March 16th, 2008


Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

I've seen this book lurking in bookstores for a long time, and the title is so provocative it made me curious. On my last overseas flight I bought it at the airport bookstore, and just got around to consuming it (it only took a day or two to read).

My basic reaction is that I don't believe it. Oh, it's not that I don't believe the general theme of the book about U.S. intervention in third world politics and economies; that's well-covered in a number of recent books, notably "Overthrow: A hundred years of regime change from Hawaii to Iraq" by Stephen Kinzer.

My disbelief has to do with the personal narrative. A wide range of skepticism is needed to read any media today, since our mainstream news is highly constrained by the profit motive of the publishers. I apply the same logic to books, and whenever I read something that has a highly partisan point of view, I think of Occam's Razor: what is the simplest explanation for how this book came to be? Kinzer's book, extensively researched and footnoted, passes the test in the best possible way; the simplest way for "Overthrow" to exist is because most or all of that stuff happened.

Perkins' book has a number of places where believing what is written fails the Occam's Razor test for me. Early in his book, in scenes straight out of a spy novel, he describes a mysterious character named Claudine, a woman who acts seductively (but never explicitly sexually) while indoctrinating him as an "Economic Hit Man." She tells him explicitly that his job is to ruin third world economies in order to make sure that their leaders are in hock to Washington and have to "pay us our pound of flesh" in the form of military bases, oil leases, or unspecified other desires. According to his description, although Claudine works for the same company, she first approaches him at the Boston Public Library and they always meet at her Back Bay apartment, never at the office. Once Perkins finishes his indoctrination and returns from a first, successful assignment in Indonesia, Claudine is gone; the apartment has different tenants; and the company claims to have no such employee. Perkins' conclusion: Claudine, briefed by the NSA, was there to prey on his psychological weaknesses and indoctrinate him to the "international fraternity of economic hit men."

Really? Even in Perkins' version of the story, his employer is a commercial corporation seeking maximum profits. Why would the company bring the NSA into it? (it's a weird choice: the NSA, even amongst those of us concerned about it's extreme intrusions on our rights, is not a field organization) If she's an employee for the company, why would she arrange clandestine rendezvous at her apartment? (Later in the book Perkins dates a number of his fellow employees -- clearly company policy isn't the reason). Most of all, why would the company be so explicit with an unproven 24-year-old new recruit? If there really were a conspiracy it would be operated on a need-to-know basis, not by spilling all the beans in the first month to new employees.

Perkins' version of this story conforms to the best conspiracy theories ever: it's the work of shadowy, secret organizations and therefore all the evidence is covered up at their behest. Conveniently, this makes the story impossible to prove or disprove.

For me, the simpler explanation is that Perkins wanted this book to be a clear exorciation of the policies of the era he's writing about, and placing this character in the early parts of the book allows the system to be made unequivocally villainous from the start. A real introduction to the system might show equally clearly the negative aspects of it, but would only develop slowly. By using the Claudine character as an expository device, the book is made much better as a polemic.

Was there ever a real Claudine? Maybe, my friend Matt Smith pointed out that just as likely as wholesale fabrication is the possibility that a real incident was blown up in importance purely out of ego. It's pretty much human nature to regard conversations twenty years ago as prophesying our lives, add to that a little need to feel special and chosen from the beginning and it's another way to get to this story.

There are a number of places in the book where Perkins marshals arguments that seem to be designed to fire up the WTO protestors (oh, that's another long post sometime) rather than impart information. Towards the end of the book, Perkins results to the old government deficit saw of, "... and then we cover those loans [that are forgiven to third world countries] by printing dollars." The same as when it's spouted by a right-wing lunatic inflamed by government spending, this is just plain false; we cover our government deficits by borrowing money, not by printing it (which is too bad, it would be nice to erase the government debt by running a printing press, but contrary to folk belief that doesn't happen). Although I don't agree at all with his prescription for fixing the problem, for a much clearer look at the true position of the dollar in the world economy, Warren Buffet's four-year-old article is a great introduction:

My personal conclusion is that "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man" is a fictionalized piece of political propaganda based on the experiences of one or more real people (John Perkins probably being among them). It was crafted to instigate anger among the public against the abuses of development and power documented in the book, and decided to use genre conventions from spy novels and a first-person narrator to make the story more powerful for a general audience than a straight non-fiction book like Overthrow would be. Judging by the months the book has spent on best-seller lists, it apparently worked.

Since I generally deplore the practices he's talking about, I guess that's a good effect; but as has been said of Michael Moore's films, claiming something is strictly fact if it's not is a slippery slope.