By Sarah van Gelder
Mar 22, 2016
Twelve years ago, John Perkins published his book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, and it rapidly rose up The New York Times’ best-seller list. In it, Perkins describes his career convincing heads of state to adopt economic policies that impoverished their countries and undermined democratic institutions. These policies helped to enrich tiny, local elite groups while padding the pockets of U.S.-based transnational corporations.
Perkins was recruited, he says, by the National Security Agency (NSA), but he worked for a private consulting company. His job as an undertrained, overpaid economist was to generate reports that justified lucrative contracts for U.S. corporations, while plunging vulnerable nations into debt. Countries that didn’t cooperate saw the screws tightened on their economies. In Chile, for example, President Richard Nixon famously called on the CIA to “make the economy scream” to undermine the prospects of the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende.
If economic pressure and threats didn’t work, Perkins says, the jackals were called to either overthrow or assassinate the noncompliant heads of state. That is, indeed, what happened to Allende, with the backing of the CIA.
Perkins’ book has been controversial, and some have disputed some of his claims, including, for example, that the NSA was involved in activities beyond code making and breaking.
Perkins has just reissued his book with major updates. The basic premise of the book remains the same, but the update shows how the economic hit man approach has evolved in the last 12 years. Among other things, U.S. cities are now on the target list. The combination of debt, enforced austerity, underinvestment, privatization, and the undermining of democratically elected governments is now happening here.
I couldn’t help but think about Flint, Michigan, under emergency management as I read The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.
I interviewed Perkins at his home in the Seattle area. In addition to being a recovering economic hit man, he is a grandfather and a founder and board member of Dream Change and The Pachamama Alliance, organizations that work for “a world that future generations will want to inherit.”
Sarah van Gelder: What’s changed in our world since you wrote the first Confessions of an Economic Hit Man?
John Perkins: Things have just gotten so much worse in the last 12 years since the first Confessions was written. Economic hit men and jackals have expanded tremendously, including the United States and Europe.
Back in my day we were pretty much limited to what we called the third world, or economically developing countries, but now it’s everywhere.
And in fact, the cancer of the corporate empire has metastasized into what I would call a failed global death economy. This is an economy that’s based on destroying the very resources upon which it depends, and upon the military. It’s become totally global, and it’s a failure.
van Gelder: So how has this switched from us being the beneficiaries of this hit-man economy, perhaps in the past, to us now being more of the victims of it?
Perkins: It’s been interesting because, in the past, the economic hit man economy was being propagated in order to make America wealthier and presumably to make people here better off, but as this whole process has expanded in the U.S. and Europe, what we’ve seen is a tremendous growth in the very wealthy at the expense of everybody else.
On a global basis we now know that 62 individuals have as many assets as half the world’s population.
We of course in the U.S. have seen how our government is frozen, it’s just not working. It’s controlled by the big corporations and they’ve really taken over. They’ve understood that the new market, the new resource, is the U.S. and Europe, and the incredibly awful things that have happened to Greece and Ireland and Iceland, are now happening here in the U.S.
We’re seeing this situation where we can have what statistically shows economic growth, and at the same time increased foreclosures on homes and unemployment.
van Gelder: Is this the same kind of dynamic about debt that leads to emergency managers who then turn over the reins of the economy to private enterprises? The same thing that you are seeing in third-world countries?
Perkins: Yes, when I was an economic hit man, one of the things that we did, we raised these huge loans for these countries, but the money never actually went to the countries, it went to our own corporations to build infrastructure in those countries. And when the countries could not pay off their debt, we insisted that they privatize their water systems, their sewage systems, their electric systems.
Now we’re seeing that same thing happen in the United States. Flint, Michigan, is a very good example of that. This is not a U.S. empire, it’s a corporate empire protected and supported by the U.S. military and the CIA. But it is not an American empire, it’s not helping Americans. It’s exploiting us in the same way that we used to exploit all these other countries around the world.
van Gelder: So it seems like Americans are starting to get this. What is your sense about where the American public is in terms of readiness to do something?
Perkins: As I travel around the U.S., as I travel around the world, I see that people are really waking up. We’re getting it. We’re understanding that we live on a very fragile space station, and it’s got no shuttles; we can’t get off. We’ve got to fix it, we’ve got to take care of it, and we’re in the process of destroying it. The big corporations are destroying it, but the big corporations are just run by people, and they’re vulnerable to us. If we really consider it, the market place is a democracy, if we just use it as such.
van Gelder: I want to push back on that one a little bit because so many corporations don’t sell to ordinary consumers, they sell to other companies or to governments, and so many corporations have such an entrenched reward system where if one person doesn’t perform by exploiting the earth they’ll simply get replaced with somebody else who does.
Perkins: I’ve recently been speaking at a number of corporate conferences. I hear time after time after time that many of them want to leave a green legacy. They’ve got children, they’ve got grandchildren, they understand we can’t go on like this.
So what they say is, “Go out there, start consumer movements. What I want is to receive a hundred thousand emails from my customers saying, ’Hey, I love your product but I’m not going to buy it anymore until you pay your workers a fair wage in Indonesia, or wherever, or clean up the environment, or do something.’ And then I can take that to my board of directors and my big stockholders, to the people who really control whether I get hired or fired.”
van Gelder: I agree, and those campaigns, as you know, have been going on for decades now, and sometimes they have little incremental changes around the edge. But then we look back on it later and we see that there’s enormous resistance because of the profits to be made in continuing the system.
