Thursday, May 30, 2013

Review: The Fine Print

The Fine Print is David Cay Johnston's book about how corporations rip off the American people. The book starts with a great science fiction story: imagine a world where after a strange event happens, some people are discovered to be immortal. They can still be killed and die through accidents, but they will not age and will not die of old age. Further, the strange event has changed them so that they are now solely motivated by money. The answer of course, is that this science fiction story is not science fiction at all, but the "people" involved are called corporations.

In chapter after chapter, Johnston takes on one aspect after another of corporate malfeasance. Whether it's AT&T/Verizon/Comcast ripping you off on your phone bill and charging you insane amounts of money for service that would cost one third what citizens of other developing countries pay, or PG&E neglecting maintenance of gas pipelines leading to massive explosions and people dead, there's even grist here to get your blood boiling and hopefully you mad enough.

Johnston knows all of these topics well, and leverages his facility with numbers and his strong sense of journalism to bring the stories to life. Some chapters are short (like the ones on Hollywood tax breaks), and some are long, but they all go a long way to debunk the myth that there is such a thing as a virtuous, successful capitalist in modern American society. Neither Google nor Warren Buffett come off as the heroes they are portrayed as in popular press.

Despite all that Johnston shrinks back from the obvious conclusion: the modern limited liability corporation is a terrible legal construct and a lousy way to run society --- there are no circumstances under which a society with such entities wouldn't end up corrupt and undemocratic. Yes, there are other developed countries that do a good job of keeping such entities under control (Western Europe, for instance), but they're also societies that come under frequent pressure to follow the Washington consensus.

This is a book that won't get read by enough people to make a difference, but you know what, you should read it anyway. Highly recommended.
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