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 and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.


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.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight 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

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.