Confessions of an Economic Hitman: Review
Part memoir, part polemic, Confessions of an Economic Hitman tells the story of John Perkins, a former economic forecaster for the engineering firm of Chas T. Main, Inc. As a forecaster, Perkins’ job was to provide estimates of the effect various infrastructure projects (mainly electrification) would have on economic growth in developing countries. These estimates were then used to justify loans to developing countries from international aid agencies, which would then hire Main to complete the project.
Perkins makes two claims about his work for Main. The first, that he inflated his estimates so Main could get more and bigger contracts, sounds fairly plausible. It’s true, for example, that the actual growth resulting from foreign aid has often fallen far short of projections. I’m inclined to think that this was more often the result of wild eyed optimism than crass cynicism, but I have no doubt that this sort of corruption did occur, and my only objection to Perkins’ remarks on this score would be to the idea that corruption in transfers of money from Western governments and agencies to developing world governments somehow represents an indictment of the free market.
In addition to profit-seeking, however, Perkins claims that he was in reality an agent of the NSA, and that his true mission in getting developing world governments to agree to these loans was to so saddle them with debt so that they could be forced to abide by Western economic and foreign policy interests.
Perkins denies that he is alleging a conspiracy: “It would be great if we could just blame it all on a conspiracy, but we cannot.” The substance of his story, however, belies such disclaimers. The constant talk in the book about a “corporateocracy,” “economic hitmen,” “global empire” and so forth might just be chalked up to poetic license. But if Perkins really was an NSA agent, recruited to bankrupt developing nations to bring them under the sway of “the alliance of big corporations, international banks, and [Western] governments,” then it’s hard to see how that wouldn’t meet the definition of a conspiracy.
Indeed, Perkins seems to see conspiratorial actions everywhere. When he gets his job at Main, he says that the whole thing has been arranged years in advance by a friend of his father-in-law. When people in Indonesia are reluctant to speak with him, he begins to suspect “some sort of conspiracy was directed at me.” Three pages later, the conspiracy has reversed itself: “an order to cooperate had come down from someone . . . I had no idea whether a government official, a banker, a general, or the U.S. Embassy had sent the order.” When he leaves Main and starts his own alternative energy business, he is “certain that many times someone stepped in to help, that I was being rewarded for my past service and for my commitment to silence.” Perkins describes President Reagan as “a servant of the corporatocracy . . . a man who followed orders passed down from moguls,” and suggests that the Summer Institute of Linguistics (an evangelical group translating the Bible into indigenous languages) was really a covert operation of the oil companies who hid radio transmitters among the villagers so that “[w]henever a member of the tribe was bitten by a poisonous snake or became seriously ill, an SIL representative arrived with antivenom or the proper medicine – often in oil company helicopters.” But hey, it’s not like he’s alleging a conspiracy or anything!
Perkins admits that he can’t corroborate his claims, and the NSA denies them vigorously. Further, by his own admission, Perkins knowledge about his supposed NSA mission stems entirely from conversations he had with a mysterious woman he met one day at the library, of whom no record exists. That doesn’t mean he’s not telling the truth, of course, but it is reason to approach his claims cautiously. A while back Chuck Barris, creator of the Dating Game and the Gong Show, wrote the similarly titled Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, in which he claimed to have worked as a CIA assassin. CIA assassins do, of course, exist, and if someone was a secret operative of America’s intelligence agencies, it is quite possible they would not be able to prove it. Nevertheless, most people have tended not to believe Barris’ account. To judge whether Perkins’ claims are more plausible that Barris’, one has to look both at the credibility of his story and his credibility as a speaker.
When it comes to the central claim of Perkins’ story, that he was an undercover NSA agent, I confess I’m skeptical. It’s not that I think America’s intelligence agencies are somehow above trying to bankrupt a country if they think it would further their foreign policy objectives. The CIA has done worse than that over the course of its history. But if the U.S. wanted to get developing nations to adopt different policies, I would think there would be easier ways to do it. Giving countries billions of dollars in loans in the hopes that one day they would be so debt ridden that they would have to do what the Americans wanted seems like a rather round about way of the U.S. getting its way (why not just bribe the corrupt government officials to do what you want now?) At best, you have to wait a couple decades for things to develop, and in the meantime there is always a risk that a new government could take over and repudiate the debts (or, worse, that they might pay them back).
If the U.S. government did engage in this sort of strategy, it did so only selectively. The U.S. lent billions of dollars to European countries after WWII. From both a strategic and economic standpoint these countries were far more important than many countries in the developing world. Yet somehow Europe didn’t end up a bunch of debt ridden American dependents. As William Easterly notes, “strategic geopolitics explains only a small portion of the variation in aid receipts across countries; many bad governments of no strategic importance whatsoever still get a lot of aid.” Easterly also notes that there appears to be no difference in the effectiveness of aid conditioned on the use of donor country companies as contractors and aid that is not so tied, nor is aid coming from Scandinavian countries any more beneficial than aid coming from the U.S. (no doubt this only shows that the perfidious Swedes are in on the whole thing).
One possible means of corroborating Perkins’ story comes from the recounting of his work in Panama. A significant portion of the book deals with Perkins’ friendship with the Latin American dictator Omar Torrijos (Perkins saw a poster of Torrijos during his first trip to Panama that had a slogan about freedom and concluded from this that the General had the best interests of his people at heart). According to Perkins, Torrijos wasn’t corrupt like the other leaders he dealt with, and that in his own dealings in Panama he did not follow the typical EHM formula, but really tried to help Torrijos spur development. If Perkins is right, therefore, we might expect Panama under Torrijos not to fall victim to the sort of debt ridden peril that he claims was the result of EHM activity in other developing countries. Using my mad Google research skills, I soon found the following excerpt from an article from the Encyclopedia Britanica:
Torrijos, behind a facade of popular government, transformed the appearance of Panama City through spectacular public works programs. The cost of these programs, however, plunged the country into heavy debt, and by 1977 an economic crisis loomed.
So much for that.
Aside from the substance of Perkins claims, there are certain other features of the narrative that set off red flags for me. Characters in the book tend to speak in stilted prose, delivering speeches that sound more like something out of a James Bond movie than out of real life (Perkins does, in fact, mention his penchant for fantasizing about living a James Bondesque life, which in the law one might call an admission against interest). There is also a fair amount of self-aggrandizement in the book (“I was the key to the entire master plan”). As the story progresses, Perkins states that most EHM don’t even know the true nature of what they are doing. Only he and a few other people know the truth. Which begs the question of why he was told such damaging information in the first place.
And since the credibility of Perkins himself is in question, I suppose I should point out that, in addition to Hitman, Perkins is the author of such works as Pychonavigation: Techniques for Travel Beyond Time, and Shamanic Navigation: Shapeshifting Techniques. Make of that what you will.
On one level, I can certainly see the appeal of a book like this. Despite great increases in wealth and living standards over the past 200 years, there remains an incredible amount of poverty and injustice in the world, and the trillions of dollars in foreign aid given out by Western nations over the last 60 years have not lived up to expectations. It is understandable that some might see a sinister motive in all of this, assuming that if aid has left a country poor and burdened with debt, then that must have been the real intent behind the aid. This is what Robert Heinlein called the “devil theory” of sociology, attributing to villainy conditions that simply result from incompetence. The devil theory can be emotionally satisfying, but it is at best practically sterile, and can often lead good hearted people to take counter-productive actions. If you want to improve the conditions of the poor, therefore, I cannot recommend using Confessions of an Economic Hitman as any sort of guide.
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