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The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use "Plain English" to Rob You Blind Hardcover – September 18, 2012
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“If you enjoy learning about the dirty little secrets behind the ways powerful businesses make their profits, you probably will like this book.”
—The Washington Post
About the Author
DAVID CAY JOHNSTON is a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter who has been called the “de facto chief tax enforcement officer of the United States.” His most recent books, Perfectly Legal and Free Lunch, were New York Times bestsellers. He was a reporter for The New York Times for thirteen years and now writes a column for Reuters. He also teaches at Syracuse University College of Law and the Whitman School of Management, and he was recently elected board president of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. He lives in Rochester, New York.
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Author David Cay Johnston was wondering the same thing, only he took it a number of steps further and began investigating how common such occurrences were across the land, and he found out plenty. Electric companies serving Louisiana and neighboring states were charging their customers for electricity from streetlamps that were not working, even from lamps that had never been installed, and they had been doing so for decades.
The bottom line is that many of these big companies have "market power," the ability to raise prices in spite of competition and weak economies. Instead of the competition keeping prices low companies collude to keep the prices high, even raising them. They may not have to pay the corporate taxes to the government but can charge you for them as if they had. They are allowed to charge you $35.00 for overdrafts even though it costs them less than a penny to make the adjustment. They can create their own oligopolies over municipalities, counties, states, even regions. Companies that offer enormous sums to buy the local power or water company will make it up in increased charges even if they cannot justify them. They are able to do this because they lobby and contribute to politicians who appoint industry friendly candidates to regulatory agencies, allow add-on costs, such as surcharges equipment or services that don't exist, and company threats to move out of town or the state unless they are forgiven state taxes for years or even decades.
One of the more insidious breaches of consumer rights is arbitration, once only used in contracts between companies. They are in the contracts you make when buying a car, getting a home equity loan, or the franchise you buy. It keeps you from suing. To make things worse, you must submit to arbitration on the home turf of the company or bank even if it means it's across the country before an arbitrator they have probably used many times before, and to whom you must pay a heafty percentage if he or she rules in your favor.
While these companies market themselves as restrained by regulation, they in fact make regulation work in their behalf. With government sanction and blessing, they have made the consumer pay more for every conceivable service, real or imagined. They are not interested in an unfettered free market because their prices would have to come down, and they are only interested in maintaining their "pricing," a euphemism for profit.
David Cay Johnston elevates a book of mundane facts to the status of a thriller. It's a thriller because it has a plot, in fact many of them, of companies that can bring their financial might to bear to rob you blind. He weaves these stories like a suspense novel only it is sickeningly real.
Fortunately, "The Fine Print" isn't in fine print. It's one reason why you need to read this.
The only problem is time: now that the internet makes the numbskullery of Wall Street and its Congressional allies far more complex and destructive, knowledgeable investigators like Johnston are my age, and like me, they're not getting any younger.
So will there be a populist rebellion? Hard to say. But brilliant, articulate, energetic truth-tellers are needed as never before.
Everyone should read this book and follow up with the detailed notes and references generously included. This isn't a screed to enrage the reader: it's a diagnosis and recommendations for treatment.
Many thanks, sir.