John Perkins – Confessions of an Economic Hitman

Confessions of an Economic Hitman

“My sin was ripping off people around the world,” said John Perkins, author of “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.” He says he pushed countries to take on loans they would have trouble repaying.

IT is standing room only in Transitions, a New Age bookstore in Chicago, and John M. Perkins, the author of “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man,” is describing to his audience the quandary that faces Evo Morales, the recently elected president of Bolivia.

Leaning low into the microphone, Mr. Perkins affects a deep conspiratorial whisper as he sets the scene for the imagined encounter between the new president and the representative of the multinational corporate interests Mr. Morales had vilified during his campaign.

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“Congratulations Mr. President,” Mr. Perkins says, assuming the role of the businessman, or economic hit man, as he likes to call his previous profession. “I just want you to know that in this hand I have a couple of hundred million dollars for you and your family if you play the game our way.” With the practiced timing of an expert storyteller, Mr. Perkins pauses. “And in this hand I have a gun with a bullet in case you decide to keep your campaign promises.”

As the rapt crowd clucks and murmurs as if let in on an unspeakable confidence, Mr. Perkins cautions that he is speaking metaphorically. But for an audience already punch drunk on Mr. Perkins’s very own tales of corporate skullduggery, his allegory — overripe though it may be — carries not only a ring of truth but also clues to a long history of unexplained endings.

“And what about those crashes of J.F.K. Jr. and Paul Wellstone?” a woman in the audience asks. “They were awfully suspicious.”

Yes, Mr. Perkins says with a nod, and reels off the deaths of others in airplane crashes: Gen. Omar Torrijos, the former president of Panama, in 1981; Jaime Roldos Aguilera, the president of Ecuador, also in 1981; and even Senator John G. Tower, the Republican from Texas, who perished with 22 others on a commercial flight in 1991. “We have had a lot of plane crashes,” Mr. Perkins says ominously.

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

Mr. Perkins’s core message is that American corporations and government agencies employ two types of operatives: “economic hit men,” who bribe emerging economies, and “jackals,” who may be used to overthrow or even murder heads of state in Latin America and the Middle East to serve the greater cause of American empire. During an earlier time, that message might have been mere fodder for conspiracy theorists and fringe publishers. But now, for all of Mr. Perkins’s talk of fiery plane crashes and corporate intrigue, his book seems to have tapped into a larger vein of discontent and mistrust that Americans feel toward the ties that bind together corporations, large lending institutions and the government — a nexus that Mr. Perkins and others call the “corporatocracy.”

THE idea that corporate interests have undue influence over White House administrations has long been a staple of anti-establishment politics. But during the Bush administration, some recent events have dragged this notion further into the mainstream. United States soldiers and businesses are firmly entrenched in Iraq and now the federal government plans to give $7 billion in royalty concessions to an oil industry already enjoying record profits. According to a recent Gallup poll, 70 percent of those questioned said they believed that big business had too much influence over Bush administration decisions.

And in Houston, the squalid drama of Enron, the politically connected energy trading company that crashed and burned, continues to play to a packed house.

For Mr. Perkins and a small group of similarly inclined authors, all of this has proved to be rich creative terrain. Since Penguin published it in paperback this January, “Confessions” has been on the New York Times best-seller list, rising to a high of fifth place on the nonfiction list last week. On, it has risen as high as No. 23 over all. The book is also being taught in classrooms at DePaul University here in Chicago and at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. Hollywood has also shown an interest: Beacon Pictures bought an option to make a movie from the book as a prospective vehicle for Harrison Ford.

John Perkins - Confessions of an Economic Hitman

While the larger issue of America’s role in emerging economies is debated by many people, the book’s popularity seems driven more by the mix of cloak-and-dagger atmospherics and Mr. Perkins’s Damascene conversion from tool of American corporate interests to champion of the world’s poor.

“My sin was ripping off people around the world,” said Mr. Perkins, speaking of his job as a consultant who, he said, pushed countries like Panama, Ecuador and Iran to take on burdensome loans that they would have trouble repaying. “I feel terrible about the things that I did as an economic hit man.”

There is a rich literary tradition, spanning more than 80 years, of corporate insiders writing books in a confessional vein that puncture the secretive, less seemly aspects of their professions. In 1923, the stock speculator Jesse Livermore revealed to the author Edwin Lefèvre the many underhanded secrets to his success as a trader. The book, “Reminiscences of a Stock Operator,” a tart, revealing roman à clef that is still read by traders, became the model for the tell-alls that followed, with varying degrees of success.

In 1985, S. C. Gwynne wrote “Selling Money,” the story of his experiences as a naïve 20-something banker lending millions to third-world countries during the international debt crisis. Five years later, Michael Lewis published “Liar’s Poker,” his benchmark account of greed and power at Salomon Brothers, and in 2002, James J. Cramer took an unsuccessful stab at capturing some of Mr. Livermore’s magic in his book, “Confessions of a Street Addict.”

