Last Wednesday, about six hundred people crowded into a middle-school auditorium in North Berkeley to hear a discussion with the progressive left's latest whistle-blowing hero. John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, said his guilty conscience has compelled him to come forward to speak the truth about the "corporatocracy" and its nefarious schemes for global empire. He spun a tale of his personal involvement in the system over three decades: from his recruitment by the National Security Agency as a fresh-faced kid just out of college, to the bribes and threats used to keep him quiet after he quit his job at a massive engineering firm.
Perkins' book was published in paperback last month, and is currently bolting up the best-seller lists. It's reaching the zenith of its popularity at an interesting moment -- just as we dedicate the new annex to our cultural hall of shame to discredited memoirists. But the recently exposed frauds James Frey and JT LeRoy only invented stories of family dysfunction, drug use, and general wretchedness to drum up sympathy and book sales. John Perkins' memoir also rings false at times, but with potentially more serious ramifications.
For a memoir about economic decisions that must have produced volumes of documents and included the work of hundreds of people, Perkins' account is notably weak on corroboration. The most blatant explanation of his role as an economic hit man, Perkins says, came from a beautiful woman named Claudine who seduced him, both physically and intellectually, before disappearing without a trace. Although he spent ten years doing economic dirty work for a major corporation, he quotes none of the reports he produced. There are no other interviews, no corroborating accounts, and scanty footnotes. In this "personalized" version of events, Perkins relies on his memory to recreate scenes and conversations from the 1970s, a risky choice when his instructions to perform dastardly deeds were given through hints and innuendo.
Nonetheless, the book's allegations of US government and corporate conspiracy have left East Bay lefties riveted, convinced, and fired up with righteous indignation. "I think what we've got here is one high-level economic professional who had the courage and the decency and honesty to come forward," says Kevin Danaher, co-founder of the non-profit Global Exchange, who took part in Wednesday's discussion. The other participant, Oakland Institute's executive director Anuradha Mittal, also accepted Perkins' story, although at least she also questioned his motivations and suggested that he shouldn't be allowed to reap further profits from what she called his "crimes against humanity." Certainly the audience was ready to believe; people burst into applause and shouts of approbation at the slightest excuse, and gave the author a standing ovation at the evening's end.
Part of the book's core message is demonstrably true. As chief economist for Chas T. Main, an engineering firm that has since gone out of business, Perkins was in a position to observe the economic policies that ensnared developing nations in a web of debt. The countries borrowed money from the World Bank and other international lenders to embark on ambitious infrastructure projects in the name of modernization: they built hydroelectric dams, port facilities, airports and highways. But they didn't reap the economic rewards expected, and soon the countries' leaders were forced to cut spending on social programs in order to keep up with interest payments on the loans.
Perkins certainly cites some damning examples. In Ecuador, he writes, "Since 1970, during the period known euphemistically as the Oil Boom, the official poverty level grew from 50 to 70 percent, and public debt increased from $240 million to $16 billion. Meanwhile, the share of national resources allocated to the poorest segments of the population declined from 20 to 6 percent."
But here his story veers into dubious territory. The international lenders wanted the countries to default on their loans, he writes, to put them in a position of subservience. When a nation defaults, the US, acting through the World Bank, can demand control over United Nations votes, the installation of military bases, or access to oil and other precious resources. Perkins says it was his job to come up with bogus economic projections that would convince these developing countries to take out the loans.
Perkins says this strategy was top secret, and that he was one of very few people who understood the objectives of his work. He was put in this privileged position, he says, because the NSA recruited him after college. He chose not to join up at the last minute, and spent two years in Ecuador with the Peace Corps instead. But one day, a man in a business suit arrived in the Ecuadoran village. His name was Einar Greve, and he was a vice-president with Chas T. Main. "He started talking to me about the benefits of working for a company like Main," Perkins writes. "When I mentioned that I had been accepted by the NSA before joining the Peace Corps, and that I was considering going back to them, he informed me that he sometimes acted as an NSA liaison; he gave me a look that made me suspect that part of his assignment was to evaluate my capabilities. I now believe that he was updating my profile."
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