The Fine Print, a Fine Read on How a Rigged Economy Harms Consumers

by Theresa Amato [guest post] [cross-posted from]

The Fine
, a Fine Read on How a Rigged Economy Harms Consumers

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter
David Cay Johnston asks why the United States ranks forty-seventh out of 224
countries in infant mortality, forty-sixth in the share of our economy spent on
public education, thirty-seventh in the quality of our health care (with
approximately 50 million without insurance), and “dead last” in 2009 among 190
countries on our current account deficit that measures how much more we import
than export.   He concludes that as a
country we have been “letting big business damage and destroy competition,
escape tax burdens and push down wages.”

For more than four years Johnston
has researched appalling examples of corporate greed and government policy
complicity that harms consumers and which he sets forth in his very fine book The Fine Print, How Big Companies Use “Plain
English” To Rob You Blind
.  The
book treats the fine print at a macro level, with less about the actual fine
print, though it does have a discussion of arbitration clauses and talks about
the harmful line items on telephone and cable bills and footnotes in student
loans.  Overall he diagnoses the “core
problem is with oligopolies and monopolies and their excessive prices, lower
quality services and reduced innovation. 
They are the principal means, enabled by government, to redistribute
income and wealth from the many to the politically connected few.”  [cont'd after the jump]

In doing so, Johnston gives
specifics across numerous industries and he names names.  He has some unflattering things to say about
Pfizer, Entergy, AT & T, Verizon, Goldman Sachs, Massey Energy Company,
Walmart, Wells Fargo, Public Service Electric & Gas­­–a New Jersey
utility, Alan Greenspan, Warren Buffett and BNSF Railroad, Judge Frank
Easterbrook and the former dean of the University of Chicago Law School, Daniel
Fischel, the Chicago School of Economics and the worship of antitax and
deregulation, Chief Justice John Roberts and Citizens United, and the list goes on.  He discusses the vast corporate power of
multinationals with treasuries larger than many countries and feckless
government regulators, often industry born or on their way for a job, who are
redistributing wealth upwards to ensure profits for corporate America rather
than looking out for workers suffering from flat wages and consumers who pay
for this abuse—to the estimated tune of $2,390 per year for an average family
of four.   Johnston also criticizes the
media for echoing rather than challenging pro-corporate, anti-tax group think
and not asking the tough questions to act as a watchdog.

The Fine Print
is the third book in a trilogy of sorts, with Johnston’s first two Free Lunch (on taxes) and Perfectly
(on subsidies).  The book
should galvanize consumers and fuel consumer advocates to continue to take on
the rampant corporate crime, fraud and abuse.  
To his credit, Johnston’s book has a solutions section, and they are
tall orders that require substantial state and congressional action and vigorous
agency regulation, if not constitutional amendments to get rid of corporate
personhood and Citizens United
This will require in turn grassroots and political organizing to provide
some wind to the inert and failing status quo—to make Congress and state and
federal regulators actually take some action on behalf of consumers.

Also note that some solutions
proposed by Johnston are not necessarily four square with what many consumer
advocates (including us at Fair Contracts) would support. For example, instead
of getting rid of arbitration, Johnston thinks arbitration is a good
alternative to litigation and congested courts. 
Though he would permit class action arbitrations, wants to reform the
likely venue (to where the consumer lives), and fix the repeat player problem
of arbitrators friendly to the repeat business of businesses using them, he
also wants to finance arbitration on the back of litigants by charging a fee to
those who use the courts to create a pool of revenue to encourage and cover
arbitration fees and expenses, thus making it even more expensive for those who
manage to have their day in court. 

Johnston exhorts readers to make
themselves “better informed, dedicated and powerful” and says to “organize or
join and support organizations” that make America more fair, but then lists
none and only a handful of consumer advocates and organizations are mentioned
throughout the book, even though there are many who work on these issues daily
that consumers could plug in to with a little more direction—and a lot more
grass roots organizing.

Johnston however remains hopeful as
he believes:  “We can recover from the
trend of permitting big business to use our government as a shield from the
economic discipline of competition.  We
need not sink further into debt as individuals or as a nation.  We do not have to fall further behind our
competitors, and we do not have to endure a government that is hostile to the
well-being of the vast majority.  We can
end the privatized system of wealth and income redistribution that uses
monopolies and oligopolies to take from the many to unjustly enrich the
politically connected few….”  Sounds
good.  Read the book to learn more!

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