By: Jan Mazotti Issue: Global Trade Section: Jewel Of Collaboration
An Interview with John Perkins
In June 1971, John Perkins began his career as an “economist” and economic hit man (EHM). Naïve to the EHM culture, Perkins learned that as an EHM he would be a, “highly paid professional who cheats countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars. He would funnel money from the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for international Development (USAID), and other foreign “aid” organizations into the coffers of huge corporations and the pockets of a few wealthy families who control the planet’s natural resources.” He would use tools such as, “fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex, and murder” to accomplish his goals.
Now, some 30+ years later, Perkins has shared his EHM story in Confessions of an Economic Hit Man and The Secret History of the American Empire: The Truth About Economic Hit Men, Jackals, and How to Change the World, and is now passionately engaging with Americans to work to create a more peaceful and just world for future generations. With the presidential elections recently completed, questions of America’s military status, environmental impact, and foreign policy are on everyone’s mind. He shared his insights of the current geopolitical crisis and offers interesting responses to the world’s environmental and trade-related status. I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Mr. Perkins and learning about why he is so passionate now about changing the world for the better.
You say in Confessions, “Saudi Arabia was a planner’s dream come true, and also a fantasy realized for anyone associated with the engineering and construction business.” What countries are the current planner’s “dream” like Saudi was for you? Why and how?
Certainly Iraq is - and, to a certain degree it’s working. One of the greatest things you can do if you are a big corporate executive is have a company that destroys a country and then rebuilds it. That’s certainly happened in Iraq, where we’ve destroyed the country and are attempting to rebuild it. The problem has been that we haven’t been able to get enough control to really go in there and do the things we’d like to do – like we did in Saudi Arabia. But, I think that’s been the plan. However, I think because of the failure of the whole Iraq process, perhaps that plan is one that we won’t try to implement in the future. Although, I can see that we are trying to do aspects of that plan in Afghanistan too.
In your list of “what you can do,” you say to “protest against ‘free’ trade agreements…” Why no free trade agreements?
Because free trade agreements as they’ve been implemented in the past are not about free trade at all – they’re about exploitation. I think free trade is a great concept, but the kinds of agreements that we have today for example don’t allow countries in Latin America to have any subsidies for any of their agricultural goods, yet we have huge subsidies in our country. The free trade agreements practically drove the small Mexican cotton farmer out of existence – and yet he can produce cotton much more cheaply than our cotton growers can. But our cotton growers are heavily subsidized, so in fact, our heavily subsidized cotton growers can sell cotton in Mexico much more cheaply than Mexican cotton growers can – even though it costs a lot more to produce it here. Because of the subsidies, you get this very unfair situation. It is not free trade at all. We call it free trade but the free trade agreements are not. If we had true free trade, I’d probably support it.
So, based on what you just said, is fair trade real or is it an illusion?
Fair trade can very much be real – and I support those efforts. I used to own a small coffee farm in Columbia and one of the reasons that I bought this farm is because I wanted to make it a model for campesínos in Columbia – to grow coffee organically and to sell it in fair trade markets. You have to be really careful, as with all of these things that it’s true and that people who claim that they’re selling things that are fair trade, really are. One of the issues here – in everything you buy, whether it’s fair trade or not - is how do we know what we’re really buying? Consumers have tremendous power. The marketplace is democratic – if we choose to make it democratic. We decide which companies will succeed or fail by the way we shop – if we shop consciously.
We decide which companies will succeed or fail by the way we shop – if we shop consciously. Part of what I am advocating is that we use that power to change the general goal of corporations – because right now the goal that every corporation seems to share is to maximize profits regardless of social and environmental costs. We need to convince these corporations that they can make profits, but only within the context of creating a sustainable, just, and peaceful world. And, if a critical mass of us, refuses to buy from any company that is not committed to creating a sustainable, just, and peaceful world then eventually all companies will have to make that commitment. It’s that simple and it’s democratic.
Part of the problem with that is knowing which ones are really doing it and which ones are not. So, how do we certify things? There are a number of organizations that are working on a scannable barcode for every product whereby you would be able to hold your cell phone up and tell you exactly where that product was made, whether the people who made it were treated fairly, or whether the products were grown organically. It would enable us to “vote” in the marketplace consciously.
You say that China’s “hit men” and jackals are potentially better – what do you mean? What does that mean in a global economy going forward?
Hit men aren’t better or worse, but when I travel in Latin America, one of the things I hear is that they would much rather take loans from China than from the U.S. or the World Bank or the organizations that are associated with us. The reason is that China doesn’t impose the same restrictions – they do not insist that these loans be used to hire Chinese corporations. They do not insist that these countries privatize their public sectors like water, sewer, and electricity, and sell it to Chinese companies. And, so the restrictions aren’t there.
The other thing is that the Chinese are not looked at as militaristic, as we are. They have never had a military presence in Latin America or Africa or the Middle East, and for that matter most of Asia – except for those areas that they consider to be their territory – which unfortunately includes Taiwan and Tibet. But, we on the other hand, have had a military presence in over 130 countries. We’ve been known to overthrow the governments of Chile and Guatemala and recently attempted it in Venezuela. We’ve done it in Iran. We’ve gone on record admitting that we’ve done this in many places. The Chinese don’t have that same history and so leaders in Latin America look to the Chinese very differently. It’s a shame that we are seen as a bully that uses loans to get its way and that forces scient nations to open their doors for us to build military bases and have a military presence. The Chinese are not looked at that way at all.
It seems that the corporatocracy (corporations, banks, and governments) are facing severe backlash, however only in two pillars: government and banking. Why are we not seeing the backlash against the major corporations who participate?
