Blindsided by Richard Cohen, about his life with MS. Now, it's Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. This book is my every nightmare come true. When I speak about it, the first thing most people ask is, 'It's fiction, right?' Wrong. And, I'm more sorry about that than I can say.">
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"Confessions of an Economic Hit Man"

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Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins, Berrett-Koehler Publishers (2004) Fairly recently, I started listening to books on tape while driving. I figured I needed a break from all the heavy stuff I do in my "free time," and listening to the news did not fit the bill. The process is pretty painless - I go regularly to my local library to get a stack of discs and leave them in my car so that I can listen while driving between work, carpool, and errands. I've succeeded in spending a lot of pleasant moments with my new "friends," particularly Bill Bryson, Julia Child, and Peter Mayle. This has done wonders in leavening my spirits. But lately, for some reason, I have been drawn to heavier material. It started with Blindsided by Richard Cohen, about his life with MS. Now, it's Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. This book is my every nightmare come true. When I speak about it, the first thing most people ask is, "It's fiction, right?" Wrong. And, I'm more sorry about that than I can say. I can't wait to finish it, and yet I'm fascinated in the ghoulish way that people pick at their scabs, or slow down on the highway to gaze at an accident scene. This book exposes the underbelly of American foreign policy and makes me understand in a very visceral way why so much of the world thinks poorly of us, to put it delicately. This type of behavior did not just begin when W took office. While I wish I could blame the whole thing on him, it predates his presidency by quite a bit and did not limit itself to one party or the other. Most of the time, the average person doesn't know much about the things I want to talk about - voting machines, supposed "glitches," HAVA, various secretaries of state, elected officials and local boards of elections doing amazingly egregious things. If anything on this topic makes its way to the mainstream media, it's generally hidden on an inner page somewhere or it's slanted in such a way that you'd swear it's not even the same story that appeared on the Web. Things have started to change of late, but it's been a long hard slog for those of us trying to break through. This book is more bad news, big time, on an entirely different front. But to my surprise, when I've wanted to talk about it, people had either heard of the book or had no problem believing its basic premise. I find that heartening, in a way. I highly recommend that you read this book, as knowledge is the first step to action. We need to know what our government is doing in our name. And, if we object, which I suspect the majority of us do, we need to demand an accounting and a change of course. It's as simple as that. In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit that I have not finished the book yet. I'm in the middle of the seventh of eight CDs. But I have a burning need to get this up and out. I already know that Perkins has left his evil ways behind and is doing what he can to atone for his past behavior. Besides, this isn't a review in the typical New York Times manner, nor has it any pretensions to be. It's more of a modest, "This is something I think is worth reading, and here's why." John Perkins worked for private company Chas. T. Main from 1971-1981. His assignment formed a little understood, but critical, arm of the government and its foreign policy. Initially recruited by the N.S.A., "the nation's largest and least understood spy organization," his status as chief economist cloaked the project with maximum government deniability. The concept of "economic hit man" was based on the early '50s success of the C.I.A.'s Kermit Roosevelt in toppling the democratically elected leader of Iran in order to install the more amenable Shah.
So, at that point, the decision was made to use organizations like the C.I.A. and the N.S.A. to recruit potential economic hit men like me and then send us to work for private consulting companies, engineering firms, construction companies, so that if we were caught, there would be no connection with the government...If I hadn't lived this life as an economic hit man, I think I'd have a hard time believing that anybody does these things. And that's why I wrote the book, because our country really needs to understand, if people in this nation understood what our foreign policy is really about, what foreign aid is about, how our corporations work, where our tax money goes, I know we will demand change.
