John Perkins used to be a self-described “economic hit man,” a player in the global game of corporate kickball helping the business goliaths claim the power formerly held by governments and the people. Now, Perkins wants to find a way out of the mess that he, along with many of his peers, has been complicit in creating.
Perkins, author of 2005 NY Times
bestseller Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
, described how from 1971 to 1981 he worked for the international consulting firm of Chas T. Main as an “economic hit man,” or EHM. In his explanation, that's a person whose job is to build up the American empire, to bring in and create situations where as many resources as possible flow into this country, to our corporations, and to our government through economic manipulation, cheating, fraud and sometimes war.
Perkins' story read as a James Bond-like adventure of intrigue, espionage, money and yes, even sex. Now, Perkins has a confessional follow-up in The Secret History of the American Empire: The Truth About Economic Hit Men, Jackals, and How to Change the World,
a book that takes a look at what can be done to change the course of our modern logo-filled destructive lifestyles, and make the planet just a little happier. WWire spoke with Perkins from his hotel room in Memphis last week in preparation for his appearance at Powell's Books downtown and to discuss what he calls the corporatocracy
WW: Do you feel that your book The Secret History of the American Empire is making a difference for people in the way they live their lives?
I absolutely do. This book and a lot of others, and a lot of movies, like Syriana, The Constant Gardener
, and Hotel Rwanda
are all examples of what's going on. I think people are waking up to the corporatocracy. Personally I feel what's most important is that we in the U.S. understand what's going on in the rest of the world and our role in it. We're less than 5 percent of the population and we consume more than 25 percent of the world's resources, and I think many people living in this country don't realize the damage that were causing to our children and grandchildren. We need to understand it so we can help future generations.
WW: Are you hoping to accomplish this by telling your story?
My daughter just gave me a grandson, and when I'm home I spend a lot of time with them. When I look at this baby, I often wonder what our world will look like when he's my age, 63 years from now. I think it can be a beautiful world. We're on the verge of something that's never been done before, breaking the mold of history. In an adolescent colonializing worldview, we're realizing that we're all one species and understanding that we have only one fragile planet and we need to get together, but if we continue down this path of the warlike and imperialistic worldview attitude, I think he'll inherit a very ugly world.
WW: You bring up the idea of Imperialistic Capitalism vs. Democratic Capitalism in your book. Can you explain this?
I think first we have to recognize that big corporations that are running the planet, not presidents or countries. Until recently we can look at the world as a globe with 180 or so countries, with superpowers that had a lot of influence over others—the Soviet Union, perhaps China and the United States—but today we can look at it with the same 180, but the real geopolitics are controlled by what we might envision as these huge clouds drifting around the planet. These clouds don't know any national borders, these are the big corporations, and they form alliances with whatever countries that are most convenient. They really control most of the world's politics through campaign contributions in the U.S. and lobbyists, they also control a great deal of the media, especially in the U.S., where they own them outright or control them through advertising budgets. They are truly the modern equivalent of the emperor if you take them as a combined group. And they can use people in very imperialistic ways, as they've been doing by exploiting the environment, taking minerals, diamonds, oil out of the Congo or the Amazon for example. This has been a very imperialistic approach. But I think we need to realize that you and I and all of your readers have a lot of power in this system, because these corporations cannot exist unless we buy their products, and we can influence them a lot. If every time we go shopping, or even more important, choose not to go shopping, we should refuse to buy things that are made in sweatshops and let the companies know why we won't buy them and at the same time let the companies that we do buy from know why. But also, I think we need to ratchet it up a notch and just go after the main premise of the corporation.
WW: To that end, the economist Jeffrey Sachs believes that global capitalism simply needs a band-aid to heal itself but you believe that it is need of a complete overhaul. Can you explain that difference?
I think that's a very naive viewpoint from Sachs. Jeffrey Sachs is a sophisticated economist, and I think he knows better actually. He often talks about what we need are more mosquito nets and things like that to get rid of malaria, and that is a good beginning. But we need to break the old mold. I think capitalism has proven over the last century that it's incredibly flexible and responsive to human needs; indeed, that's one of its strengths. But in recent times the corporate executives are driven by one goal: that is to maximize profits regardless of the social and environmental costs around the world. What we need to do is just turn that around say, let's make profits but only within the context of creating an environmentally sustainable, just and peaceful world. So let's build a new economy that's based not on war and colonization and exploitation but let's work on one that's based on creating a world that our children will want to inherit. We live on a very, very small planet. Unless every child living in Latin America, Asia, and Africa has the same expectations out of life, we need to recognize our goal to be sustainable in our capitalism.
WW: In your latest book you mention Nike, which is based locally. Are you aware of them conducting business abroad with the help of EHM's?
Nike has made a lot of progress. But as I wrote about in my book, I know several people who have gone over to visit Nike sweatshops, and I specifically talk about a young couple in the book. They just went over again and they have not seen improvements to these sweatshops. So, despite what Nike has said—I'm not speaking from any personal experience and I can't prove any of this—but the information that I'm getting back is that, in fact, in many respects things have gotten worse because the buying power of $2 or $3 a day has decreased, and so as oil and food prices have gone up things have gotten worse. I think that it's really important that a company like Nike, that's a leader in so many ways, take the lead and take a good look at the world they want to leave to future generations. I commend Nike for their environmental stance, but wouldn't it be better to pay these people a better wage and actually be able to buy the products they make? They should take a really serious look at how they're treating their workers all over the world. Also, if these athletic teams that wear Nike would just come out in support of all the people that are making these goods all over the world, and then divert some of that corporate money to the people making these products, I think they and we would be a lot happier. I don't want to single Nike out as the bad guy. There are many others out there but Nike is a true leader in the shoe industry and it's only a positive when a leader takes a strong moral position and says that this isn't just about making profits in the short term but it's about the long term.
WW: So, if a company such as Wal-Mart does so well by providing things cheaper for people here by using cheap labor abroad, how do you convince the broader public of that premise?
I think we need to understand that sometimes when we pay a little bit more for a product we're investing in the future. So, for example my daughter, just before she had my grandson, called me and said, "Dad, I can get a crib for $200 made in a Chinese sweatshop, or I can get one for $600 made with certified plantation Chilean wood and was made in Canada, not in a sweatshop." She told me, “Of course I'd pay the extra $400 because I see that as an investment in my son's future. I would pay $400 for a better child seat or a better education; it's investing in the future.” I think that's how we need to look at things. We do need to spend more money for things like computers that are made out of coltan which is only mined in the Congo; we should pay more for that. CEO's that work for the corporations that use coltan should take lessened salaries. And the people who mine the coltan should get a fair wage so that they have health care and they have retirement pensions. If we do that with everything, whether its' diamonds or oil or coltan, everything, then we'll all be a lot better off in the long run. We have to look at these things as an investment and not a sacrifice. Maybe if an individual can't afford that T-shirt or computer, then, maybe it's something to forgo and make a commitment that next time when you are in position to pay the extra you will, but we must insist that that extra money got to the people that are down on the other end producing the products that we're using in the U.S.
John Perkins will be speaking at Powell's Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 503-228-4651, at 7:30 pm Friday, June 6. Free.