Just Because You're Paranoid…

Jerome Richard

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2004; Plume paperback, 2005.

A friend loaned me this book and said I had to read it.  I put it aside, but when I did pick it up, I could not put it down.  Perkins story is this: In 1971, after a degree in business from Boston University and two years in the Peace Corps in Ecuador he was recruited to join an engineering consulting firm called Chas. T. Main.  He suspects that the offer was a result of tests and interviews he had taken earlier for a position with the National Security Agency, a career path he abandoned in favor of the Peace Corps posting.  Both made him eligible for a draft deferment.

His first assignment at MAIN (he always capitalizes it) was to produce an economic forecast for Indonesia based on the prospect of new power plants, a task for which he had little expertise.  That didn't matter; it might even have been an advantage to his employer for his instruction was to produce a forecast that was wildly optimistic.

One day, before he embarked, he was approached by a mysterious woman named Claudine Martin, a "special consultant to Chas. T. Main."  She would be his trainer.  She would, she told him, teach him to be an economic hit man, or EHM, though he was never to use that title in public.  After swearing him to secrecy, she revealed his true work.

"First, I was to justify huge international loans that would funnel money back to MAIN and other U.S. companies (such as Bechtel, Halliburton, Stone & Webster, and Brown & Root) through massive engineering and construction projects.  Second, I would work to bankrupt the countries that received those loans (after they had paid MAIN and the other U.S. contractors, of course) so that they would be forever beholden to their creditors, and so they would present easy targets when we needed favors, including military bases, UN votes, or access to oil and other natural resources." (p. 15)

He went on to do this dirty work in Panama, Ecuador, and Saudi Arabia.  Other EHMs were targeting other countries.  Eventually, his conscience prevailed and he eased out of this occupation.  At first he became a freelance consultant for the industries he previously touted and then gave it up altogether and established his own clean energy company.  After selling that, he became a self-help guru; his previous books include The World Is As You Dream It, and Psychonavigation.

Confessions describes a new American economic imperialism in a way that must have left-wing conspiracy theorists getting ready to say, "I told you so,"  and skeptics wondering if he has not portrayed the world as he dreamed it.  Indeed, it reads like a bad imitation of a Graham Greene novel and contains enough problematic scenes to make any reader skeptical.

In fact, he reports meeting Graham Greene in a coffee shop in Panama.

"'I hate to intrude.  But you are Graham Greene, aren't you?'"

"'Why, yes indeed." He smiled warmly.  "'Most people in Panama don't recognize me.'" (p. 106)

To me, that doesn't sound like Graham Greene.  Perkins goes on to say that Greene admired an article Perkins had written and urged him to write a book.

There are other hard-to-believe incidents.  He arrives in Teheran one evening in 1978 and is sitting at the hotel bar when someone taps him on the shoulder.  It's an old college chum he hasn't seen in over a decade.  The chum says he has a ticket for him to fly to Rome the next day because things are about to fall apart in Iran.  Perkins "did not doubt him for a moment." (p. 117)

Then there are small errors.  "A true Persian" describes his people as Bedouins. (p.111)  He refers to Paul Revere's ride (1775) and says that "the words of Paine and Jefferson had preceded him." (p. 219) "Common Sense" was published in 1776.

Things are changing now, Perkins writes.  Corporations are not quite so heavy-handed and the world is wising up.  He cites the election of Chavez in Venezuela as an example.

Reaction to the book has been mostly what you would expect, denunciation from the U.S. State Department and accolades from the left, though there is a skeptical review in In These Times. Are his accounts and accusations true?  It is easy looking back over the last fifty or so years to say yes to his overall thesis, but not so easy to take the book at face value.  It reads more as clumsy thriller than as serious political expose, but just because you are a conspiracy theorist doesn't mean there isn't a conspiracy.

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Harvard Square Commentary, October 2, 2006