That is the goal of my review as well. Perkins outlines the American thirst for globalization, privatization and what he terms "corporatocracy" in its quest for global empire. The old adage, "What's good for GM is good for America" has become both a narrower and a broader concept. What's good for a few, very large corporations and private consulting firms - Bechtel, Halliburton, and others that are not household names - drives American foreign policy, and benefits only its ultra-rich citizens. Ethics, social conscience, and the social welfare of the countries we seek to plunder, corrupt, and ensnare play no part in the equation. The cost to them, and to the world as a whole, is as unforeseen and disregarded as it is onerous. I'll try to concisely describe the three prongs used in implementing this policy. The first is the "chief economist" (actually, not a trained economist at all) Perkins, who was dispatched to whatever third world country had something America wanted - oil, natural resources, or strategic geographic location (like Panama). His instructions were to spend several months in the country, getting to know the lay of the land, and to then craft a proposal that included grossly inflated projections regarding the benefits of building specific infrastructure, like a power plant or oil pipelines. The multi-million or -billion dollar contract cost would be covered by loans by the ever-ready and complicit I.M.F. and World Bank. All work would be channeled through American firms, who would supply the plans and labor, thereby receiving mammoth contracts and huge profits. The way the loan agreement was written made it impossible for the country to keep up with payments, leading to its defaulting on the loan. The American companies had already received their funds when the loan was made, putting the ensnared country in a lose-lose situation. They had saddled their population with debt for generations to come, had only further enriched a tiny crust of the local elite, and now, their sizable debt left them beholden to America. They could only repay it by becoming America's puppet, through various key U.N. votes, or allowing us to take over their coveted natural resources. In order to achieve this domination, there were back-up plans if the economic hit man's salesmanship wasn't sufficiently persuasive. The next step involved calling in the "jackals" to foment civil unrest, either via general strikes or a coup. If these methods of "gentle persuasion" were unsuccessful, fatal accidents could always be arranged. Perkins cites Ecuador's Jaime Roldos and Panama's Omar Torrijos as paying the ultimate cost of standing up to American demands. If even the jackals couldn't bring about the desired results, it was time to bring in American troops. Does anyone remember the invasion of Panama in 1989? Understood within this context, it takes on much more ominous overtones. The world roundly condemned our actions. The American press blackout that prevented on-the-ground coverage during the invasion, not to mention outside criticism, presaged the muzzle that W has used so effectively this time around. Perkins wants us to grasp the way this philosophy of global empire has taken over our foreign policy, and understands the war in Iraq within this context. Saddam Hussein was intended to be another example of the prototype used in Saudi Arabia, America's biggest, yet untold, success story. Building all of those cities from scratch in the desert did more than rake in billions of dollars for private contractors. It cemented a relationship between the two countries that pictures of W and Saudi leaders holding hands only hint at. It's not only oil that brought us to Iraq, according to Perkins. It's the presence of water, a big issue in the Middle East, as well as Iraq's strategic geographic location. It's been said that whoever controls Iraq controls the Middle East. Perkins buys into that theory, and in the coming months, we will see how the story plays out. Here is Perkins explaining what happened if he failed at his job. This is from an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! Referring to the fates of Roldos and Torrijos, Perkins says:
Both had just died in fiery crashes. Their deaths were not accidental. They were assassinated because they opposed that fraternity of corporate, government, and banking heads whose goal is global empire. We Economic Hit Men failed to bring Rold├│s and Torrijos around, and the other type of hit men, the C.I.A.-sanctioned jackals who were always right behind us, stepped in... Basically what we were trained to do and what our job is to do is to build up the American empire. To bring - to create situations where as many resources as possible flow into this country, to our corporations, and our government, and in fact we've been very successful. We've built the largest empire in the history of the world. It's been done over the last 50 years since World War II with very little military might, actually. It's only in rare instances like Iraq where the military comes in as a last resort. This empire, unlike any other in the history of the world, has been built primarily through economic manipulation, through cheating, through fraud, through seducing people into our way of life, through the economic hit men. I was very much a part of that.
The interview continues, and Goodman asks, "How closely did you work with the World Bank?"
Very, very closely with the World Bank. The World Bank provides most of the money that's used by economic hit men, it and the I.M.F. But when 9/11 struck, I had a change of heart. I knew the story had to be told because what happened at 9/11 is a direct result of what the economic hit men are doing. And the only way that we're going to feel secure in this country again and that we're going to feel good about ourselves is if we use these systems we've put into place to create positive change around the world. I really believe we can do that. I believe the World Bank and other institutions can be turned around and do what they were originally intended to do, which is help reconstruct devastated parts of the world. Help - genuinely help poor people. There are twenty-four thousand people starving to death every day. We can change that.
