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Dogmas of Our Economic System Must Change, Says Former Economic Hit Man

Author John Perkins discusses how “economic hit men” today are even more entrenched in the US political system.

Part of the Series

The pernicious influence of “economic hit men” has spread around the globe. John Perkins revealed his firsthand experience of this violent and coercive phenomenon: Now, in The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, he brings this story of greed and corruption up to date with more than 100 new pages. Order your copy of this expanded edition of The New York Times best seller by making a donation to Truthout today!

The following is a Truthout interview with John Perkins, author of The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.

Mark Karlin: On page 293, you name the four pillars of modern empire as “fear, debt, insufficiency (the temptation to keep consuming more), and the divide-and-conquer mind-set.” Let me ask you a timely question: How do you see those nationally embedded currents playing a role in the current presidential election cycle?

John Perkins: The candidates use all of these in varying degrees. We are told to fear Muslim extremists, terrorists and countries such as Russia, China and North Korea. We are told to go deeper into debt in order to protect ourselves from the things that we are told to fear. We are advised that our military preparedness and our general economy is insufficient to protect us and that we must continually invest our tax dollars in goods and services produced by the big global corporations in order to fend off these threats. Much of the rhetoric about immigrants and such things as Sunnis versus Shiites is part of the divide-and-conquer mind-set.

Since we are discussing the presidential election, it is important to stress that whoever becomes president will have very limited powers. The big corporations control most of our politics. We the people must take responsibility. The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man goes into detail about what each one of us can do to turn things around. After all, the very foundation of democracy is participation by us, we the people.

One of your new chapters describes who the current economic hit men and women are — as far as types. You start by detailing how prevalent they have become in the United States itself. Can you briefly speak to that?

John Perkins. (Photo: Berrett-Koehler Publishers) John Perkins. (Photo: Berrett-Koehler Publishers) In the 1970s, economic hit men [EHMs] were executives and consultants at a few multinational corporations and consulting companies. Today’s EHMs are executives and consultants at thousands of multinational corporations, consulting companies, investment funds, industry groups and associations — as well as an army of lobbyists that represents all of these.

In my EHM days, economically developing countries were looked upon as nests of corruption. People like me plied our trade quietly, but just about everyone assumed that Latin American, African and Asian government officials thrived on bribes. The image of the banana republic politician accepting an envelope stuffed with dollars in exchange for favors granted was ingrained in the press and in Hollywood. The United States, on the other hand, was considered to be — and for the most part was — above such massive corruption.

That has totally changed. Drastically. Activities that would have been viewed as immoral, unacceptable and illegal in the United States in my EHM days are now standard practice. They may be covered in a patina of oblique rhetoric, but beneath that surface, the same old tools — including a combination of threats, bribes, falsified reports, rigged elections, extortion, sex and sometimes violence — are applied at the highest levels of business and government. EHMs are ubiquitous. They stroll from the corridors of the White House through the US Congress, along Wall Street, and into the boardrooms of every major company. Corruption at the top has become legitimized because corporate EHMs draft the laws and finance the politicians who pass them.

Many politicians, senators and congresspeople, along with thousands of other men and women who pass through the “revolving door,” don’t call themselves lobbyists. They work for law firms and go by euphemistic titles such as “counselor,” “consultant” or “adviser in government affairs” — just as I officially was “chief economist” for a highly regarded consulting firm. However, their real job, as mine was, is to con governments and the public into submitting to policies that make the rich richer and the poor poorer. They are EHMs, paid to support the corporatocracy, expand the corporate empire and spread the tentacles of the death economy across the planet. They hide in the shadows, yet their influence is immeasurable.

Can you define what you mean by “today’s jackals”?

These are the people who step in when the EHMs fail. They overthrow or assassinate government leaders who do not buy into the EHM system. In my day, they usually were assigned to foreign lands. That has changed. In the aftermath of 9/11, fear drove Americans to agree to sacrifice privacy and freedom and give the NSA, the CIA, the FBI and other agencies unprecedented powers. Tools perfected overseas, including drones and surveillance aircraft, eavesdropping on phone calls and social media outlets, are now used to spy on us in the United States.

