Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

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*****= An all-time favorite
****  = Outstanding
***    = Above average
**      = Enjoyable
*        = Good, with reservations


****Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

by John Perkins

Reviewed March 29, 2005.
Berritt-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2004.  250 pages.

Here’s an eye-opening book with some shocking accusations about those who hold power in America.  Mostly the book tells about John Perkins’ own experiences as an “Economic Hit Man,” but he draws conclusions about the wielding of power in our “corporateocracy” that have wide-ranging ramifications.

Those who wonder why people in other countries of the world hate us, who can’t believe that America isn’t a wonderful force for good in the world, would do well to read this book.  Even if you don’t agree with it, the fact that it exists explains that there is another point of view.

John Perkins was recruited through connections in the National Security Agency to work for a large corporation as an economist.  The corporation was not run by the government and did not answer to the government.  His job was to make economic forecasts that would encourage other countries to go deeply into debt.

“The unspoken aspect of every one of these projects was that they were intended to create large profits for the contractors, and to make a handful of wealthy and influential families in the receiving countries very happy, while assuring the long-term financial dependence and therefore the political loyalty of governments around the world.  The larger the loan, the better.  The fact that the debt burden placed on a country would deprive its poorest citizens of health, education, and other social services for decades to come was not taken into consideration.”

He was told, “We’re a small, exclusive club.  We’re paid—well paid—to cheat countries around the globe out of billions of dollars.  A large part of your job is to encourage world leaders to become part of a vast network that promotes U.S. commercial interests.  In the end, those leaders become ensnared in a web of debt that ensures their loyalty.  We can draw on them whenever we desire—to satisfy our political, economic, or military needs.  In turn, these leaders bolster their political positions by bringing industrial parks, power plants, and airports to their people.  Meanwhile, the owners of U.S. engineering and construction companies become very wealthy.”

John Perkins goes on to describe his years working as a top economist for MAIN corporation in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Panama, and Iran, among other places.  His predecessor was fired because he wouldn’t make the optimistic forecasts that his employers wanted, but Mr. Perkins did as he was expected to, against his conscience.

John Perkins’ version of the last twenty years of American history takes a very different view than the one I was taught.  If he hadn’t seen things from the inside, I’m not sure I’d believe him at all.  As it is, it’s hard to discount his testimony.

One place where he did lose credibility with me was where he repeats “rumors” about evangelical missionaries with SIL, the Summer Institute of Linguistics, including the incident where five missionaries were killed by the Huaroni tribe.  He accuses SIL of basically being a front for oil companies.  I find it laughable to think that Rachel Saint would have gone back to live among the people who killed her husband in order to get land for oil companies.  An enduring faith in Jesus might enable someone to do that, but not a desire for profit.  I can believe that maybe the oil companies capitalized on the missionaries’ efforts, maybe pretending that they had the same motives as the missionaries, but I refuse to believe the missionaries were working against the indigenous people.

However, that only covers about one page of the book.  Most of the book is about John Perkins’ own actions and the results he saw for himself.  He left MAIN in 1980, since he wasn’t happy with what he was doing, despite the lucrative compensations.

The author isn’t claiming there’s a big conspiracy.  He acknowledges that most people who follow in his footsteps even believe that they are doing good.  “We prefer to believe that thousands of years of human social evolution has perfected the ideal economic system, rather than to face the fact we have merely bought into a false concept and accepted it as gospel.  We have convinced ourselves that all economic growth benefits human kind, and that the greater the growth, the more widespread the benefits.  Finally, we have persuaded one another that the corollary to this concept is valid and morally just:  that people who excel at stoking the fires of economic growth should be exalted and rewarded, while those born at the fringes are available for exploitation.”

John Perkins brings us to the jungles of Ecuador, where native people are ready to do battle against oil companies who are working to get permission to drill.  He points out that “thanks to the biased ‘sciences’ of forecasting, econometrics, and statistics, if you bomb a city and then rebuild it, the data shows a huge spike in economic growth.”

In another place, he says, “The situation in Ecuador clearly demonstrates that this was not the result of a conspiracy; it was a process that had occurred during both Democratic and Republican administrations, a process that had involved all the major multinational banks, many corporations and foreign aid missions from a multitude of countries.  The United States played a lead role, but we had not acted alone.

“During those three decades, thousands of men and women participated in bringing Ecuador to the tenuous position it found itself in at the beginning of the millennium.  Some of them, like me, had been aware of what they were doing, but the vast majority had merely performed the tasks they had been taught in business, engineering, and law schools, or had followed the lead of bosses in my mold, who demonstrated the system by their own greedy example and through rewards and punishments calculated to perpetuate it.  Such participants saw the parts they played as benign, at worst; in the most optimistic view, they were helping an impoverished nation.

“Although unconscious, deceived, and—in many cases—self-deluded, these players were not members of any clandestine conspiracy; rather, they were the product of a system that promotes the most subtle and effective form of imperialism the world has ever witnessed.  No one had to go out and seek men and women who could be bribed or threatened—they had already been recruited by companies, banks and government agencies.  The bribes consisted of salaries, bonuses, pensions, and insurance policies; the threats were based on social mores, peer pressure, and unspoken questions about the future of their children’s education.”

I would like to believe that this book is not true.  I would not like to believe, for example, “that Saddam would still be in charge if he had played the game as the Saudis had.  He would have his missiles and chemical plants; we would have built them for him, and our people would be in charge of upgrading and servicing them.  It would be a very sweet deal—even as Saudi Arabia had been.”

All the same, John Perkins makes a compelling case.  Whether you agree with him or not, his experiences make extremely interesting reading.  And the next time I hear about some country’s “economic growth” (maybe Iraq’s? or Afghanistan’s?), I will wonder what that means in terms of the lives of individuals.  Is economic growth always a good thing for all the people of a country?  I will wonder if I’m hearing the real story.

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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