Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
Monday, May 8, 2006; 12:00 PM
John Perkins, author of "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man," was online to discuss his indictment of the international financial system for which he once worked.
"Economic hit men are highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars," he writes. "Their tools include fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex, and murder. They play a game as old as Empire but one that has taken on terrifying dimensions during this time of globalization."
John Perkins describes himself as a former economic hit man. He claims he was covertly recruited by the NSA and on the payroll of an international consulting firm, he traveled the world - to Indonesia, Panama, Ecuador, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other strategically important countries. He describes his job as implementing policies that promoted the interests of the U.S. "corporatocracy" (a coalition of government, banks, and corporations) while professing to alleviate poverty. These policies, he claims, were designed to bankrupt the country in order to ensure their allegiance to U.S. military and economic interests. And it was these policies that alienated many nations and ultimately led to growing anti-Americanism.
Perkins' story illuminates just how far he and his colleagues were willing to go. Perkins reveals the hidden mechanics of imperial control behind some of the most dramatic events in recent history, such as the fall of the Shah of Iran, the death of Panamanian president Omar Torrijos, and the U.S. invasions of Panama and Iraq.
John Perkins is founder and president of the Dream Change Coalition, which works closely with Amazonian and other indigenous people to help preserve their environments and cultures. From 1971 to 1981, he worked for the international consulting firm of Chas. T. Main, where he held the titles of Chief Economist and Manager of Economics and Regional Planning.
A transcript follows.
John Perkins: I am very glad to be here today on this chat room, looking forward to getting into lots of good discussions. I am deeply grateful by how many people around the world are interested in this subject and want to commit themselves to making the US live up to our ideals, making the world a better place for future generations.
Manassas, Va.: I didn't read your book, and I'm no fan of government international lending institutions such as the IMF, but to lay blame squarely on the creditors for the chronic poverty and corruption in the "Third World Countries" is unfair and deceptive. You attempt to paint a picture of powerful and arrogant Westeners imposing conditions on weak on gullible and powerless debtors.
I don't think that any of these government or corporate lenders at any time said to the debtors, "Accept my conditions or I'll blow your brains out." They are free to take whatever decision they want. Maybe some loan terms are harsh, maybe not. But it's ultimately the governments of those countries, poor as they may be, that are responsible and are to blame for the conditions they are in.
These countries set their own laws and have the monopoly of violence to back them. Just look at Bolivia's Morales, leader of one of the poorest countries in the world, how he just nationalized the gas industry. No threats from a gringo invasion, no?
John Perkins: I hear this alot and it shows how misinformed many people are. Those corrupt leaders are responsible, but we EHM corrupt them. If they dont go along we overthrow them, as we've done time and time again. Lat Am right now is defying us in a big way. Not just Morales, but also the presidents of 6 other major nations, representing over 80% of S Am's population. Because we are ooverextended in the Mid East and so dependent on S Am oil, Washington finds itself in a difficult situation. There has never been an uprising like the one in Lat Am before. We in the US need to listen very carefully to the mesages being sent to us.
Arlington, Va.: John,
I first learned of "Confessions" by chance when I heard your interview on the Democracy Now radio program last year. I quickly ordered and read the book and was not disappointed. Since then, I've been recommending it to friends and family to help increase awareness of what has happened, and what is still happening today. Thanks for providing such a detailed account of your experiences. Are there other books addressing these issues that you would recommend?
John Perkins: Berrett Koehler, "Confessions" hardcover publisher, is bringing out a book in early 2007 that will tell the stories of over a dozen people similar to me. Penguin/Plume, my paperback publisher, will publish my next book, a follow-up to "Confessions", in spring/summer 2007. It will tell many more stories, especially around current happenings, and also detail what we can do to make this a better world, to change the old mentality for a new much more appropriate one.
Washington, D.C.: Hi John,Thanks for doing the chat. I have not read your book yet but I certainly intend to buy a copy. How many "economic hit men" do you think there are at work right now?
And also, did you often come up against individuals within corporations or governments who threw up their arms and derided your policies and ideas as potentially ruinuous, or did most people fall in step fairly quickly?
John Perkins: I dont know how many are at work today -- hundreds, conservatively. In my day far fewer.
You'll see when you read book that leaders who do not go along with EHM, get visited by jackals. If they continue to resist, they get overthrown or assassinate.