Historically, we are taught that colonialism is something in the past, given the independence of former colonies. However, don’t you provide evidence that the old European colonialism of brutal conquest and rule has just morphed into financial colonialism?

Absolutely. Colonialism is much subtler and more clandestine these days and because of that it is also more dangerous. Countries used to brag that they were sending in their militaries to do noble things, such as spreading civilization, “God’s word” etc. Today’s EHMs go in under the guise of do-gooders out to “end poverty” and that is an unadulterated lie. They are there to colonize — or more accurately, to corporatize and privatize — the world.

You had an epiphany in chapter 39 when you visited the “Hanoi Hilton” in Vietnam. What did you come to realize?

I felt ashamed, sad and angry. But there was something else I couldn’t at first identify.

I felt sorry for the people who had suffered in the wars and in this prison, the Vietnamese women and men, the American soldiers, all those who had been tortured, imprisoned, maimed or killed — and their families. I felt compassion for the prison guards who had committed torture and for the soldiers who had to deal with the fact that they had killed others — the horror of the knowledge that they’d taken a life, made children fatherless and inflicted the worst sort of tragedy on the parents of those they killed. I felt for the emotionally wounded, the ones who survived and ended up in mental institutions, the far too many who committed suicide.

Then finally I got the other piece of what I was feeling. Grateful. I felt a sense of gratitude that I’d managed to avoid being in a war. I hadn’t murdered anyone. I’d not bombed cities, dropped Agent Orange or planted land mines.

“Corruption at the top has become legitimized because corporate economic hit men draft the laws and finance the politicians who pass them.”

Then it struck me in the gut. What about the people I’d corrupted? The threats and bribes? The resources I’d plundered in the name of progress? How did this compare with the killing, maiming and raping? How did extortion and the ravaging of rain forests measure against land mines, flattened temples and children running naked, screaming, through flaming villages?

After awhile, I realized I couldn’t compare what I’d done as an EHM with the actions of soldiers and torturers. That comparison was not the issue. The one supported the other. Economic hit men counted on their marks knowing that the military waited in the wings. In the end, the only thing that really mattered was that we had to change, that there had to be a better way. Human beings had to find another means of dealing with our fears and with our urge to possess more territory, more resources. We simply had to move out of our dysfunctional patterns of exploitation and mayhem. We had to awaken from our stupor.

You provide evidence that leaders of developing nations who defy Western financial colonialism put their lives at risk. Can you provide some examples?

I discuss in detail in The New Confessions my attempts to bring around the heads of state of Ecuador (Jaime Roldos) and of Panama (Omar Torrijos). Both men refused my bribes and threats and both were assassinated. US government officials have admitted to the US’s role in bringing down or assassinating many heads of state, including Arbenz of Guatemala, Allende of Chile, Mossadegh of Iran, Lumumba of the Congo, Diem of Vietnam and many others.

I was quite interested in your new chapter on the Honduras coup, which was, in essence, supported by the US and the State Department in particular. Why was President Manuel Zelaya, who was overthrown and left unsupported by the US, a leader that the US wanted deposed?

President Zelaya advocated a 60 percent increase in the minimum wage, and this infuriated two US companies, Chiquita Brands International (formerly United Fruit) and Dole Food Company.

However, the problem was deeper than Honduras. The CEOs of the big global corporations know that if Honduras’ hourly wage rate rises, so will that of all the other Latin American countries. Honduras, along with Haiti, sets the minimum wage benchmark. No one will go below that benchmark. The corporate heads were determined not to let that benchmark rise.