Perkins: I think we’ve seen tremendous changes, though. Just in the last few years, we’ve seen organic foods become very big. Twenty years ago they couldn’t make a go of it. We’ve seen women having bigger positions in corporations, and minorities, and we need to get better at this.
We’ve seen the labeling of many foods. GMOs aren’t included yet, but nutrition and calories and so forth are. And what we really need to do is convince corporations that they’ve got to have a new goal.
We’ve got to let corporations know what their job is: It’s to serve a public interest, and make a decent rate of return for investors. We need investors, but beyond that, every corporation should serve a public interest, should serve the earth, should serve future generations.
van Gelder: I want to ask you about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and other trade deals. Is there any way that we can beat these things back so they don’t continue supercharging the corporate sphere at the expense of local democracies?
Perkins: They’re devastating; they give sovereignty to corporations over governments. It’s ridiculous.
We’re seeing terrible desperation from people in Central America trying to get away from a system that’s broken, primarily because our trade agreements and our policies toward Latin America have broken them. And we’re seeing, of course, those similar things in the Middle East and in Africa, these waves of immigrants that are swarming into Europe from the Middle East. These terrible problems that have been created because of the greed of big corporations.
I was just in Central America and what we talk about in the U.S. as being an immigration problem is really a trade agreement problem.
They’re not allowed to impose tariffs under the trade agreements—NAFTA and CAFTA—but the U.S. is allowed to subsidize its farmers. Those governments can’t afford to subsidize their farmers. So our farmers can undercut theirs, and that’s destroyed the economies, and a number of other things, and that’s why we’ve got immigration problems.
van Gelder: Can you talk about the violence that people are fleeing in Central America, and how that links back to the role the U.S. has had there?
Perkins: Three or four years ago the CIA orchestrated a coup against the democratically elected president of Honduras, President Zelaya, because he stood up to Dole and Chiquita and some other big, global, basically U.S.-based corporations.
He wanted to raise the minimum wage to a reasonable level, and he wanted some land reform that would make sure that his own people were able to make money off their own land, rather than having big international corporations do it.
The big corporations couldn’t stand for this. He wasn’t assassinated but he was overthrown in a coup and sent to another country, and replaced by a terribly brutal dictator, and today Honduras is one of the most violent, homicidal countries in the hemisphere.
It’s frightening what we’ve done. And when that happens to a president, it sends a message to every other president throughout the hemisphere, and in fact throughout the world: Don’t mess with us. Don’t mess with the big corporations. Either cooperate and get rich in the process, and have all your friends and family get rich in the process, or go get overthrown or assassinated. It’s a very strong message.
van Gelder: I wanted to ask about your time spent in Ecuador with indigenous people. I’m wondering if you could talk about how that experience has changed you?
Perkins: Many years ago when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Amazon with the Shuar indigenous people there, I was dying. I got very ill, and my life was saved in one night by a shaman. I’d come out of business school this is 1968, ’69, and I had no idea what a shaman was, but it changed my life by helping me understand that what was killing me was a mindset—what they would call the dream.
I spent many years studying all this, and working with many different indigenous groups, and what I saw was the power of the mindset.
The shamans teach us—the indigenous people teach us—once you change the mindset, then it’s pretty easy to have the objective reality change around it. So, instead of the kind of economy we have now, a death economy, if we can change the mindset we can very quickly move into a life economy.
van Gelder: So what are the mechanisms by which a change in consciousness actually shifts things on the ground?
Perkins: Well, in my opinion the biggest catalyst that needs to go forward to change this is we’ve got to change the corporations. We’ve got to move from that goal that was stated by Milton Friedman in the 1970s, that the only responsibility of corporations is to maximize profits regardless of social and environmental costs.
We change the big corporations by telling them we’re not going to buy from you anymore unless you change your goal. No longer should your goal be to maximize profits regardless of social and environmental costs. Make a decent rate of return for your investors, but serve us, we the people, or we’re not buying from you.
van Gelder : You quote Tom Paine in your book: “If there must be trouble let it be in my day that my child may have peace.” Why did you decide to use that quote?
Perkins : Well, I think Tom Paine was brilliant in that statement. He understood how that would impact people. And he wrote that statement in December 1776.
Washington had lost just about every battle he ever fought; he wasn’t getting any support from the Continental Congress; they weren’t giving his men guns or ammunition or even blankets and shoes, and he was bogged down at Valley Forge. Paine realizes that he’s got to somehow write something that will rally people, and there’s nothing that rallies people more than to think about their children
That to me is where we’re at right now. I’ve got a daughter and I’ve got an 8-year-old grandson. Bring on the trouble for me, OK, but let’s create a world they’re going to want to live in. And let’s understand that my 8-year-old grandson cannot have an environmentally sustainable and regenerative, socially just, fulfilling world unless every child on the planet has that.
And this is new. It used to be all we had to worry about was our local community, maybe our country. But we didn’t have to worry about the world. But what we know now is that we can’t have peace anywhere in the world, we can’t have peace in the U.S., unless everybody has peace.