Saturday, August 12, 2006

Creations of an Economic Hit Man

I have been curious about a book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins, for some time. It has been on the best seller lists for quite some time, and after reading this post by my blogging pal Brainster, I was a bit suspicious of the claims made by the author.

To sum up the book, which at just over 200 pages and very little actual content, is amazingly easy to do, John Perkins tells his life story. After graduating from Boston University in the late 60s, he interviews with the NSA. Despite never actually working for them, he uses this fact throughout the rest of the book to imply that his later economic work had some connection with the NSA, which conducts signal intelligence and not economic espionage, but anyway... After not being hired by the NSA he decides to join the Peace Corps, by his own admission mostly to avoid the draft. After 3 years helping poor people in South America, he is approached by a consulting company, called MAIN, and goes to work for them trying to sell large World Bank funded projects in the third world.

Perkins then explains how he becomes an "Economic Hit Man", which he often abbreviates E. H. M. I guess because it makes it sound more official. He travels around the world trying to get poor countries to take out really large loans to fund projects such as dams and powerplants, which are intended solely to help the rich, exploit the poor, and make the country forever indebted to the United States. It is the policy of the "corporatocracy" he argues, to get countries to take on more debt then they can handle, so that the will go into default and can be controlled by the US. There is also the added benefit in that corporations then can exploit the impoverished labor force at low wages. Despite the fact that he repeats this argument several times, I still don't get it. What exactly is the purpose of loaning people our money with the intent that they don't ever pay us back? Wouldn't a stable and economically powerful ally be much more valuable than a poor impoverished one? Compare the value of being allied with Japan, with that of, say, Bangladesh or Uganda.

In every country Perkins travels to he ends up meeting some wise noble native, who lectures him on the evils of globalization and American empire. In his world, there is no such thing as communists or terrorists, they are all just noble revolutionaries looking out for their people against the exploitive corporatocracy. Perkins wrings his hands with guilt, praises the poor noble local, and then continues with his nefarious, although mostly unspecified, deeds.

I would believe his argument much more, if he actually had some proof. Amazingly, even though he claims to have worked as an "E. H. M." for over 20 years, he has very little tales to tell, much of what he does tell is third hand information. His sole proof of being an E. H. M is based of a mysterious woman named Claudine that he met when he first started working. Other than that, he can't quote a single board meeting or memo that backs up his claims of an evil world system. He does list a couple of examples where he was pressed to exaggerate economic growth to justify large projects, but he never does explain why this is not just a result of, for example, the fact that it is much more profitable to sell a large project than a small one.

Because this book is so vague then, it is really hard to tell if any of it is true or not. The few facts and events he does recall though, appear quite suspicious, and tell us more about the author's personal angst over globalization than anything else. One example is when he travels to Saudi Arabia in 1974. Not only does this undermine his whole "impoverishing poor third worlders" argument, the Saudis hardly being impoverished, he then uses this throughout the rest of the book as an example of how he and the US helped support "Osama bin Laden's war against the Soviets". Nevermind that Osama was just a teenager in 1974, and would not become involved in the war in Afghanistan (which didn't start until 1979) for another decade. Even after he became a mujahaden in Afghanistan, he was a minor figure. It could hardly be characterized as his war, as opposed to Masood's or Hekmatyar's war.

Another example is when he tries to (vaguely) tie then son of the Vice President George W. Bush with the "fastest growing organization in the business" Enron, which he described as being the frequent subject of chatter. This seems a bit of a stretch though. Enron was not even formed until 1985, when two natural gas pipeline companies merged, and they didn't really begin to take off until the early 90s, when they expanded into other arenas such as energy trading.

All in all, there is no there there. This book is full of much handwringing and guilt, it brings up the fact that Americans are much richer than the rest of the world more times than I can count, but it lends absolutely nothing to the argument. Perkins never even suggests a solution to any of the problems he discusses, nothing more than the fact that we are evil and exploitive. A anti-globalists dream, but otherwise not one worthy of reading.