Hit and Miss:
John Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
ELIZA STRICKLAND / East Bay Express 1feb2006
Also read about testimony of FDNYC and emergency workers.
Last Wednesday, about six hundred people crowded into [Martin Luther King] middle-school auditorium in North Berkeley to hear a discussion with the progressive left's latest whistle-blowing hero. John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, said his guilty conscience has compelled him to come forward to speak the truth about the "corporatocracy" and its nefarious schemes for global empire. He spun a tale of his personal involvement in the system over three decades: from his recruitment by the National Security Agency as a fresh-faced kid just out of college, to the bribes and threats used to keep him quiet after he quit his job at a massive engineering firm. Perkins' book was published in paperback last month, and is currently bolting up the best-seller lists. It's reaching the zenith of its popularity at an interesting moment -- just as we dedicate the new annex to our cultural hall of shame to discredited memoirists. But the recently exposed frauds James Frey and JT LeRoy only invented stories of family dysfunction, drug use, and general wretchedness to drum up sympathy and book sales. John Perkins' memoir also rings false at times, but with potentially more serious ramifications.
For a memoir about economic decisions that must have produced volumes of documents and included the work of hundreds of people, Perkins' account is notably weak on corroboration. The most blatant explanation of his role as an economic hit man, Perkins says, came from a beautiful woman named Claudine who seduced him, both physically and intellectually, before disappearing without a trace. Although he spent ten years doing economic dirty work for a major corporation, he quotes none of the reports he produced. There are no other interviews, no corroborating accounts, and scanty footnotes. In this "personalized" version of events, Perkins relies on his memory to recreate scenes and conversations from the 1970s, a risky choice when his instructions to perform dastardly deeds were given through hints and innuendo.
Nonetheless, the book's allegations of US government and corporate conspiracy have left East Bay lefties riveted, convinced, and fired up with righteous indignation. "I think what we've got here is one high-level economic professional who had the courage and the decency and honesty to come forward," says Kevin Danaher, co-founder of the non-profit Global Exchange, who took part in Wednesday's discussion. The other participant, Oakland Institute's executive director Anuradha Mittal, also accepted Perkins' story, although at least she also questioned his motivations and suggested that he shouldn't be allowed to reap further profits from what she called his "crimes against humanity." Certainly the audience was ready to believe; people burst into applause and shouts of approbation at the slightest excuse, and gave the author a standing ovation at the evening's end.
Part of the book's core message is demonstrably true. As chief economist for Chas T. Main, an engineering firm that has since gone out of business, Perkins was in a position to observe the economic policies that ensnared developing nations in a web of debt. The countries borrowed money from the World Bank and other international lenders to embark on ambitious infrastructure projects in the name of modernization: they built hydroelectric dams, port facilities, airports and highways. But they didn't reap the economic rewards expected, and soon the countries' leaders were forced to cut spending on social programs in order to keep up with interest payments on the loans.
Perkins certainly cites some damning examples. In Ecuador, he writes, "Since 1970, during the period known euphemistically as the Oil Boom, the official poverty level grew from 50 to 70 percent, and public debt increased from $240 million to $16 billion. Meanwhile, the share of national resources allocated to the poorest segments of the population declined from 20 to 6 percent."
But here his story veers into dubious territory. The international lenders wanted the countries to default on their loans, he writes, to put them in a position of subservience. When a nation defaults, the US, acting through the World Bank, can demand control over United Nations votes, the installation of military bases, or access to oil and other precious resources. Perkins says it was his job to come up with bogus economic projections that would convince these developing countries to take out the loans.
Perkins says this strategy was top secret, and that he was one of very few people who understood the objectives of his work. He was put in this privileged position, he says, because the NSA recruited him after college. He chose not to join up at the last minute, and spent two years in Ecuador with the Peace Corps instead. But one day, a man in a business suit arrived in the Ecuadoran village. His name was Einar Greve, and he was a vice-president with Chas T. Main. "He started talking to me about the benefits of working for a company like Main," Perkins writes. "When I mentioned that I had been accepted by the NSA before joining the Peace Corps, and that I was considering going back to them, he informed me that he sometimes acted as an NSA liaison; he gave me a look that made me suspect that part of his assignment was to evaluate my capabilities. I now believe that he was updating my profile."
Hogwash, says Greve, speaking by phone from his home in Santa Barbara. "I was not working for the NSA or the CIA. I think Perkins tries to make out that I was some kind of mysterious person, and I really wasn't," he says. "It's true that I hired him, and I put him to work as an economist, and the company I worked for did make some studies for people like USAID and the World Bank. But his role as an 'economic hit man,' I think that's mostly fiction. Unless he knows something that I don't know," says Greve with a chuckle.
