Saturday, February 18, 2006

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins: A Review

Listening to NPR recently, I heard John Perkins interviewed about his best-selling autobiography, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. The interview left me intrigued enough to buy the book, but I hesitated to click the "buy" button after I read the negative review by Publisher's Weekly on the book's page:

[Perkins'] claim to have assisted the House of Saud in strengthening its ties to American power brokers may be timely enough to attract some attention, but the yarn he spins is ultimately unconvincing, except perhaps to conspiracy buffs.

I guess doesn't necessarily want to sell this book. Size has its privileges. I ended up clicking the "buy" button because, as a liberal, I am wary of the usual right wing, knee-jerk claim of "conspiracy theory" for any corruption revealed as involving more than two people--and since I know is not to be trusted due to their right-wing sympathies, and the significant roll they play in what I see as the vast right wing conspiracy we call the media. I need to stop shopping there. I confess.

A quick read of Perkins' Confessions left me with profoundly mixed feelings, and they had nothing to do with whether or not the book is plausible. In fact, with respect to the story Perkins tells about his dealings as an international consultant for Chas T. Main during the 70s and early 80s, it does not seem conspiratorial at all. For this reader, Perkins' book provided what seems to be very plausible but incomplete explanations for how and why "less developed countries," or "LDCs" in the book, become indebted to the DCs that control international banking, and how this indebtedness makes some people very rich: a small group of the LDC elite, the elite of the engineering corporations that get paid on the front end (what Perkins refers to as laundered money), and the elite of the oil companies that get paid on the back end by being able to exploit the resources of the LDC that can't repay the loans.

Besides the superficiality of his explanations of the machinations of these scams, what turned me off the book the most has to do with what the book is—that is, what it is beyond being an expose of how these scams have played a central role creating what we euphemistically call "globalization." The book is an autobiography; more specifically, it is a confessional. Perkins wants to be forgiven in a bad way. I don't just mean his desire to be forgiven is strong, which it is: he wants to be forgiven in a way that I find borderline nauseating.

Perkins crime as an "EHM" or "economic hit man" was to create inflated economic forecasts for LDC leaders who were considering going into debt in order to modernize their country's infrastructure. The EHM's sales pitch was that a modernized infrastructure would allow the country's economy to grow in a way that would not only allow the LDC to pay off the debt, but to also have money left over for a better standard of living. This would lead the LDC out of poverty and allow it to graduate to DC—or so the pitch went. The sinister element of the pitch was the EHM's inflated economic forecast that would convince the head of state that taking on such a large debt was justified by a future of riches. As Perkins tells it, his role as an economic forecaster for an influential consulting firm was central to this world-shaping scam. For this reader who knows little about the history of international finance and the causes of third world debt, this story filled in some important holes in my education on these very important topics. I now feel that the importance of the massive engineering contracts that came out of these and other scams Perkins explains in his narrative, particularly Saudi Arabia, helps me to better explain, for example, why going to war with Iraq would be of so much interest to the current Bush administration—and also why keeping the focus off of Saudi Arabia, the source of so much funding for Jihadist education around the world and the home of fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers, would be so important to them too.

Since I cared little about Perkins redemption and quite a bit about the machinations of the scam itself, the book left me wanting a great deal more detail on the particulars of these scams, and how the scams worked and didn't work in various countries. I wanted much more of Perkins' insider knowledge and what I imagine to be whistle-blowing. It is understood that the contractors involved—Halliburton, Brown and Root … The Usual Suspects—were fully paid for their work by the loans, but why would a financial institution be willing to give loans which they knew were not going to be paid off? Was it like the S&L scam? Were these loans somehow insured by the governments involved? If not, wouldn't this scam amount to a very expensive way to achieve the desired indebtedness and servitude? Isn't the IMF and the World Bank—and all the other banks involved—also interested in making money? At least in being solvent?

