In his late teens David Cay Johnston began asking a lot of questions.
"Why do we have these guys in uniforms with guns driving around in cars all day? ... Why is the Santa Cruz County Courthouse being built in such an unusual shape?"
He wrote an article, while still living in his birth town of Santa Cruz, proving that the off-kilter courthouse design, which officials had promised would save money, actually cost more than a more conventional building.
Johnston is now 63 and the president of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). He once tracked down a killer the Los Angeles Police Department couldn't catch.
He is a Reuters columnist, 13-year veteran of The New York Times, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his reporting that exposed inequities in the U.S. tax code. He wrote the best selling tax books Perfectly Legal, which won an IRE medal, and Free Lunch.
His latest book, The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use "Plain English" to Rob You Blind, illuminates the legal loopholes in this country that make it possible for a handful of people to thrive while the rest struggle.
"How can 90 percent of people's incomes be slipping while corporations are making money hand over fist?" Johnston says this was the question that led him to write The Fine Print.
The book offers an answer: there are a multitude of rules and regulations in place in this country that act to redistribute wealth upward. It reveals the numerous means by which major corporations work with the government to relax the rules and rewrite regulations to their benefit, at the cost of the consumer, and without the consumer's knowledge.
Johnston will discuss The Fine Print on Nov. 27 at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, 2345 Channing Way, sponsored by KPFA Radio 94.1FM.
Johnston says most of the information in his book is not available via Google search, as the news media simply has not covered these issues.
"Not the mainstream, not the alternative media," he says. "This is four years of original reporting about the reason your job doesn't pay more, you're not doing well, and this handful of people is doing so well."
A large part of The Fine Print dissects shortcomings across the nation's public infrastructure, from Truman and Eisenhower-era public utilities, to our 26th-in-the-world Internet speed ranking.
Johnston recalls the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion of 2010 that sent 1,000-foot flames into the air, destroyed homes, and killed eight people. Despite events like this one, he says, nobody thinks about pipelines.
Johnston notes that corporations that own the pipelines have formed essentially legal monopolies.
"A pipeline laid when Truman was president or Eisenhower was president should be replaced, and we're not doing that," he says, "And the companies that own these pipelines are making huge money."
In fact, visit the Forbes "400 Richest People In America" list online from any given year and the source of wealth for many listed is "pipelines."
"Infrastructure is what makes things work," Johnston says. "And we're not figuring out how we maintain the public furniture so that our society endures."
Another section of The Fine Print explains how corporations bill consumers extra fees, keep money that should not be theirs, and do so legally.
"Take a look at your pay stub," the book suggests, pointing out that workers in all but six states will see a deduction for state income taxes. "You probably expect that money to finance public schools, the state university and college system, law enforcement and the other services that businesses and individuals rely on. Mostly it does, but in a growing number of states, your state income taxes will also be increasing the profits of your employer."
So, how do you fight back against the wealth discrepancies Johnston's book lays out? He says it isn't easy, but it can be done.
"These companies aren't stupid, they're very smart," he says. "(They) have lots of lawyers and lobbyists and they are building (language) into the law protecting their profit positions and escaping the rigors of the competitive market. They're escaping the competitive market."
Johnston emphasizes this point because there are many who would call him a socialist or communist for criticizing corporations. The exact opposite, he argues, is true.
"I believe in competitive markets," he says. "If there's any socialism going on here, it's the companies who are the socialists."
Johnston says one way to level the competitive playing field is for individuals to join groups and take action.
"They were really abusing people," he says. "You could pay off your entire credit card and they could charge you interest the next month anyway. They had the ability to unilaterally change your interest rate overnight. They could say, 'If your payment did not arrive by 10 a.m. we can collect a late fee.' They could do all sorts of things, and we're stopping those things."
The nation abolished slavery, women regained the right to vote, child labor laws were put in place, and environmental laws protect the natural world today because people took action, Johnston recalls.
"We can solve any problem we have, but we have to first of all know what the problem is," he says. "That's what my book's about."
David Cay Johnston will talk about his book "The Fine Print" at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 27 at First Congregational Church of Berkeley, 2345 Channing Way. $12 advance tickets, $15 at the door. Details: www.brownpapertickets.com/event/291008