Greve says that Perkins has gotten away with spinning his James Bond tale by building it around a nugget of truth. "Basically, it's correct that a number of countries were given loans for the kind of projects that it was hoped would help their economies get started -- like roads and harbors," says Greve. "The intent was probably well meant, but it was really a faulty theory. It was thought up by professors in ivory towers -- it's not enough to go in and build an electrical system in a country, you also need people with educations and enterprise-type spirits who can start businesses and get things going. In some places, it had good effects. But in other places, these countries ended up with loans they couldn't repay."
It's the assertion that these results were not a mistake, but rather a cold-hearted and Machiavellian maneuver, that makes the book so hard to believe. Even Perkins' publisher had some questions. "Is this all true, what can you document? Those were the first questions out of my mouth when I called John," says Steven Piersanti, president of the San Francisco-based Berrett-Koehler Publishers, who published the hardcover book last year. Piersanti says after many conversations with Perkins, he was convinced.
But there have been enough doubts about the book for Piersanti to write a "veracity memo," which is posted on the book's Web site, EconomicHitMan.com. "There is a great deal of evidence to support the veracity of John's accounts in Confessions," Piersanti writes, citing articles on the now-extinct company Chas T. Main and a list of books on globalization. He also writes, "I have spent dozens of hours discussing with John every page of his book and have had, I believe, a good opportunity to note inconsistencies and errors if John were merely making up his accounts." Piersanti writes that it is "indisputable" that Perkins worked for Chas T. Main on projects in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, but stops short of trying to prove that Perkins' stated assignment was to advance the cause of global empire.
Perkins' credibility certainly wasn't bolstered by the company he kept at last Wednesday's talk. At the auditorium door, representatives of various progressive causes handed out flyers, including one that suggested that the World Trade Center towers were brought down by explosions planted by the US government. When September 11 came up in the discussion the shouts rose from the audience: "Building Seven! Building Seven!" For those not up to date, conspiracy theorists suggest that the World Trade Center's Building Seven was actually demolished by the government in order to destroy Securities and Exchange Commission files of ongoing investigations.
The people who filled the auditorium seats, a typical Berkeley assortment of frizzy-headed folks wearing windbreakers and sensible shoes, were poised on the edge of their seats after the talk of September 11 conspiracies. Perkins followed up strong, with a juicy discussion of Bolivia, where the populist leader Evo Morales took office last month. Perkins said he had spoken recently to economic hit men active in South America and been told in detail about the pressures put on the new president. Perkins claimed that in the days immediately after the Bolivia election, a hit man paid a visit to Morales to say congratulations -- and watch out. "Then he bends down very close to the president's ear," Perkins alleged, "and whispers, 'I just want to remind you that in this hand I have a couple of hundred million dollars for you and your family if you work with us, if you play our game. In this hand, I have a gun with a bullet with your name on it if you decide to honor your campaign promises.' I guarantee you that happened." No one who pays any attention to Latin American politics could doubt that the US will put pressure on the left-leaning leaders recently elected across the continent. American envoys will certainly try to convince them to adopt economic policies that favor the US. But cloak-and-dagger conspiracies such as those advanced by Perkins make it harder for reasonable critics of American foreign policy to call attention to legitimate mischief like the recent US role in Haiti so well-documented in a January 29 story in The New York Times. [DEMOCRACY UNDONE: Back Channels vs. Policy; Mixed U.S. Signals Helped Tilt Haiti Toward Chaos WALT BOGDANICH and JENNY NORDBERG / New York Times 29jan2006]
In both the book and his talk, Perkins cast himself as an insider with information so sensitive that he must be kept quiet. A lucrative consulting job he took in the late '80s was really a bribe, he writes, to keep him from writing the book. He says that 25 publishers rejected the book and the "mainstream media" haven't reviewed the book because the corporate powers-that-be didn't want his message to get out. He talks of being afraid for his life now that he's finally speaking out: "I think there's always a risk," he says. "If nothing else, there's a risk from the crazies, and you never know who put the crazies up." And he's convinced that the NSA is still keeping tabs on him. Towards the end of Wednesday's talk, the organizer made an announcement about a dark green van that was blocking a driveway. "I wouldn't go near a dark green van if I were you!" Perkins shouted. "It's probably packed with listening devices. The NSA is very fond of dark green vans." He was only half-joking.
Perkins ends Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by comparing himself to Paul Revere, and calls upon all Americans to wake up, to challenge their government, and to demand economic and foreign policies that benefit the 45 percent of the world that lives on less than $2 a day. But it seems unlikely that the book's overblown rhetoric will do anything more than reinforce the ardor of the Michael Moore demographic. Telling the story straight up probably wouldn't have boosted Perkins' ego as much, but might have done more good for his cause.
source: http://eastbayexpress.com/Issues/2006-02-01/culture/culturewatch_full.html 8feb2006