Now, after Mr. Perkins’s story, there has been a small flurry of like-minded revelations. This month, for example, Dan Reingold’s “Confessions of a Wall Street Analyst” hit bookstores. Mr. Reingold, a former telecommunications analyst at Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch, describes his experiences navigating the conflicts between research and investment banking. And the genre shows no sign of flagging. Scheduled for next year is “Dark Fiber,” a tell-all by David Chacon, a broker at Smith Barney who has already talked about his role in providing hot stock offerings to prized clients of the bank.

As with many public unburdenings, Mr. Reingold’s and Mr. Chacon’s stories are largely self-serving. In essence, they concede that while they may have crossed a line or two, their transgressions did not approach those of Jack B. Grubman, the former Smith Barney analyst who has been banned from the securities industry for life.

To varying degrees, the recent crop of books paints a picture of business and finance that is darkly cynical, rigged to enrich insiders at the expense of those on the outside. This theme is explored in depth by Paul Stiles, a former Merrill Lynch bond trader who last year offered a little-noticed book called “Is the American Dream Killing You?”

Published by Harper Collins, the book is a passionate outcry against the ravages that the pace and pressure of the market can wreak upon life and society. In particular, he cites urban sprawl, obesity, depression and even waning sex drives as the collateral damage of the American addiction to the helter-skelter rhythms of the stock market.

It is an odd book, one that publishers probably would not have considered during the boom years. As for Mr. Stiles, who likened living in America to beating one’s head repeatedly against the wall, he has packed up his family of four and abandoned the country for a new life in the Canary Islands. “It’s so painful to see. The sprawl, the greed,” he said in a telephone interview, speaking of the United States. “It’s like an inward collapse of what we once were. I can’t take it anymore. You see McDonald’s and it’s like you are getting shot.”

For Mr. Perkins, a fundamentally optimistic man who has written self-help books about using shamanic techniques to get ahead in life, there has been no such renunciation. On the contrary, he has been traveling the country over the last 18 months, preaching his message to packed audiences at bookstores, universities and foreign-policy groups. With his innocent smile and a message of personal renewal, Mr. Perkins, who is 61, comes across more as a wizened yoga teacher than as a hit man. Dressed in jeans and a shabby sweater, he will urge members of his audience to close their eyes, breathe deeply and picture the world as a great octopus spraying a salubrious ink of natural resources and compassion to all on the planet.

And while he will wrap up the occasional stranger in a back-cracking embrace, and inquire about a reporter’s cough, he has a distant, awkward air amid the frenzy of adulation — as if he would almost prefer to be somewhere else.

Mr. Perkins’s coup has been to overlay a dry, mainstream notion — that American companies and multinational institutions were less than discriminate in lending to third-world nations — with sex, confession and fiery plane crashes. In his dramatic telling, he interviewed with the National Security Agency, joined the Peace Corps in Equador and then became an economic forecaster with a consulting company called Chas. T. Main, based in Boston. (Main was bought by the Parsons Corporation, the giant engineering company, in the 1980’s.)

In an early scene that sets the tone for the book, he describes being seduced by a mysterious Catherine Zeta-Jones look-alike who called herself Claudine Martin and supposedly worked at Main. In an interview, he said she plied him with cocaine, red wine and ultimately herself. “We are a small exclusive club,” she says in the book. “Your job is to encourage world leaders to become part of a vast network that promotes U.S. commercial interests. In the end, those leaders become ensnared in a web of debt that ensures their loyalty.”

In the book, Mr. Perkins recounts the nine years in which he worked for Main in the 1970’s. From Ecuador to Panama, Iran to Saudi Arabia, the mission was the same: working in league with government agencies, Mr. Perkins claimed that he inflated the economic growth forecasts of these countries and smoothed the way for the billions in loans that they took on. Ultimately, he said, the funds were recycled to the United States as these countries became clients of big American engineering, construction and manufacturing companies, including Bechtel, Halliburton, Boeing and others.

BUT in his telling, Mr. Perkins was constantly haunted by the feeling that he was in effect a hit man — paid officially by his employer, Main Inc., but under the more oblique sway of the government and intelligence agencies. The son of a conservative New England family, he whips himself for having succumbed to pleasures of the flesh as well as the lure of money, influence and power.

In 1980, Mr. Perkins quit his job at Main. For much of the next two decades, he worked as a consultant, entrepreneur and specialist on the culture and practices of indigenous people of Latin America. After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he said, he felt that it was time to tell his story. After being turned down by bigger publishers, Berrett-Koehler took a chance and published the book in 2004. A best seller in hardcover, despite few mainstream book reviews, the book has sold as many as 5,500 copies a week in paperback.

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man



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