"The Fantasy Life of an Economic Walter Mitty"
October 12, 2006.
Last summer I was greeted at a family reunion by one of my cousin-in-laws who had just read John Perkin’s Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. “Is that what you are, an Economic Hit Man?” she asked with wide eyes. Not knowing whether I should be flattered or ashamed, I mumbled something about not having read the book yet. But she had definitely convinced me that I needed to move it up towards the top in the ever-growing pile of books next to my bed. Even though it still hadn’t quite made it to the top when I took off on a consulting assignment to Costa Rica, I stuck it in my briefcase to read on the plane.
After the airplane took off from San José on my way back home, and the flight attendant had given me a glass of Merlot to dull the pain of being scrunched into an economy-class seat, I opened the book and began to turn the pages. I must admit that it did hold my attention. It reads like spy thriller by Ian Fleming and does the impossible of making the mundane life of an economic consultant sound very glamorous.
I read that “Economic Hit Men” are nothing more than high-priced economic consultants who fly around the world first class and stay in Five Star hotels where they hobnob with the rich and powerful. Their job is to “funnel money from the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other foreign ‘aid’ organizations into the coffers of huge corporations and the pockets of a few wealthy families who control the planet’s natural resources.” By conning developing countries into borrowing too much, EHM trap them in the global “American Empire” where they are used “to satisfy our political, economic, or military needs.”
Heh, wait a minute, I thought. I’ve been an economic consultant for over twenty five years. My clients have included the World Bank, the United Nations and the Asian Development Bank as well as private corporations. I’ve worked in twenty nine countries in Latin America , Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia. How come I never heard anything about “Economic Hit Men?”
The answer should be obvious. It’s because there’s no such thing as an “Economic Hit Man.” The sinister sounding moniker, which began as an inside joke, was transformed into a Madison Avenue publicity gimmick to sell books to a gullible left-wing reading public who are willing to swallow hook, line and sinker any conspiracy theories about the dastardly deeds of the evil American government.
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man reads like fiction because that’s exactly what it is. Yep, for sure, Perkins made it all up! Well, at least the important parts.
Perkins claims to have been recruited into the top-secret society of “Economic Hit Men” by the National Security Agency right out of college. But instead of going to work directly for the NSA, he was encouraged to join the Peace Corp instead and ended up in Ecuador working with the Amazon natives. After completing his Peace Corp assignment, Perkins took up the “real job” the NSA had groomed him for as an EHM in the employ of Charles T. Main engineering company. In his ten years with Main, he rose to become the chief economist whose main responsibility seemed to be electricity demand forecasting.
His story at Main is quite unbelievable. No he wasn’t abducted by aliens and given the customary anal probe, but it was almost as bizarre. An attractive brunette named Claudine Martin materialized out of nowhere to help in his training as an EHM, allegedly at the behest of the NSA. Meeting with him clandestinely in her apartment, she used all her skills including “physical seduction” to initiate him in the mysterious world of EHMs. Strangely though, when he went looking for more “training” after his marriage had broke up, she had vanished into thin air leaving no trace in Main’s personnel records.
By the way, the National Security Agency is a cryptological or codebreaking organization, which is responsible for Signals Intelligence such as the much maligned program to intercept telephone calls with Al Qaeda overseas. It has absolutely nothing to do with sending agents abroad for military or economic purposes. That’s the CIA's job.
There’s a lot in the book that suggests that Perkins is not playing with a full deck: his periodic bouts of guilt about being an EHM and strong physical reactions followed by re-engagement; the way Jesus appears to him in a dream; his beating on walls with a stick till he collapsed with exhaustion.
Perkins makes a big deal of taking a bribe from Stone & Webster Engineering Corporation not to reveal the sordid secrets of the EHM. But what he calls a bribe was really nothing more than the offer of a lucrative consultant contract. It’s understandable that in return the CEO didn’t want him publishing any books that might violate the privacy of the company or clients while he was working for them. Nothing sinister here. The wonder is that they hired him at all.
There are also a few coincidences in the book that raise eyebrows. For example, when Perkins visits Ground Zero in November 2001, he just happens to meet a down-on-his-luck Afghani who’s eyes penetrated his soul and whose words supported his view of Afghanistan as the victim of 9/11 rather than its perpetrator. What luck for an author trying to string a story line together!
It’s amazing how far Perkins went with Main on such slim credentials. In spite of selling himself as an EHM, he acknowledges that he never thought of himself as a “bonafide economist.” And no wonder, all he had was a bachelor of science in business administration from Boston University. His only publications were coauthored with someone else and not published in refereed journals.
Revealing his ignorance of economics, Perkins claims that Robert McNamara was the “single most important influence” in bringing about the “shift from neoclassical to Keynesian economics” under the Kennedy and Johnson administration. As any macroeconomist knows, the guiding lights behind the new approach to economics during this period were the three chairmen of the Council of Economic Advisers: Walter Heller, Gardner Ackley and Arthur Okun. Perkins says that “McNamara become a strong advocate of the Keynesian approach to government, using mathematical models and statistical approaches to determination of troop levels, allocation of funds, and other strategies in Vietnam.” Apparently, Perkins doesn’t even know the difference between the application of the microeconomic tool of operations research and Keynesian macroeconomics, which deals with balancing aggregate demand in the economy through the manipulation of government spending and taxation.
Perkins personal experience of what he writes is really very dated. His career as an self-proclaimed EHM effectively ended in 1980 when he left Main. Yet this doesn’t stop him from pretending to have insider knowledge about more recent developments like the Panama Invasion, the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
With absolutely no more evidence than pure unsubstantiated rumour, Perkins accuses the U.S. government of assassinating Omar Torrijos of Panama and Jaime Roldós Aguilera in Ecuador. If he were to make such wild allegations against a private corporations, he’d lose everything but the shirt on his back in a libel suit. He must have never heard of Executive Order 11905, which prohibits assassinations. This order has been upheld by every President since enacted by President Ford in 1976 and was the source of much angst in the NSC and CIA when efforts were underway to take out Osama Bin Laden.
From an economic point of view, Perkins conspiracy theory makes no sense. Private companies like Charles Main don’t benefit from getting countries in over their heads in debt. They benefit from winning contracts for themselves.
Also international organizations like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are quite concerned to make sure that countries do not take on more debt than they can handle. That’s the whole point of Poverty Reduction Strategies and Poverty Reduction and Growth Facilities.
And if the United States is so preoccupied like a spider with snaring developing countries in its debt net, why did it join the other leaders of the Group of Eight at their summit in July 2005 in taking actions to write off the official debt of the world’s poorest 18 countries, which will amount to up to $60 billion when the process is complete.
The quotes from the Constitution and references to Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine at the end are a real nice feel-good touch. After smearing the United States Government with unfounded allegations, he tries to make himself seem like a loyal American patriot by invoking support of the Founding Fathers and cloaking himself in the flag.
Now that I’ve read Confessions, I’ll know what to say the next time somebody asks me if I’m an Economic Hit Man. I'll say no and that furthermore there’s no such thing except in the over active imagination of John Perkins. As for the man himself, I haven’t yet decided if he’s a certifiable New Age nutcase or a cynical charlatan, or most probably both. But in any event, he would be well advised to stick to writing about shamanism and dream traveling for his organization Dream Change and leave the economics and politics of development to those who know more about the field than his preposterous conspiracy theories.