Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkin
Originally posted 7 July 2008.
I rarely fail to finish a book, even works I don’t enjoy I generally persevere with as sometimes a novel or other work can be redeemed in whole by a single sentence near the end. Aldous Huxley’s novel Antic Hay is in many senses a repugnant work, filled with terrible people who are astonishingly self absorbed and difficult to spend time with. The novel is so unremittingly bleak for most of its length that it becomes genuinely challenging to care enough to turn the next page, but near the end it contains a sequence which redeems the entire novel, which casts into sharp relief the miserable solipcism of the bulk of its cast and which takes it from empty caricature to what is ultimately a powerful and affecting work.
Usually if a book seems terrible there is no such late payoff, but with most books I will persevere and try to give the work a fair chance.
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man I abandoned on page 50, when the author has a vision of Jesus. A vision incidentally which changes his worldview, but which he fails to act on for around another 20 years or so. The book is ostensibly non-fiction, nothing in it though persuades me the author genuinely believed himself to have seen Jesus (I’m not personally religious, but I have no issue with the idea someone might believe themselves to have encountered Jesus in a personal sense) and indeed nothing persuades me that the book is anything more than a purely cynical attempt to make money by peddling conspiracy theories to the American left.
I did skim the remainder of the book, I read some sections after page 50, mostly to check that my view wasn’t dramatically changed. It wasn’t.
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is billed as an expose of the way in which the US government uses private corporations to lead third world countries into taking unwise development loans for US imperial benefit. John Perkins, the author, was one of these economic hit men (the term is he claims a term used in the real world by those who practice this profession), and in the foreword to the book he treats us to a conversation he has with his daughter where he worries that the “corporatocracy” to use his phrase will have him assassinated rather than let the book be published, but she persuades him to risk his life for our benefit. John Perkins, as of the time of this blog, is alive and well and selling alternative therapies and shamanic spirit-journey techniques in the US.
He is recruited in what even he refers to as a James Bond style interview, where a beautiful woman (actually, every woman in the book is beautiful, I don’t recall any other kind) recruits him to be an economic hit man explaining to him in clear detail that his job will be to produce intentionally misleading economic forecasts for developing nations, which forecasts will be used to mislead them into taking disadvantageous development loans. This is explained as being an intentionally cynical ploy designed to rob these countries of their wealth and as a deliberate act of American empire building – the US on his account having taken at government level (Republican, though since presumably Democrat administrations would be aware of this it seems odd none of them changed the policy in the last 50 years) a deliberate decision to create a global empire but deciding to do so through development loans rather than armies due to fears of the Soviet missile arsenal.
At this point my suspension of disbelief was already struggling. Not with the notion that development loans might be tied to preferential treatment of lender country corporations, they often are, not with the idea that development loans might often be made inappropriately and with disastrous consequences, certainly not with the idea that the growth forecasts driving them might be massively misleading.
What I struggled with was the James Bond villain-esque way in which all this is done. John Perkins as a young graduate is explicitly told he is being hired to be a bad guy, he is being hired to defraud nations. To put it simply, that’s just not very likely. Nor is it borne up by the book, where he describes his colleagues (and this bit I do believe) as fundamentally naive with a belief that they are helping debtor nations while showing no real understanding of those nations or the effects massive debt may have on them.
John Perkins has already told us in the foreword that he is risking his life for us, within a few pages he is (and I am not exaggerating) giving alms to lepers and showing his bravery by attending anti-US puppet shows. He is full of misgivings (unsurprisingly given on his account he was expressly told that he was joining the bad guys) though in practice he seems to reconcile them enough to continue in this industry for many years.
My objection to the book is not the subject matter, I think John Perkins has very cleverly taken a lot of truth and mixed it into the book, much of it taken I suspect from direct observation. Aid and development capital is routinely tied to economic benefits for the provider nation, projects are often encouraged which do not meet the real needs of the debtor nation, for example high quality train networks are built which only a handful of locals can afford to use while a far more useful local minivan bus service is left unfunded so leaving the majority of people without adequate transport (lowtech projects like minivan bus services really struggle to get international development money), motorways are constructed where there is no traffic to make use of them, massive container ports built where any impartial traffic forecast would show no meaningful prospect of their being meaningfully utilised. In these deals provider nation construction companies do make huge profits on occasion, while the host country reaps little real benefit. All this is sometimes true, and deserves much closer scrutiny than it sometimes receives.
But, it’s not all part of some dread secret conspiracy, revealed only to entry level economists. That’s a comforting myth, because if it were we could arrest those responsible and the world would be made right. Those who tie loans and aid to contracts for provider nation countries are typically quite open about it as they believe that’s an appropriate and right thing to do – it’s not a secret policy anywhere. Where it happens it is typically open government policy with those supporting it openly arguing for why they think those are appropriate conditions to aid and loans.
Equally, there is much to be said about developing world debt, how it is incurred, how the developed world may profit from it, about the ethics of that and the way the rich world profits from the poor. There’s much to be said about how trade barriers are used to protect developed world producers and prevent developing world producers from having fair access to free trade (trade barriers typically erected by developed world free trade advocates at that), there’s a lot to be said about how the developing world is denied access to healthcare, clean water and capital for appropriate development projects.
This book though does not really make those arguments, instead it posits a neat and convenient conspiracy of evil men (and their beautiful female agents) who conspire to deliberately defraud the developing world, the author is a messianic individual who when not providing alms to lepers claims he helped in this process by intentionally producing misleading economic forecasts (though on his own account his peers simply don’t think through their forecasts and simply produced what they thought their employers expected, a far more likely scenario in my view – Perkins appears to be the only person the conspiracy informed of its intentions, while he was a new intake economist), the author doesn’t persuade.
In my view this book is a calculated deception aimed at the American left, designed to appeal to the fears and concerns of that target demographic. It takes a number of very real issues, wraps them in an easily digested conspiracy framework which avoids the need to examine how developed world corporations and governments actually exploit the developing world and sells outrage and easy solutions to those who are not actually activists but who like to think of themselves as such. It’s no coincidence in my view that the author now sells spiritual transformations and spirit journeying techniques (quite how he reconciles that with his visions of Jesus I have no idea, he seems a man much prone to visions), I think he has identified groups that he thinks will swallow myths for cash, has taken his own real life experience working with developing nations and his own understanding of the issues surrounding the same, and has come up with a book which is essentially fiction but which is close enough to reality as to do little other than to obscure the very real ways in which the developed world takes advantage of the developing world.
It’s not a book I recommend.