In addition, President Zelaya introduced many liberal policies in Honduras during the three and a half years of his presidency. These included subsidies for small farmers, free education and meals for poor children, a reduction in interest rates on bank loans to homeowners and local businesses, and free electricity for people who could not afford to pay for it, as well as the increase in the minimum wage. These policies paid off; Honduras enjoyed a nearly 10 percent decline in the poverty level. But these same policies were seen as a dire threat to the hegemony and bottom lines of global corporations and as a precedent that would alter policies throughout Latin America and much of the rest of the world. Corporate leaders demanded that the CIA take out this democratically elected president. It did.

What did you find shocking about how differently the US Department of Justice pursued FIFA financial irregularities as compared to the big banks that nearly imploded the US economy?

Big banks were fined more than $14 billion for crimes they admitted committing in the combined Libor and rigged foreign currency prices conspiracies. But not a single officer at any of the banks was indicted for criminal activities. Not one.

The FIFA soccer scandal was a smoke-and-mirrors diversion. Media attention focused on a nonessential aspect of life — sports — at a time when the real criminals were stealing the global economy. Individual FIFA officials were carted off in handcuffs while bank executives awarded themselves multimillion-dollar bonuses. Why were individual bank officers, whose admitted crimes affected all of us, not indicted?

The obvious answer is that the bankers are members of the corporatocracy, whereas FIFA officials are not. The story that the Justice Department had uncovered so much wrongdoing among the FIFA people and was aggressively pursuing indictments diverted attention from the bigger story. The banking lobby unduly influences the Justice Department. Banks are so wealthy and powerful that they can buy our elected officials, the regulators who serve us, and the media that are supposed to keep us informed.

What are you personally doing to change the world from one run by economic hit men and women to a more compassionate planet?

I write books and travel around the world speaking out, encouraging people everywhere to take responsibility and to become part of the consciousness revolution that will transform a failed death economy (based on destroying resources and people) into a life economy (based on cleaning up pollution, regenerating destroyed environments and creating new technologies for energy, transportation, communications, banking and marketing). I see my job as being to shine a light on the abuses and inspire people to know that they — we — have the power to turn things around.

What are some of the actions that you suggest that individuals can take to replace, as you write, “a death economy with a new dream of a life economy”?

It is imperative that we admit to the fact that we are all complicit. We must take responsibility. The EHMs succeed because we collaborate with them. They seduce, cajole and threaten us, but they win only when we look the other way or simply give in to their tactics.

We the people can feel empowered by the many ways we’ve changed corporations in the recent past — by boycotting ones that supported apartheid, polluted our rivers, refused to hire women or minorities, objected to same-sex marriages, rejected organic produce, opposed food labeling, and so much more.

We — you and I — are the ones with the real power. We need to understand that the marketplace is a democracy, if we choose to use it as such; every time we buy something, we cast a vote.

“We need to understand that the marketplace is a democracy, if we choose to use it as such.”

Actions that are needed now are about changing the ideas, the dogmas that have driven economics for centuries: debt and fear, insufficiency, divide and conquer. They’re about moving from ideas about merely being sustainable to ones that include regenerating areas devastated by agriculture, mining and other destructive activities. About revolution. The transition from a death economy to a life economy is truly about a change in consciousness — a consciousness revolution.

Each of us — you — must follow the dictates of your personal passions and skills. Whether you are a carpenter, a dentist, a writer, a parent, a student or whatever else, those gifts are yours. True success comes from following your unique passions, employing your skills and joining the growing community that is determined to create a better world.

You can start with your individual behavior (recycling, driving less, turning off lights, shopping and banking locally, and so forth), but do not fall into the trap of believing that those things alone are enough. See such actions as good, but also view them as portals into new ways of relating to the world and everything around you.

The lists in chapter 47 are divided into six categories: (1) things we all can do; (2) things students can do; (3) things retired people can do; (4) things people between student age and retirement age can do; (5) things corporations can do (and consumers can insist they do); and (6) things entrepreneurs can do. These are suggestions, intended to inspire you to do whatever it takes to follow your passions and create the world we all know is possible.

As you read the lists, please keep in mind that perhaps the most important advice of all is to enjoy the process. There is nothing that gives greater satisfaction than creating a better world for ourselves and future generations.

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