Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Book Review: Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins (2004)

An Economic Hit Man is the foot soldier of modern-day empire-building in the age of capitalism: his job is to conquer poor countries through economic blackmail. Or such is the story of John Perkins, a former economist  whose conscience eventually riddled him with guilt, compelling him to expose his sordid career. Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man is a story of global dirty tricks, a compelling autobiography, and a sometimes tiresome confessional.

Perkins was an economist wonderboy, and quickly rose through the ranks working for MAIN, a private engineering consulting firm. Most of MAIN's clients were government agencies and international loan banks, and Perkins' assignments were relatively simple: to forecast stunningly optimistic economic growth rates in third world countries, to justify massive bank loans that would effectively bury the receiving countries under a mountain of debt while enriching their corrupt leaders.

Of course, the loans themselves would never help alleviate poverty or improve the local standard of living: the money was always channelled back to the US and earmarked to hire large US engineering and construction firms, such as Bechtel and Halliburton, to design and build massive infrastructure projects to support the incredible growth projections. The men who ran these firms had a continuing tight-knit relationship with the Washington DC power-brokers, and frequently moved back and forth between corporate and political leadership positions.

Meanwhile, the crippling debt would effectively hijack the country to the whims of the Unites States in all matters of foreign affairs and global conflicts.

Perkins was not qualified as an economist, but he was a good researcher and persuasive presenter. His people skills and willingness to create and support fictional growth data catapulted him into a role of astonishing influence, shaping the futures of countries such as Indonesia, Panama, Colombia, and Iran.

The most eye-opening chapters of the book cover the deal struck between the United States and Saudi Arabia after the oil crisis of the early 1970s. In return for guaranteeing the safety and continued dominance of the Al-Saud family, Saudi Arabia guaranteed the supply of cheap oil, and oil money in the form of interest yielded by US government securities purchased by the Saudis was recycled to hire US companies to build-out the Kingdom. It was an ingenious deal that enriched the ruling Saudis and US corporate interests, and Perkins had a significant role in pulling it together.

As much as the book reveals about the inner workings of an empire, it's also a confession by a man who feels the utmost guilt about his role in expanding capitalistic objectives. Due to an unhappy upbringing and what seems to be an utterly dysfunctional relationship with his parents, Perkins admits that he was easy to influence, and indeed the book is littered with people who Perkins admits sharply turned his head this way and that. These include Claudine, the sexy companion apparently retained by MAIN to seduce him while teaching him the role of an Economic Hit Man; Omar Torrijos, the former President of Panama; Paula, a woman he met in Colombia; and locals in Indonesia and Panama who showed him the poverty-riddled streets and exposed him to simmering anti-US sentiment.

Perkins' continued gut-spilling to assuage his guilt gets tiresome, and certainly his take on overall global events comes across as naive in the extreme. His tangential discussions about leader of Al-Qaeda Osama Bin Laden and President of Iraq Saddam Hussein are myopic at best, while his adulation for socialist-leaning leaders such as Torrijos borders on a child's hero worship.

Perkins turned the second part of his life to non-profits and the promotion of ethical practices, and these parts of the book are noticeably less interesting. Ironically for an autobiography, the real power of Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man lies in the revelations about the system, rather than the man who played the role of a glorified pawn.

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