The roles of commercial banks is left particularly unclear here. Patricia Adams writes in Odious Debts: Loose Lending, Corruption, and the Third World's Environmental Legacy that commercial banks were making a lot of profit from third world loans during the 70s and early 80s, which was when Perkins was involved in the EHM game:

A Salomon Brothers report showed the thirteen largest U.S. banks had quintupled their earnings from $177 million to $836 million during the first half of the 1970s, with the most spectacular part of the increase coming from the Third World loans. By 1976, Chase Manhattan Bank was earning 78 per cent of its income abroad, Citibank 72 per cent, Bank of America 40 per cent, First Boston 68 per cent, Morgan Guaranty 53 per cent, and Manufacturers Hanover 56 per cent. The Banque Nationale de Paris (BNP), one of the world's largest banking houses, was thought to be profiting more from its various affiliates in Africa than from its extensive branch network in France. In absolute terms, Nigeria alone came to account for up to 20 per cent of BNP's after-tax earnings in the late 1970s. A 1982 bank survey reported that international lending had been more profitable than domestic lending for two out of three banks.

Was the World Bank losing money on third world loans while the commercial banks were making money? What about the IMF? How did the banks make money on these types of ventures, if they did? If they didn't, why were these institutions interested in making so much money up front for the Halliburtons of the world, and on the back end for the Exxons? These type of questions of globalization are not asked, or are left unanswered here. With Paul Wolfowitz at its head, it is not hard to imagine that the World Bank is so corrupt that it does not act as a proper financial institution guided by the invisible hand of capitalism but as a money laundering broker for the likes of the Halliburtons and Exxons with the likes of Cheney at its head. Yet this is where Perkins confession fall short. His broad strokes are suggestive, but need some detail to back them up. Like me, most of his readers will not be bankers. If this scam was so common, how has it gone undetected? Has it gone undetected? If it has been detected before and this international banking history beginner is just ignorant, is this book just about Perkins wanting redemption?

Also, he fails when it comes to holding individuals responsible, or, again, he leaves out the details. Why? Perkins barely mentions Bush Jr. He only mentions the obvious about Cheney. My guess is he could do a lot more here if he wanted to. Why doesn't he want to? Perkins mentions Bush Sr. and makes a convincing if only suggestive case that this part-owner of The United Fruit Company and former head of the CIA would be a mover and shaker within the corporatacracy's scam involving the likes of "banana republics," but why only suggestive? Perkins has the expertise and the experience to do a much more in-depth and damning expose of the machinations of international banking and loans to third world countries, and the collusion of corporations and government leaders. If his role was so central to the crimes of the corporatacracy, wouldn't redemption require more with respect to exposing the details of the scam, and at least some of the more significant players?

Indeed, it seems to this reader that Perkins is less interested in exposing the crimes and criminals of globalization than he is in redemption—and, to be blunt, in achieving some fame while receiving redemption (or fame as some form of redemption). Not surprisingly for such a confession, the character of the author is central. In this case, too much so. Perkins desire for some kind of redemption from his reading audience is a major failing of the book, where at times it gets almost unreadably mawkish and—surprisingly for someone who portrays himself as so Bond-like and worldly—na├»ve. For example, in a November 2004 interview with Democracy Now's Amy Goodman, Perkins said the following:

And that's why I wrote the book, because our country really needs to understand, if people in this nation understood what our foreign policy is really about, what foreign aid is about, how our corporations work, where our tax money goes, I know we will demand change.

What "we" could he possibly be talking about? He seems to have been watching too much Oprah. In E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel, Daniel wonders why his father seems constantly surprised by what they both see as the evil of the United States, and Daniel poignantly asks what it will take for his father to stop being surprised. Does Perkins actually think that his broad-strokes revelation, though probably significant, is such a ground-breaking surprise that it will actually lead to some kind of meaningful reform, or revolution?

