Economic Hit Man

Not all assassins kill with a gun. John Perkins brought down entire countries with a calculator.


| January-February 2005


John Perkins is not your typical global justice activist. He doesn’t organize street protests, wave placards, dress funny, or circulate fiery manifestos. Instead, he puts on a suit and hobnobs with officials at the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and multinational corporations. He moves easily among the financial elite because he spent years as one of their most able servants. In his own words, Perkins is a former “economic hit man.” 

Today, Perkins, 59, wants to shed light on the shadowy role that he and others like him played in driving American business interests into every village on the planet. His new book, aptly titled Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (Berrett-Koehler), is a conversion tale of sorts, the memoir of a Kennedy-era idealist and Peace Corps volunteer who fell into being an advance man for a new dynasty run by global bankers and CEOs. Equal parts globe-trekking economist, anthropologist, and spy, Perkins eventually came to grasp the brute reality of American financial power unleashed on other, poorer lands. He also owned up to his own role as an accomplice—the charming, youthful numbers guy who went in first and drew up the bullish predictions that were used to launch the ruinous “development” phase that followed. 

In a recent interview, Perkins described his younger self as “a modern agent of Manifest Destiny,” referring to the old conceit that Americans have been chosen by God to impose their values on everyone else. Long after he’d seen through that illusion, he kept taking paychecks from those who used it as an excuse to exploit others. Ultimately, Confessions is a parable for all Americans who try to deny the heartbreaking fact that our society’s affluence often comes at the wider world’s expense. By telling the truth about the system he once served, Perkins says, he hopes he can help others break free and join him in building a new world based on human dignity and ecological respect. 

The classic American conflict between entitlement and fairness haunted Perkins from an early age. He was raised in the ‘50s in rural New Hampshire by parents who worked at the elite Tilton boys’ school and traced their New England roots to the likes of Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen. Though they had little money, they refused to let him socialize with the working-class “townies,” especially the girls. Perkins used athletic and academic prowess to hold his own with his classmates, the sons of senators, diplomats, and executives. But he could never quite outrun his sense of not belonging, or his resentment at being forced to adopt his parents’ misplaced snobbery. 

After dropping out of Middlebury College, his father’s alma mater, he graduated from Boston University with a degree in economics, got married, and spent three years in the Peace Corps in Ecuador with his wife. During that time, he met an American who worked with a Boston-based consulting firm, Chas. T. Main, Inc., or MAIN. The company was helping its largest client, the World Bank, decide whether to lend Ecuador billions of dollars to construct hydroelectric dams and other big engineering projects. Over the next year, Perkins continued to send his new friend dispatches assessing Ecuador’s economic prospects. Unlike most economists with better credentials, Perkins proved to be a hardy traveler who dealt well with the stress of working in remote places. Impressed as much by his skills in the field as with his head for numbers, the company offered him a job, and at 26 he became its chief economist. 

  

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