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John Perkins’ “Confessions of an Economic Hitman”  reads somewhere between spy thriller and banality – and it’s this odd combination which makes his claims believable. In any event Perkins insists that the book is factual.

The story is simple. During much of the Cold War, from 1971 onwards, John Perkins was an Economic Hitman or EHM.

The job description of an EHM is to facilitate exploitation of  the developing world – to ensure that countries take on debt levels  that they would never repay. A burden so high that countries  struggle to meet the interest payments, let alone pay down the principle. Their people – and more importantly (for the EHM) their resources – become  tied down to a cycle of destitution; sold as slaves, oil, timber and minerals to the big American conglomerates, resources to be reprocessed into expensive finished goods and sold to the world.

To create this global serfdom, an EHM creates a fantasy, an economic miracle, that justifies incurring the debt. The fantasy is seductively simple. You invest in essential infrastructure – the bigger the better (for the American engineering and construction firms hired to build them). The new projects will boost GDP (Perkins mentions how he predicted an electricity book of 17% growth year on year for 10 years in Java, Indonesia in 1971). The boom will see a fat increase in government revenue. The new revenue will pay down the debt quickly and the government will come out of it having got its new state of the art infrastructure for ‘free’.

Of course none of these forecast fantasies account for corruption, popular riots, natural disasters, governments being overthrown (or just encouraged to fail) or war.

One especially intriguing aspect is Perkins’ insistence that the job of EHM’s is, for the most part, not part of a global conspiracy. There are no shadowy cabals in the background, cynically conspiring to control the world. Rather it is a product of the “corporatocracy” – where the purely self interested profit motive of private corporations and individuals become the driving force of national and international policy. This motivation is not malicious; rather it is a myopic perspective that does not look at the ‘big’ picture beyond the profits and benefits of the individual and the employer.

I found this book both horrific and intriguing. Horrific because of the sheer callous nature with which Perkins operated, and with which pointless short term profit  triumphed again and again when it was clear that the long term harm was irremediable. Perkins is clearly a smart fellow, and his ability to rationalise his actions, even when he could intuit how wrong they were and still continue with them speaks vividly about a darker side of the human psyche.

Intriguing because I recognise the part of Perkins’ viewpoint that inhabits my world. I can see that myopia in what is done by lawyers and the legal profession. After all we’re more interested in getting the deal done instead of the ethical, environmental and moral implications. As the author himself observes in a throw away sentence – there was a lot of moral comfort derived for people by being told what they were doing was strictly legal, especially when they knew it was immoral.

Confessions of an Economic Hitman is a pretty sobering book – one that will never let you view a newspaper or history book quite the same way again. It may even be, in that rare class, one of those books that will not allow you to live your life the same way again. It’s a fantastic eye opener.

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2 Comments

    • Richard
    • Posted November 19, 2009 at 3:28 am
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    Hey, how are you doing? Your entries are really quite fascinating, and your observation about those of us in the legal industry is quite true, but then, what can we do when we have to make a living and feed ourselves? Care for lunch/dinner some time?

    • mtalib
    • Posted November 19, 2009 at 11:32 pm
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    I wish I had the answer to that. It’s an excellent question – and on an abstract moral level, it’s hard to fault anyone who wants to make a living and enjoy life for doing their work.

    That doesn’t mean work doesn’t have a moral dimension, but just that most of us don’t engage with the moral dimension of our jobs very often and when we do it can conflict with our lives in a frighteningly concrete way.

    Do you still have my email? Would definitely be good to catch up.


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