I applaud Perkins's coming forward now, although his scruples didn't prevent 20 years of silence when disclosure might have been more timely. I urge everyone to read this horribly fascinating view of our recent history and trade policies masquerading as foreign policy. I would like to draw a link between the unseemly alliance between Big Business and the highest echelons of our government and the need for meaningful reform on various fronts. While the 2006 elections were surely a repudiation of W's policies and administration, the loving embrace between corporations and our government continues to affect us indirectly every day. I'm referring to the corporate media and its inability or unwillingness to cover stories of crucial importance to its public. If you are confident that major outlets are giving sufficient attention to the issues of the day, go to Project Censored at Distorted election coverage was #3 on the top 25 censored stories of 2006. Not only do we need media reform, but campaign finance reform as well. Corporate influence is like a tapeworm in the heart of our democracy. The body might still be upright, but this hidden menace can kill while remaining out of sight. This book gave me a lot to think about. One image that came to mind was the bull in the china shop. Indigenous peoples, delicate ecosystems, and the structure and social fabric of each country are all in harm's way because of America's raging greed and power. I recently saw the movie Blood Diamond, which depicts how diamonds have created civil war, destruction and death for the people of Africa. One of the characters in the movie says, ironically, "It's a good thing we don't have oil. Then, we'd really be in trouble." As he stands amidst his burning village, filled with violence and death, it is quite a powerful statement. Is the West's hunger for consumer goods the chief cause for globablization? While I think it is definitely a factor, and recommend mindful shopping as a small-scale antidote, I think that it is the unquenchable corporate thirst for profits that really drives this train. (For more on this topic, see my last OpEd piece on this subject entitled "Crocs, Costco and the Mindful Shopper") Perkins, at one point in his book, seems to place the blame squarely on American consumers. But I think that is self-serving on his part. The most insatiable shopper could never, in a lifetime of sprees and binges, "accomplish" what Perkins did during his tenure as an economic hit man. He admitted that his chief skill was that he was a good writer and adept in the art of persuasion. In another context, what was done to these countries could be construed as entrapment, both morally and legally. The N.S.A. chose well. Perkins was the right man for the job. His father was a teacher at a prestigious prep school in rural New Hampshire, causing his son to be ever conscious of the social divide. When young John joined the student body, he never felt like an equal, and it rankled badly. The same was true when he went to college. His inferiority complex and resulting desire to succeed made him the perfect candidate for his ignoble profession. He was honored to be selected, to be respected, to have such responsibility and power. And, it was so very lucrative. Long after Perkins' scruples were awakened, he did nothing. Even when he had broken away and decided to write a book about his former activities, more than 20 years elapsed before it was ultimately published. Perkins admits that part of the delay was purely financial. He was offered another job where he got paid excessively for essentially doing nothing, the only caveat being that he was forbidden to write anything that would reflect poorly on the companies with which he dealt. He was a willing, if guilt-ridden participant. So, when he tries to shift the blame, I understand the impulse but reject his argument. Yes, our buying patterns need to change. But this is about far more than that. The unspoken, unratified national priorities carried out in our name need to change. Several times, Perkins alludes to sitting in front of a blank computer screen. This is a grownup version of the tabula rasa - the blank slate that we are at birth. We have, within reason, the ability to choose the path we will take, and the moral compass that will direct us. The same is true right now, at this very moment. The public can continue to be apathetic about the sad state our country is in. It's very comfortable to complain and whine from the sidelines, and there's lots to whine about. And, there are certainly many others doing exactly the same thing - namely nothing. Or, people can choose to rouse themselves from their stupor, choose an issue, and get busy working on it. There are plenty of good people out there doing the same. I happen to think that efforts for election integrity pay the largest dividends because the health of our elections mirrors the state of our democracy. Without fair elections, nothing else we want will be possible. It's as simple as that. If you want something easy to do on your first tentative step away from the couch, send a letter to your member of Congress to amend the Holt Bill, HR 550, so that it can become suitable for passage. Mark my words. Legislation will pass this session to try to deal with the election mess we're in. Momentum and public will say so. But, the success lies in the details. An unworkable bill will guarantee future compromised elections, which we can ill afford. Now, right now before Congress convenes, is the time to get a message out to your representatives that lip service is not enough. We want free, fair, transparent, secure, and accurate elections, and we want them now! Send the letter to your members of Congress and then pass it along to everyone you know. If you have a large network, it still shouldn't take you more than 20 minutes, tops. If you have only a few friends, relatives, neighbors or co-workers, it won't take more than 10 minutes. You could do it during the commercials of one TV show. You'll feel good about it, and you'll save yourself from too many runs to the refrigerator. Now, that's what I call a win-win situation.
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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