA by the Republicans. It would make difficult reading for a right wing Republican as David Cay sprinkles it with liberal quotes from Adam Smith and the Bible about folly of the policies that the Republicans have adopted. The charge made out is that the rich with their Republican factotums in both the Congress and the Executive have advanced the cause of the wealthy enriching themselves in ways that have been ...more
Susanne Clower
Jan 25, 2009 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
May 20, 2008 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
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David Cay Boyle Johnston (born December 24, 1948) is an American investigative journalist and author, a specialist in economics and tax issues, and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting.

From 2009 to 2016 he was a Distinguished Visiting Lecturer who taught the tax, property, and regulatory law of the ancient world at Syracuse University College of Law and the Whitman School of Manage

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From independent presses, to tales in translation, to critical darlings and new debut novels, these books (all published in the U.S. this year)...
46 likes · 4 comments
“Although baseball, basketball, football, and hockey teams are all privately held, they disclose limited information about their finances. From that data, one crucial fact can be distilled: while some teams are profitable, overall the sports-team industry does not earn any profit from the market. Industry profits all come from the taxpayers. In a market economy, the team owners would have to adjust or cover the losses out of their own deep pockets. Instead they rely on the kindness of taxpayers to enrich themselves at the expense of the vast majority who never attend these sporting events.” 0 likes
“The huge gifts of money that wealthy owners of sports teams wheedle out of taxpayers are a free lunch that someone must fund. Often that burden falls on poor children and the ambitious among the poor. Sports-team subsidies undermine a century of effort to build up the nation’s intellectual capacity and, thus, its wealth. Andrew Carnegie poured money from his nineteenth-century steel fortune into local libraries across America because he was certain it would build a better and more prosperous nation, which indeed it did. These libraries imposed costs on taxpayers, but they also returned benefits as the nation’s store of knowledge grew. That is, library spending is a prime example of a subsidy adding value.” 0 likes
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