Book Review: Confessions of an Economic Hitman

I recently finished reading Confessions of an Economic Hitman. In this book, John Perkins writes about his career as a self-described?Economic Hitman?. Essentially, Perkins worked for a contracting company where he produced fraudulently inflated economic forecasts to justify large world bank and IMF loans to governments purchasing his company’s services. His company was the (erstwhile) MAIN, an infrastructure contracting company similar to Halliburton, Bechtel, or SAIC, where I used to work. These companies do large public works projects for governments around the world, in addition to other work.

The book starts out really strong, making you think that you’re about to read a tell-all expose of conspiracy on grand scale. In the first few pages, we read about a young John Perkins mentored by a mysterious woman who ?may or may not have worked for NSA?, and as he embarks on his first job as an ?EHM?, we expect the plot to thicken. But then, suddenly, things get boring. The rest of the book is a mildly dramatized tale of his involvement in projects over his career. No first-hand accounts of conspiracy, no direct involvement with NSA, CIA, or any other mysterious figures — just a ton of work on economic forecasting and project bids for foreign governments. Perkins doesn’t shy away from providing his own personal speculation and opinions about the events he witnesses, and cites historical examples of CIA manipulation in Central and South America. Butas an expose the book falls flat.Instead of conspiracy, he makes a more subtle argument, arguing that people like him are indirectly used as soldiers for the empire.

He even avoids the ?just following orders? arguments of the Nazis, going to great length to explain that he was never acting on orders, and that he acted mainly out of self interest. He spends a lot of time in the book arguing that he never really knew the full extent of what he was doing, and only at the end of his career realized that he had been used as a soldier. Or more accurately, he reports that he struggled with guilt, but only acknowledged his ?little Eichman? status after becoming fabuously wealthy and playing it for all it was worth.

On the other hand, the lack of direct evidence makes the book much more credible to me. He is usually careful to qualify his statements when he is speculating versus reporting facts, and the facts he reports are consistent with what you would expect from someone in his position in that line of work. In fact, from a pure factual standpoint, it is rather boring — many people in similar work probably have more colorful stories to tell, and Perkins seems sophisticated enough to stay away from direct revelations that would open him or hiscronies to any sort of prosecution. The book comes across as a rather sanitized (even boastful) account of a single man’s career, peppered liberally with political opinion.

Using anecdotes from his career, Perkins attempts to argue the following points:

  • World Bank and IMF debt help U.S. contractors and local despots more than the local populations. The debt is used as a lever to get developing nations to support U.S. political aims.
  • U.S. foreign policy is about self-interest of the empire; when debt fails as a lever, the U.S. uses coups, assassains and eventually war.
  • The people who profit from the empire are totally intertwined with the government.

From these premises, Perkins leaps to the conclusions that Americans should get used to conservation anda significantly reduced standard of living, ostensibly to mitigate the damaging effects of the global empire.

While I partially agree with his conclusions (but for a different reason), and agree that mercantilism is a driving force in western politics, I think Perkins presents a very incomplete picture.

For starters, he acts as if the U.S. is the sole power playing these games. He discusses the Middle East, South/Central America, and Indonesia, but fails to mention competitive nations’ involvement in these spheres of influence; and misses entirely other important spheres of influence. He portrays Panama’s takeback of the Panama canal as a huge victory for the people, but completely ignores the subsequent expansion of Chinese sphere of influence into this zone. If he thinks that there will ever be a time when mercantile powers don’t vie for control of spheres of influence, he’s crazy, and if he doesn’t, he’s simply arguing that the U.S. should lay down slowly and make way for a new master.

Furthermore, he waits until the very last chapter of his book to acknowledge that the U.S. is relatively vulnerable in the battles as well. While he argues that it’s the fault of the U.S. for the massive outflow of credit since WWII (as if the people borrowing the money from world bank and IMF didn’t have their own economists, or didn’t act out of self-interest), he seems to place no such blame on the lenders for the massive accumulation of debt by the U.S. in recent decades. He explains that the U.S. is in debt up to our eyeballs, and that the U.S. standard of living is pretty much dependent on the whims of foreign investors — strangely, he does not identify these foreign lenders as ?economic hitmen?. If the dollar is deposed, as he predicts, it would certainly lead to a reduction in the consumption patterns of Americans; so perhaps he’s just arguing that we cut our consumption now and pretend that it was out of altruistic motives (to protect the rainforests or something). Or maybe he’s worried that a plummet in the dollar would lead Americans to jingoism and spark WWIII, and he hopes to turn us all into birkenstock-wearing environmentalists before that happens. Or maybe he’s just worried and doesn’t know what to do.

In any case, he’s not the typical conspiracy theorist anti-globalist, and he comes across as relatively sincere and honest. So, on balance, I would recommend the book.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Confessions of an Economic Hitman”

  1. I appreciate your review, but I think you completely overlook something in what Perkins reveals, and indeed, his primary, motivating understanding. The work Perkins did as a “hitman” made him a soldier not for America, but rather for a global elite. While he focuses on American elites (because that’s who he worked for), he does acknowledge that this elite has counterparts in other countries. Perkins doesn’t simply want to “save the rain forest (or something).” He cares about the people living there, and their alternative approaches to life, both of which are threatened by the ravages of the kind of “soldier” that Perkins used to be.

    You seem to think that if the US doesn’t act in the ways Perkins describes, someone else will come along and rape little countries instead (as in your China-into-Panama example), so it might as well be the US. Again, you seem in making this argument to be completely unconcerned with the way money has been vacuumed up to the top at an accelerating rate for the past 4 or 5 decades, and with how little is trickling down to the lower reaches of the social order.

    Nation states matter less and less in the course of all this, except as manipulable facades for the elites. Life for most members of First World nations is gradually eroding toward Third World status, while a formerly patriotic elite jets around the world, unmoored by nationalist sentiment. Perkins does an excellent job of explaining how this process works, as well as what it’s doing to the lives of many ordinary people.

  2. The only problem I have with your comment is that his book talks nothing at all about the “international global elite”. He acts as if there is no international global elite apart from American imperialist families. I agree with your assessment, but Perkins doesn’t make those arguments. The american families have already been overthrown, and the new overlords are taking control. Perkins is simply setting himself up to claim to have been a prophet (or player) when the public realizes that America’s days are past — yet this was happening anyway. And he doesn’t warn at all about the real problems that continue to accelerate separation of power class and slave class. American hegemony is rapidly waning, yet human trafficking is at an all-time high. When America’s day is past, the problems will still be there (and worse), just less transparent. Perkins is completely silent about this fact. Please prove me wrong by citing the part of his book that isn’t focused on American hegemony.

  3. I’m reading the book, and can already agree with most of your thoughts. For all his introspection, Perkins ethical lapses are hard to forgive. The autobiographical aspects of the book also seem to inflate Perkin’s importance insofar as he suggests that he was initially patsy that NSA & MAIN complexly manipulated into the game. How do all the other EHM get in the game. If there all as uncertain as he, how does the system operate smoothly.

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