Do I sense a bit of messianic narcissism at play here? Does he think that those who--like myself, mostly ignorant about the history of international finance--will read the book, learn something about the criminal machinations of globalization, and then will be spurred into action by their surprise and disgust? Unlike Daniels father, I'm not surprised. I've read Chomsky and Zinn. I subscribe to FAIR. Moreover, most American readers will either not care, reject what he has to say as a conspiracy theory, or, sad to say, believe in the rightness of the manifest destiny he decries and see this scam as a clever means of achieving it—even rationalizing that these LDCs at least got some infrastructure and a hard lessen in capitalism out of the deal. The "we" he refers to mostly will either not be surprised or will not care that the CIA killed Omar Torrijos. Invading Panama didn't seem to surprise the "we" too much, and that was rather blatant.

The scam of the book itself is that Perkins sells his belief in the inherent goodness of his reader as a way of seducing the reader into paying him back with some redemption. He wants the reader to see him as good, and in return he at times patronizingly treats the reader like a member of one of his tours down the Amazon: "like me, you want to be good too … let me show you how." When Goodman asks why he didn't write the book sooner, and what was the nature of the bribe he took not to write it, Perkins responds:

I think I, you know, I’m a good person overall, and I think my story really shows how this system and these powerful drugs of sex, money and power can seduce people, because I certainly was seduced.

He eventually answers the question with more confessions about taking pay as a consultant, and then not having to do any work. Being worldly, he understands this as a bribe to keep quiet.

Perkins repeatedly uses the seduction of the "sex, power, and money" this "system" could offer him as an excuse for his part in the crimes. Though the sex is left a bit vague, the power and money seem clear enough. He only briefly alludes to the sex since, as he makes clear (as if he were running for office), he's become a family man since he left the ranks of EHMs. He even attributes the ultimate completion of his transformation from hit man to liberal righteousness to his desire to want a better world for his daughter. You see: this is ultimately a family values confessional.

One thing a messianic narcissist can't attain while in the ranks of the covert EHMs is fame. So it seems Perkins has traded in the EHM's international sex for the international fame a best-selling author will enjoy. He'll still make money, and even enjoy the power the NYT's best seller list affords. He'll give lectures, and tours of the Amazon. But his messianic narcissism doesn't stop there: a visit to any of Perkins' web sites shows how he has moved from EHM to some bathetic mixture of new-age guru and modern-day Rousseau, confessing his corruption while spouting platitudes about the noble savage—as if the reader needs some reformed corporatacracy criminal to tell her or him how to be a good liberal:

The Prophecy of the Condor and Eagle' can be taken at many levels—the standard interpretation is that it foretells the sharing of indigenous knowledge with the technologies of science, the balancing of yin and yang, and the bridging of northern and southern cultures. However, most powerful is the message it offers about consciousness; it says that we have entered a time when we can benefit from the many diverse ways of seeing ourselves and the world, and that we can use these as a springboard to higher levels of awareness. As human beings, we can truly wake up and evolve into a more conscious species.

Perkins is a would-be prophet of the Good News to follow the corrupt capitalism he describes, a reader of the signs of the ages. I hope my awakening comes with a good dose of fame, sex, money, and power. Perhaps I can get a good start by joining one of the study groups in my neighborhood this would-be-Guru hopes to set up for discussions of his Confessions via his web site A grassroots movement that, unlike the rhizomatic roots of grass, very much has a center, a leader, the hero who has come back from the darkside to tell the rest of the rebel hoard how to be enlightened. Ugh. Patriotism is not this scoundrel's refuge. Like so many boomers before him, he has found his Oprah redemption in front of a fawning audience, albeit a redemption that seems shaky enough to lead to compulsive-sounding assurances that he is, "you know … a good person." Goodman's show is open to reformed right-wingers lamenting the error of their ways and the evils of capitalism, in a way giving them some kind of redemption if it leads to more ammunition against the vast right wing conspiracy—a small price to pay, it would seem, though it is hard to imagine needing more ammunition with Bush Jr. as president. This book might be better relocated out of the politics section and into the New-Age or self-help sections, or some combination of the two so popular among boomers recovering from some form of disenchantment.

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