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

The Fine Print, a Fine Read on How a

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.” 

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.

Perfectly Legal (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   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!