I finished David Cay Johnston’s Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill). I didn’t exactly follow everything he was saying, but his book is still eye-opening. Perhaps the most interesting part is how he quotes free market advocates like Adam Smith and Andrew Mellon to support his own point of view, which opposes giving the middle class a bigger tax burden so that the rich can get breaks (corporate welfare). Also, you know how conservatives like Sean Hannity criticize that Supreme Court decision that allowed eminent domain? Well, before becoming governor of Texas, George W. Bush pushed for eminent domain to build a stadium for the Texas Rangers. I wonder what Hannity has to say about that!
Johnston summarizes several of his book’s themes in a Jeremiad. I don’t agree with everything he has to say, but he offers some things to think about. Unfortunately, one thing he doesn’t say in this Jeremiad is a point that he makes throughout the book: the government is wrong to insulate certain industries from competition, which is what it does when it gives some companies tax exemptions while excluding others. In addition, in reading the book, I got a greater appreciation for how low people will sink just to make a buck. I’ve struggled with the issue of total depravity for years, but this book has given me reason to believe in it.
And so here’s the Jeremiad. If you want more details, feel free to read the book!
“We now have almost three decades of experience with the idea that markets will solve our problems. The promised results are not there and there is no reason to believe that they are over the next horizon, just a few more subsidies away. Electricity costs more and its delivery is less reliable. Many hundreds of billions of dollars have been diverted to the rich, leaving our schools, parks, and local government services starved for funds. Jobs and assets are going offshore, sometimes to the detriment of not just the economy, but national security.
“We have layered subsidy upon giveaway upon legal absolution for reckless conduct in a chaotic attempt to protect jobs, and it has not worked. We pour billions into subsidies for sports teams and golf courses, a folly Adam Smith railed against in his day. Our health care system costs us far more than that of any other industrial country and yet we live shorter lives than the Canadians, Europeans, and the Japanese. We stand alone among modern societies in making tens of millions of our citizens go without health care, many of whom die or become disabled because of this nutty idea that medicine is a business, not a service. We have erected obstacles to the earnest but poor who seek to better themselves through library study and higher education.
“And our politicians in both parties are hypocrites of the first water, nearly every one of them. They vote to make the poor sacrifice again and again so that the rich can have more, yet they run for office handing out photos showing that they regularly attend religious services. To those who do not get this last point, take a moment to ponder the inner thoughts of the Pharisees. Do you think they thought themselves evil? Of course not. In their own minds, they had justifications for what they did, assuring themselves that they were the most moral of men.
“Except for our technology, our electricity and powerful motors, we are the same as the ancients. And like great societies that we can look back upon, which reached a high point and then headed down the road to oblivion, we too are taking from the many to give to the few. ‘He that oppresseth the poor to increase his riches, and he that giveth to the rich, shall surely come to want,’ it says in Proverbs 22. Wise words to memorize.
“We have become a society in which this injunction, and many others like it, are ignored. Even when we seek to help people, as with the drug benefit for older Americans, the mechanism often is designed first and foremost to take care of the corporate rich. The net effect of our policies, the evidence for which is overwhelming, is that we are redistributing income up. Through subsidies and tax cuts and rules that depress the incomes of most workers, the immediate future looks very bright for the already rich. Indeed, to borrow from the song, their future’s so bright they gotta wear shades” (281-282).