New York, N.Y.: How has the "hit" man business changed since you left? Do you think it's better or worse now from the standpoint of developing countries' interests?
John Perkins: It is worse. When I was an EHM, we were basically generic, just tried to bring business into US companies, on third world debt. Today, those still exist but in addition every major US corp has its private EHM working ln bringing business in to just that corp.
Arlington, Va.: Why do you think it is simply accepted that privatization and free-markets are good for a country's developing economy? As I see it, the media barely report on the problems this will cause, especially in Iraq. There seems to be something morally abhorrent about consulting firms plundering Iraq's resources and having no obligation to give back to the Iraqi people. But we barely hear about it in the news and it's not even up for disussion.
John Perkins: Shocking isnt it that we trust corp execs -- whose job is to maximiz profits to shareholders -- more than civil servants -- who are swron to protect the public! Privatization has been a snow job. It seldom helps developing countries -- except for the people who own the companies that end buying the resources.
Washington, D.C.: It seems like you did a 180 and had a bit of a crisis of conscience. Can you tell us why you changed your career, and why you wrote this book?
John Perkins: I detail that in the book, but shiort version: after I was in for 10 years I was getting very wealthy and knew I would be "hooked" for ever if I stayed. I was sailing in the Caribbean and realized that I was a "slaver" as much as those old time sugar plantation owners. I went back to Boston and quit.
Washington, D.C.: I am reading your book right now - very enlightening. My question is about any reprisals you may have had after its publication. It seems the atmosphere for whistleblowers is not very friendly right now, to say the least.
John Perkins: After 911 and my decision to write the book, I told no one I was doing it until the manuscript was in the hands of my agent and he was sending it to publishers. At that point, the best strategy of the corporatocracy was to try to ignore me. I did not have a job -- so could not be fired. If they killed me, it would sell millions of books.
Washington, D.C.: Great book.
Can you give us three things that we ordinary folk can do to help stop this?
John Perkins: Be conscious that every action you take, every product you buy, impacts people around the world.
Ask questions, do not accept what your govt and business leaders tell you at face value. Ask: "Who is benefiting most from this?"
Talk to people, challenge them to think. Ask if 5% of the world's population (the US) consuming over 25% of world's resources is sustainable. Is it a model we can offer to the rest of the world? Or: Is it a failed economic system?
Washington, D.C.: Has this tactic affected the development of infrastructure on the continent of Africa?
John Perkins: Yes, a great deal. Many of the current probs in Africa can be traced to oil (Nigeria and Sudan for example), Coltan (in laptops and cell phones -- Congo), and other resources our corps covet.
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador: Talk about a string of coincidences!We have been in Ecuador since Jan. (we live on our sail boat and sailed down from Panama). A boat that was here the other day gave us your book to read and then yesterday at the internet cafe I happened to log on to the Wash Post site and saw the notice about this chat. AND, we``on our way to Kapawi Lodge in a couple of weeks! I have a zillion questions, but am curious what your take is NOW on the condition of Ecuador}%conomy and environment?
John Perkins: Ecuador recently threw President Gutierrez out of office because many of the Ecudorian people believed he had not followed his campaign promises, many accused him of giving in to the intl oil companies, etc. The Amazonian indigenous people -- like the Achuar at Kapawi -- are fighting hard to protect their lands form intl oil companies. We must support them. Please give them my love and enjoy that beautiful rain forest.
Rockville, Md.: "Or: Is it a failed economic system?"
Most of what I read was that it was a way to "prime the pump" redistribute wealth and get the rest of the world to share the commerce. The example of money to China for trade was the way it would work. Or did I miss something?
John Perkins: Have you been to China recently? Or any of the countries where we "primed the pump"? If so, you know that the rich live in the parts of cities filled with shiny skyscrapers and mansions -- and millions of people, the vast majority, live in impoverished polluted slums. 24,000 people die of hunger every single day. The gap between rich and poor around the planet has nearly tripled since I started as an EHM in 1970. If you have not visited Indonesia, Nigeria, or similar places where we "primed the pump", I urge you to do so.
Silver Spring, Md.: John,
So in your opinion, are these economic hit men born from a few greedy, self-interested and powerful men or are they more a result of America's overall self-interested and protectionist attitude to preserving the "American way of life"?
