Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The End of Economic Hit Men?

I just finished John Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. I think despite the controversy, the book itself is well written, vividly describing his experience as well as his dilemma. I tried to do as much desktop searches as possible to find supporting facts, which admittedly difficult to be conclusive despite various factual accuracies which he referenced. Many qualified investigative journalists have tried to corroborate his stories and shared their findings on the web so I leave it to the pros to continue doing that. What I'd like to discuss is the ideas he mentioned in the book.

In Confessions, Perkins shared his past life as what he called an 'economic hit man', a highly paid economic consultant out to cheat developing countries billions of dollars and bind them to the United States' agenda. He did this by working with an international engineering firm to generate wildly optimistic forecasts that international banks will use to justify big loans on developing countries. The countries spend the money on power plants, roads, dams, etc. awarding the construction to American firms like Bechtel, Halliburton, etc. The key is that the projects are too ambitious, the loan is too big, that the country will not be able to pay back -- this is when they have to do the United States' bidding, be it building US military base, voting in favor of US in the UN, opening up more of their economies and natural resources to US, etc.

Upon close reading, I understand that one of his focus messages is not on the conspiracy theory in a traditional sense: There were no explicit conspirators, no intense and regular back room conspiring involving all the parties, etc. Conspirations did happen, but more by sub-groups of people sharing a short term agenda instead of "big picture" global domination. He essentially said that the "big conspiration" is actually conspiration of values, worldview. The worldview that says economic growth is everything, that it is the big answer for human prosperity, irrespective of inequality. Since economic growth is everything, then the champion and the drivers of those growth should be greatly rewarded, or even worshipped to some extend. The losers on the other hand, are available for exploitation -- they ought to do the hard labors supporting their masters, the new winners, new landlords. To continue fuel economic growth, domination of resources is critical, which is one of key reasons for economic hit men's existence.

Towards the end of the book he also mentioned how the new generation of economic hit men, the international consultants, while "sheltered" from the explicit explanations on reasons of their existence, they are still bound to the mission of the economic hit men through their high salary, huge bonus, pension plans, insurance, and the cost of their children's education, and so on. All of us, the global people at large, the upper and middle class are also bound by this worldview so long we still spend and consume mindlessly. In short, the earth cannot support United States' level of consumption if aspired by all other countries. They would also have to resort to the US' style of exploitation as told by Perkins in order to achieve their aspiration.

I am fortunate enough to study in one of the US' esteemed universities and learnt up close about the US version of capitalism. At times I can resonate with Perkins' dilemma, having been a consultant myself. Through my education and experience I came to fully appreciate the virtues of capitalism: independence, entrepreneurial spirit, strong work ethic, meritocracy, etc., but they by no means are complete. This book has opened my eyes and balanced my worldview, to make me appreciate better the equal importance of equality, of justice, and of sustainability. I believe economic growth is to be pursued NOT at all cost. It is particularly not sustainable if not accompanied by fairness, justice, environmental consideration, and equal opportunities for all. Growth should also be balanced by values which support sustainability such as moderate consumption, spend and use less, simplicity, environmental awareness, buy environmentally friendly products, and many other virtues. These, my friends, are what we ought to do. As said, the prospect of not doing it is too great: Many countries will be forced to adopt imperialist stance in order to secure those resources.... Bleak future and Earth for our children.

Those messages, in my opinion, are more important than any conspiracy stories told throughout the book. I think those are the messages that Perkins also wants us to hear, and do. Starting with ourselves, and then people around us. In this day and age, we as grass roots, common people, have such big power that had never been seen before to together change our life styles, the course of our lives, and by doing so, the course of the world. I hope that will lead to the end of economic hit men, forever.


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