Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is a partly autobiographical book written by John Perkins published in 2004. It provides Perkins' account of his career with engineering consulting firm Chas. T. Main in Boston. According to Perkins, his role at Main was to convince leaders of underdeveloped countries to accept substantial development loans for large construction and engineering projects that would primarily help the richest families and local elites, rather than the poor, while making sure that these projects were contracted to U.S. companies. Later these loans would give the U.S. political influence and access to natural resources for U.S. companies. He refers to this as an "economic hit man." Although he states that throughout his career he has always worked for private companies, and suggests a system of corporatocracy and greed, rather than a single conspiracy, he claims the involvement of the National Security Agency (NSA), which he interviewed for a job before joining Main. According to the author, this interview effectively constituted an independent screening which led to his subsequent hiring as an economic hit man by Einar Greve, a vice president of the firm (and alleged NSA liaison).
The book heavily criticizes U.S. foreign policy and the widely accepted idea that "all economic growth benefits humankind, and that the greater the growth, the more widespread the benefits." Suggesting that in many cases only a small portion of the population benefits at the expense of the rest, with the example including increasing income inequality where large U.S. companies exploit cheap labor and oil companies destroy local environment, Perkins describes what he calls a system of corporatocracy and greed as the driving force behind establishing the USA as a global empire in which he took a role as an "economic hit man" to expand its influence.
According to his book, Perkins' function was to convince the political and financial leadership of underdeveloped countries to accept enormous development loans from institutions like the World Bank and USAID. Saddled with debts they could not hope to pay, those countries were forced to acquiesce to political pressure from the United States on a variety of issues. Perkins argues in his book that developing nations were effectively neutralized politically, had their wealth gaps driven wider and economies crippled in the long run. In this capacity, Perkins recounts his meetings with some prominent individuals, including Graham Greene and Omar Torrijos. Perkins describes the role of an economic hit man as follows:
Economic hit men (EHMs) are highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars. They funnel money from the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and other foreign "aid" organizations into the coffers of huge corporations and the pockets of a few wealthy families who control the planet's natural resources. Their tools included fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex, and murder. They play a game as old as empire, but one that has taken on new and terrifying dimensions during this time of globalization.
According to Perkins, he began writing Confessions of an Economic Hit Man in the 1980s, but "threats or bribes always convinced [him] to stop."
I was initially recruited while I was in business school back in the late sixties by the National Security Agency, the nation’s largest and least understood spy organization; but ultimately I worked for private corporations. The first real economic hit man was back in the early 1950s, Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., the grandson of Teddy, who overthrew the government of Iran, a democratically elected government, Mossadegh’s government who was Time‘s magazine person of the year; and he was so successful at doing this without any bloodshed—well, there was a little bloodshed, but no military intervention, just spending millions of dollars and replaced Mossadegh with the Shah of Iran. At that point, we understood that this idea of economic hit man was an extremely good one. We didn’t have to worry about the threat of war with Russia when we did it this way. The problem with that was that Roosevelt was a C.I.A. agent. He was a government employee. Had he been caught, we would have been in a lot of trouble. It would have been very embarrassing. So, at that point, the decision was made to use organizations like the C.I.A. and the N.S.A. to recruit potential economic hit men like me and then send us to work for private consulting companies, engineering firms, construction companies, so that if we were caught, there would be no connection with the government.
— November 4, 2004 interview
Reception and Criticism
Columnist Sebastian Mallaby of The Washington Post reacted sharply to Perkins' book: "This man is a frothing conspiracy theorist, a vainglorious peddler of nonsense, and yet his book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, is a runaway bestseller." Mallaby, who spent 13 years writing for the London Economist and wrote a critically well-received biography of World Bank chief James Wolfensohn, holds that Perkins' conception of international finance is "largely a dream" and that his "basic contentions are flat wrong". For instance, he points out that Indonesia reduced its infant mortality and illiteracy rates by two-thirds after economists persuaded its leaders to borrow money in 1970. He also disputes Perkins' claim that 51 of the top 100 world economies belong to companies. A value-added comparison done by the UN, he says, shows the number to be 29.
Other sources, including articles in The New York Times and Boston Magazine as well as a press release issued by the United States Department of State, have referred to a lack of documentary or testimonial evidence to corroborate the claim that the NSA was involved in his hiring to Chas T. Main. In addition, the author of the State Department release states that the NSA "is a cryptological (codemaking and codebreaking) organization, not an economic organization" and that its missions do not involve "anything remotely resembling placing economists at private companies in order to increase the debt of foreign countries". Economic historian Niall Ferguson writes in his book The Ascent of Money that Perkins's contention that the leaders of Ecuador (President Jaime Roldós Aguilera) and Panama (General Omar Torrijos) were assassinated by US agents for opposing the interests of the owners of their countries' foreign debt "seems a little odd" in light of the fact that in the 1970s the amount of money that the US had lent to Ecuador and Panama accounted for less than 0.4% of the total US grants and loans, while in 1990 the exports from the US to those countries accounted for approximately 0.4% of the total US exports (approximately $8 billion). According to Ferguson, those "do not seem like figures worth killing for". Einar Greve, the former vice president at Chas. T. Main who first offered Perkins a job there, at first affirmed the overall validity of the book, saying "basically his story is true... What John's book says is, there was a conspiracy to put all these countries on the hook, and that happened. Whether or not it was some sinister plot or not is up to interpretation, but many of these countries are still over the barrel and have never been able to repay the loans." However, on being asked by another reporter about the book, Greve re-read the book and denied the validity of some of the claims, such as the claim that the NSA had any links to Main, or that Perkins was seduced by Claudine.
After publishing Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, Perkins continued with writing three other books on the topic, focusing on other aspects. A Game as Old as Empire: the Secret World of Economic Hit Men and the Web of Global Corruption (2007), The Secret History of the American Empire (2007) and Hoodwinked: An Economic Hit Man Reveals Why the World Financial Markets Imploded – and What We Need to Do to Remake Them (2009).
The epilogue to the 2006 edition provides a rebuttal to the current move by the G8 nations to forgive Third World debt. Perkins charges that the proposed conditions for this debt forgiveness require countries to privatise their health, education, electric, water and other public services. Those countries would also have to discontinue subsidies and trade restrictions that support local business, but accept the continued subsidization of certain G8 businesses by the US and other G8 countries, and the erection of trade barriers on imports that threaten G8 industries.
In 2009, the documentary film Confessions of an Economic Hit Man featuring interviews with Perkins, was shown at film festivals around the U.S. The film is a Greek–U.S. co-production directed by Stelios Kouloglou, and was filmed in 2007 and 2008. Numerous interview-style statements by John Perkins also appear in the 2008 Internet-based documentary, Zeitgeist: Addendum, and in the 2012 documentary, Four Horsemen.
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- Tkacik, Maureen (2005), Economic Hit Man, Boston Magazine