John Perkins: The American way of life I was taught to respect honors equality andjustice for all. EHM protect a greedy way of life -- and it is increasingly their job to convince us all to buy into this -- to pay CEO's outrageously high salaries, even though they lay off workers, cut back pensions, and try to do away with Soc Sec and Medicare. This is not the America I want for my grandchildren. We must fight -- make sacrifices if necessary -- to do better. Our Founding Fathers and Mothers were traitors to the British government, they would have been hanged had theylost the Revolution. But thank heaven they had the courage to do the right thing -- for us. We now must do the right thing for those who come ater us.
Crofton, Md.: What can a U.S. consumer do? Or what should U.S. foreign policy do to support a rising middle class in these third world countries where there is so much extraction of natural resources by international corporations? Wouldn't these LDCs need some Hamiltonian economics( e.g. protectionist trade policies to develop internal industries?)
John Perkins: Be very careful how you shop. Make sure you dont buy products made in sweatshops or other places where workers are paid wages that do not allow them to house and feed their familes. You can google "Non sweatshop products" to learn more. Cut back on gas and other materialistic consumption. Honor women and men who work for nonprofits and other organizations striving to make this a better world, not Donald Trump and other greedy "plantation owners". From a policy standpoint we need to insist that developing countries have the opportunity to use their resources to help their own people, instead of enriching a few already-rich corp owners.
Washington, D.C.: It is my belief that humans have not found an economic system that distributes resources properly to benefit everyone. Capitalism creates serious gaps between rich and poor and communism creats huge inefficiencies while trying to distribute resources. What's your proposed solution and where has it been successfully implemented?
John Perkins: I believe we need to move away from "Imperialistic capitalism"where a very few make the decisions and most of the $ to "Democratic Capitalism" where more stakeholders share in these two processes. We like to demand democracy and transparency for countries, let's also doit for corps.
Washington, D.C.: I don't get it. You spent a career doing dirty work, and now you're promoting sustainable living. It seems like an incredible dichotomy. You've said your confessions...is Dream Change some kind of penance?
John Perkins: I'm 61, have a 23 year old daughter -- I've done a lot of bad things -- not illegal, but bad -- now I intend to devote whatever days I have left trying to make it a better world for my daughter and her children and their generations -- around the world. We live on a very small planet -- 911 showed us that -- and if our kids expect to grow up in a sustainable, peaceful world, every kid growing up in Indonesia, Bolovia, Nigeria must be able to have the same expectations.
Washington, D.C.: What do say to a commenter who makes this claim about your book?
"despite Perkins career as a self-proclaimed "economist", his book is devoid of even a single statistic backing up this claim. Instead, it rests almost solely upon the words of a mysterious "Claudia""
John Perkins: Every incident in the book is backed up by many other books -- the Saudi deal, Torrijos's death, etc, etc. It is my personal story but facts are referenced in many other
books -- see chap endnotes. I shy away from statistics, because I know how easy it is to abuse them. Claudine played a very small role in all this -- only a few pages at beginningof book and my life as an EHM. I dont understand that statement at all.
Washington, D.C.: What is your opinion of the potential impact of the work Bono, Bill Gates, etc. are trying to do related to Africa?
John Perkins: I am grateful that the are rising these issues, talking about the need to drop those debts. However, we need to see that the current round of debt foregiveness is and EHM ploy. Every one of those countries is asked to take on "conditionalities" -- privatize their utilties, drop trade barriers that protect their industries while accepting ones that protect ours. This is not true debt foregiveness. It is a vehicle for further empowering the corporatocracy.
John Perkins: We are about out of time. I deeply appreciate this opportunity to chat with you -- and all your probbing questions. Keep asking -- ask these questions of your government and business leaders. I am sorry that we ran out of time before I could get to everyone. Please check out my websites www.dreamchange.org and www.johnperkins.org for more information and places I'll be where you can ask questions in person. My next book will be out in Spring/Summer 2007 and I'll head back onto a speaking tour around that time. Also, a couple of great workshops and conferences at Omega in Aug and Oct. I hope to meet many of you in person. Above, all: know that this is a small community -- this planet of ours -- and we can and must make it a better place. However, it can only be better for our children, if it is better forchildren everywhere!
Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.