Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

I’ve been really busy recently, and as a result, my book list has been ignored. I’ve had an ever-growing pile of books which I optimistically purchased, but never got around to actually reading. When I found out I had two weeks off between semesters, I promised myself I would dig in. Alas, less than a week remains of this ‘vacation’ and I’ve only just finished my first book. The reason I dug this particular book out of the pile was because I’ve been avoiding it for about 2 years now, always putting it off because of something or the other.

Well, now I’ve finished it. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is described as “the shocking inside story of how America really took over the world”. It’s about a guy named John Perkins (the author), who worked for a private consultancy firm called MAIN (which no longer exists), which was very loosely associated with the US government and various organizations therein, such as the National Security Agency (NSA). MAIN worked for various governments and international organizations such as USAID, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Its consultants would go into third-world countries to assess how a certain development project/initiative might benefit the country i.e. charts and graphs showing the estimated economic growth, GNP, GDP, etc.

Now according to the book, MAIN, the US government, and several large private-sector organizations formed what Perkins refers to as the “corporatocracy”, a collusion of major power brokers that cooks the statistical data presented to third-world/developing countries to show higher-than-realistic levels of growth, justify the acceptance of huge loans by these countries, and make sure as much money is funneled back into the US as possible. Here’s how it works: Country X is presented with a development opportunity by an international organization such as the IMF or the World Bank. In order to fund this development, X will have to take large loans (the goal here is for X to never be able to repay these loans). In order to develop the infrastructure necessary to carry out these development projects, foreign firms have to be hired to handle the construction, planning, design, etc. So a large amount of the money (loaned by the IMF or WB, which are majorly funded by the United States) goes towards paying companies in the United States. The growth levels predicted are either never achieved or unsustainable, and therefore, X can never really repay its loans. When it defaults, the lender organization or major power brokers therein demand their “pound of flesh”, a phrase that Perkins has used repeatedly throughout the book. This can be in the form of UN votes, military bases within X’s borders, etc.

John Perkins was one of the people who made all of this possible. In fact, he often played a key role – in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Panama, Iran, Columbia and Ecuador – and in the end, his conscience got to him. After repeatedly selling out to ‘the Powers That Be’, so to speak, he finally broke free and wrote this book to assuage his feeling of betraying the world and humanity at large.

The book is largely critical of the US government, and often names key officials such as George H. W. Bush, his son, Dick Cheney, Weinberger, Rockefeller, and many other prominent personalities. The author writes in a style that provides a broad overview of his career, occasionally zooming in to provide an in-depth view of his secretive training as an Economic Hit Man, how he first made the decision to ‘toe the company line’ and predict faulty future statistics in Indonesia, how a herd of goats inspired his ideas to manipulate the Saudi government in SAMA – the Saudi Arabian Money-laundering Affair, how a Vietnamese puppet master eerily predicted that the US would strike the Middle East – which it did, etc.

In Pakistan, conspiracy theories have a tendency to be easily accepted. As a nation, we are usually willing to believe that the US is out to get us, or that the terrorists are noble, or that Zardari was somehow involved in his wife’s death, and other things like that. Many don’t even ask for proof. They usually just nod their heads as if to say, “Yeah, we knew it. We knew it all along.” I don’t know if it’s like that all over the world, but it is certainly how it is in Pakistan. But what this book talks about is how our modern notion of capitalism has come about – how the bottom line has become a sharp edge where any means justify the corporate end, and how human feeling has gone out of the functioning of our governments and our companies.

Perkins talks a lot about how he cares about the world his daughter will grow up in, the world the children of his day will inherit. In reading this book, I felt that Perkins’s goal in writing it was not to expose the US government, as a lot of books do these days, but primarily to explain how our motivating factors have changed. How greed and personal ambition have come to dominate our interactions, and how everyone is out to get their cut. There is a lack of attention to traditional values – caring about the ecosystem (oil companies dumping waste in Panama’s rivers), caring about the poor (tricking countries into accepting erroneous development loans), taking money from a government to provide it with technology that its people are essentially incapable of running without you – a constant source of income for you, a permanent reliance, and a country going to the dogs (Saudi Arabian Money-laundering Affair & JERCO).

Everyone who reads this book will perceive it in a different way. Talking to another reader, I had the opportunity to hear her views. She thought the book was just a publicity stunt by Perkins. On an online discussion forum, I read a review that took the book as an affirmation of all anti-US conspiracy theories. There is a range of opinions out there, and the book is full of details to analyze and factors to form an opinion about. Is it wrong for a country to seek to strengthen itself in terms of relative power? Realists might think so. Is it wrong for a country to take advantage of the superior education and training it is able to offer individuals to gain dominance over other countries? Is it Saudi Arabia’s fault for accepting JERCO in the first place? Isn’t this an example of Saudi Arabia being greedy, just like the US? Shouldn’t the developing countries look out for themselves? Why should industrialized nations be forced to babysit them?

In the end, it’s one opinion against another. This book is interesting, not only for political science buffs, conspiracy theorists, and economists, but also for a reader like me, who enjoys historical and cultural descriptions of countries around the world, and different perspectives regarding them. I’ll end with a line from the book:

The coincidences of your life, and the choices you have made in response to them, have brought you to this point.