August 17, 2016

David Cay Johnston has been doing this for a long time


David Cay Johnston

Recently, we’ve been covering the comings and goings of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston pretty extensively. And with good reason — Johnston is the author of The Making of Donald Trump, the new book that chronicles Trump’s rise with unrivaled clarity, concision, and familiarity (Johnston has known and followed Trump for nearly thirty years).

But what about the making of David Cay Johnston? In Trump, the author finds a subject almost uncannily well-suited to his background, expertise, and rigorous, direct writing style. But this is Johnston’s sixth book, and he’s been a sought-after commentator for years.

Here, for instance, is Johnston speaking in January of last year. He appeared alongside education journalist Anya Kamenetz on MSNBC’s All in with Chris Hayes to discuss the possible ways in which tax credits might help solve the crisis in paying for higher education:

The 529 plan is an example of what we call an upside-down subsidy. If you’re going to subsidize somebody, it should be somebody in need, right? I mean, we don’t need to give subsidies to Bill Gates or Warren Buffett (although we do give them subsidies). And in this case, the subsidy went to people like Michelle and Barack Obama, multi-millionaires who put almost a quarter million dollars into a 529 plan for their daughers’ future education — prudent thing for them to do, not a particularly good use of our tax money.

Here’s the full clip:


And here’s Johnston speaking in June 2014 about economic inequality—a subject dear to the Melvillean heart—with Rob Johnson, president of the Institute for New Economic Thinking. Among many good points Johnston makes is this:

I was hired as a big-city newspaper reporter, a staff writer, when I was nineteen years old, in 1968. And back then, most journalists were blue-collar intellectuals. Today, the newsrooms of the major news organizations are full of people who grew up in wealthy households. So we shouldn’t be surprised that their attitude about things is: the world seems to be doing just fine, it’s quite just — because that’s their life’s experience. And at the same time, we’ve had this tremendous weakening of the news media, so that large federal agencies, many of them, have no beat reporters at all covering them. We have city councils and school boads all across America that get no coverage at all. And this is terific for those people who get rich by exploiting the rules of the system for their benefit. And you’re not hearing about that. And there’s very little coverage of poverty.

Johnston goes on to draw distinctions between inequality and poverty, the secular worship of the corporate economy, and the chicken-and-egg game of declining public trust in the government and the declining perception that government works in people’s interest. Here, it’s a fascinating conversation:

Before that, in December 2013, Johnston was on Democracy Now!, speaking with host Amy Goodman about the big news of the moment — a new budget deal that had been approved by the House and was at the time of the interview before the Senate. Hailed by boosters on both sides of the aisle as a bipartisan victory, the bill was, Johnston said, “a big win for the Paul Ryan Republicans.” Speaking of those Republicans, Johnston went on to explain:

They will avoid the embarrassment, shame and political damage of shutting down the government, and they will obtain this from the—they obtained this from the Democrats without, as Congressman Pocan pointed out in his statement, touching at all the major issues. The corporate loopholes aren’t being closed. The tax-avoidance techniques of billionaires, who can legally live tax-free if they choose to, are not being shut down. The hedge fund and private equity managers will continue to be advantaged. And we’re going to kick 57,000 poor children out of Head Start, which means we’re going to narrow their economic futures and make all of us worse off in the future. We’re cutting a billion-and-a-half dollars from medical research to save lives. Why? Because the very richest people in America, those who have benefited most from being in this market, don’t want to pay for that kind of services. And by the way, being The War and Peace Report, the Pentagon is getting an extra $20 billion out of this deal. We already spend 42 percent of all the money in the world on our military. More money for the Pentagon? Seriously? While we are cutting off unemployment benefits and cutting medical research, reducing pensions for federal workers? This makes absolutely no sense. It will make us worse off.

The conversation takes off from there, touching a number of still-reverberating subjects including the recent bankruptcy of Detroit, free trade agreements broadly and in specific, and whether we’re spending enough money on national defense:

Going back even further, here’s Johnston in 2009, talking with Massachussetts School of Law at Andover dean Lawrence R. Velvel about how corporate welfare lightens the books for the Waltons, owners of Wal-Mart and its affiliated brands and America’s richest family:

A system in which local government — or government at any level — picks the winners in the economy is not capitalism, it’s not competition, it’s not free markets, it’s not the things Ronald Reagan said. It’s corporate socialism. It is statism. It is the state making these choices…. And if people understood these things, I’m not sure that they would be going forward.

Clearly, David Cay Johnston has always been David Cay Johnston. Thank goodness for that.