The dark side of American generosity

By John Perkins Dutton Adult, 384 pages, $25.95

John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man was a wake-up call for many, an insider’s account of doing dirty work for giant global companies in league with the U.S. government and international financial institutions. Though activists, investigative reporters and academics have been writing about many of the same aspects of global capital’s ugly underside for years, Mr. Perkins’ tell-all, breezy narrative helped the book read like a snappy spy thriller rather than a footnote-clogged tome. On The New York Times bestseller list for more than a year, it reached a wide audience of readers eager to answer the perennial post-9/11 question “Why do they hate us?”

The Secret History of the American Empire: Economic Hit Men, Jackals, and the Truth about Global Corruption continues Mr. Perkins’ story of his years as an economist and “EHM” (like less radical veterans of big business, the author is fond of acronyms) with an international consulting firm called Chas. T. Main. Mr. Perkins writes that his employer pushed “infrastructure loans that benefited foreign construction companies and the local rich while leaving the poor with nothing, other than huge debts.”

Mr. Perkins further explained his former profession in a recent interview:

We work many different ways, but perhaps the most common one is that we will identify a Third-World country that has resources our corporations covet, such as oil, and then we arrange a huge loan to that country from the World Bank or one of its sister organizations. The money never actually goes to the country. It goes instead to U.S. corporations, who build big infrastructure projects -- power grids, industrial parks, harbors, highways -- things that benefit a few very rich people but do not reach the poor at all. The poor aren’t connected to the power grids. They don’t have the skills to get jobs in industrial parks. But they and the whole country are left holding this huge debt, and it’s such a big bet that the country can’t possibly repay it. So at some point in time, we economic hit men go back to the country and say, “Look, you know, you owe us a lot of money. You can’t pay your debt, so you’ve got to give us a pound of flesh.”
In addition to blatant power grabs, including what Mr. Perkins describes as assassinations of various leaders of developing countries who stood up to “Washington consensus” economics, this new book shows how more subtle forms of persuasion perpetuate U.S. empire building. Mr. Perkins tells the story of two idealistic Peace Corps volunteers who wound up in a USAID-funded project ostensibly intended to help farmers in Mali, which left one of his informants disgusted with its “top-down approach” and feeling “like I had stolen money from Malians, who could have earned decent wages teaching the same things more effectively.” Through contact with African dissidents, the young American discovered that USAID and chemical giant Monsanto were working to introduce language into Mali’s constitution that would allow the introduction, sale and patent rights of GMO crops. As Mr. Perkins observes, “Farm families that had lived off the land for hundreds of years, saving seeds to replant their crops, were now becoming dependent on fertilizers, pesticides and seeds they had to purchase from foreign companies.”

But this is the price the poor must pay for being part of the global economy. As one of the mentors in empire building tells Mr. Perkins, “If you ever intend to have children, and want them to live prosperous lives, you damn well better make sure that we control the African continent. We need the Middle East. Yes. But we must have Africa too.”

As with Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, at times I couldn’t help be reminded of devout believers who describe their past sins in great detail while never failing to add “of course now I know that was wrong” after finishing each salacious anecdote. And there is a bit more information than necessary about the wiles of sexual seduction employed to keep “EHMs” and others in that world from breaking out to side with the poor populations taking a beating from Uncle Sam.

Mr. Perkins concludes with recommendations for readers who feel outraged by what he has described. These include plugs for a long list of nongovermental organizations that cover a vast array of territory. Likely it’s just as well that Mr. Perkins doesn’t try to present one simple prescription for dealing with the horrific juggernaut of environmental destruction, assaults on worker and human rights, and immiseration of millions that Mr. Perkins’ former colleagues in what he calls “the corporatocracy” have helped create. There is plenty to do on many fronts to counter the damage done, and none of it will be easy.

And if some of his conclusions sound a bit too steeped in New Age mysticism, reflect on what Mr. Perkins has accomplished: outing his former compadres for what they really are, and making that truth clear to a broad global audience.

Ben Terrall is a freelance writer in California.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here