The financial and banking sectors really blew it – and we all blew it to a certain degree – because our government, and we as voters, accepted the Chicago school, Milton Friedman’s idea that if you give executives free reign they’ll do the right thing and that it’ll be best for the market. Forgetting that CEOs are human beings and that they too can be very greedy and they can be dishonest. People need to be regulated to a certain degree. We have rules and police forces to make sure that there aren’t muggers, and burglars, and rapists walking around our communities. And, we have to assume that in corporations you have pathological personalities and we need to protect ourselves against those people too. This became very clear in the financial community - Wall Street and the investment business - as we’re all seeing now. There was a huge backlash against that because it became so obvious, but it hasn’t become so obvious in other businesses.
What we need to understand that many of the executives that run our biggest corporations are people that do not have our best interests in mind. Having said that, I also want to say that most of the executives that I’ve ever known in my life are very decent people and they are driven by our demands that they give us the cheapest goods possible even if that means destroying the rainforest to bring out cheap oil or using slave labor in sweatshops to give us our tennis shoes. We’ve said, “We really don’t care – we’ll look the other way” when they do this. And so they’ve done it. And we’ve also said to them we want to have the highest rate of return on our investment. So, we’ve sent a message to these executives that we want them to maximize profits regardless of social and environmental effects. I think most of them would much rather do a better job. Most of the ones I know have children or grandchildren and they don’t want to see Florida sink into the ocean. They want to see a better world. We need to let them know that we are going to reward them if they give us goods and services that meet better standards – that are dedicated to a sustainable, just and peaceful world. If they can’t do that, we’re not going to buy their goods and services.
Considering America’s recent elections and all the news around the economic meltdown, do you believe that people are beginning to shift their views to challenge the status quo of the historical corporatocracy? How and why?
There has been a revolution around the world. I think we are at a time in history that is similar to the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution in the ways that we’re changing – with the new technologies – it allows everybody on the planet to communicate with each other and it allows us to understand what really goes into products.
At the same time we’re having a revolution in geopolitics – so we’re in a similar time in history when the nation states became cities. But today the nations are becoming somewhat irrelevant. It is the big corporations that are running the planet today. They know no national borders, they don’t listen to any particular set of laws, and they’ll strike deals with the Chinese and the Taiwanese and the Tibetans. They’ll strike deals with the Israelis and the Arab nations - anyone that has resources that they covet.
Not very long ago the big powers of the world were the U.S., the British Empire, and the Soviet Union, but today the true rulers are the big corporations. I think we can see that as being an advantage because these corporations are dependent upon us to buy their goods and services. For the first time in history we essentially have an empire that’s a corporate empire and it hasn’t been built by military force – it’s been built through commerce – and we are the buyers.
For the first time in history we essentially have an empire that’s a corporate empire and it hasn’t been built by military force – it’s been built through commerce – and we are the buyers.
So, we have tremendous power over these corporations. We can get them to change the world.
In The Secret History of the American Empire, you argue that the situation we are in today is similar to that of the days of the Revolution – that there is a, “gathering storm of conviction toward changing the corporatocracy.” Are we affecting our own “American Revolution” by changing the governmental figureheads, or is that an illusion?
There is a revolution in the world. We have to be careful not to expect too much from Obama and the government. Ten countries, representing more than 80% of the population in South America have voted in leaders who are saying no more exploitation of our resources. We want to develop our resources, we want to partner with big corporations who can help us develop our resources, but we want our people to get a larger share of the profit. Every one of these countries, during most of my lifetime, was run by brutal dictators who were under the thumb of the big corporations. That’s all changed. It’s a huge revolution. And, it’s swept north now.
We have had a revolution in this country no doubt. Symbolically, the election and the taking of the White House by Obama is huge. We went from the conservative, Republican oilman from Texas to the most liberal Senator in the Senate, who happens to be African American and is from Illinois. Huge, huge change. And it was a peaceful transition of power – that’s almost unheard of in the world. It’s remarkable. But now we’ve got this new President and we’ve got to be careful that we don’t expect miracles of him.
We have to do it. He keeps telling us that. We have to remember that slavery did not end in this country because Abraham Lincoln found himself in the White House. Abraham Lincoln went into the White House, because “we the people” wanted to end slavery. We didn’t get out of Vietnam because Richard Nixon was anti-war - he was not anti-war. Nixon understood that “we the people” were demanding that we get out of Vietnam – so that’s what got us out. The change always comes from us. And then our Presidents, if they’re enlightened enough, go along with that change The change always comes from us. And then our Presidents, if they’re enlightened enough, go along with that change.
It has to come from us – just like it did with Lincoln and just like it did with Vietnam. We must remember that now. The worst thing anyone can do is sit back thinking,”Thank God Obama won,” and wait for him to change everything. He says he can’t do that – he tells us we have to do it.
Throughout your work you say that corporations are the, “opposite of good citizens.” What are your perceptions of Corporate Social Responsibility in multi-national companies?
That’s hard to generalize – it’s usually a green wash. I think companies are attempting to look responsible. I recently spoke at an event sponsored by Wharton Business School with 2,200 business students there from all over the country. The other presenters included the President of Coca-Cola and the head of sustainability for Wal-Mart. It was interesting to me, for example, that the head of sustainability for Wal-Mart was speaking – he was very smooth, very cool and seemed to have all the right answers - about how Wal-Mart was moving forward to do the right thing. But the students weren’t buying it and during the question period they stood up and hit him pretty hard with some very tough questions. He answered them smoothly, he was a good salesman. But I had to think that when this guy goes back to his executive committee or whoever he reports that he’s going to say, “You know this is Wharton, these are MBA students, these are not radicals. These are the guys that are going to be running our company one day and who are also going to be our best clients and we’ve got to start listening to them.” So, it seems to me that all these corporations today have to be listening even though some of them try to whitewash or green wash the issues. But if we all keep up enough pressure, they will change.
If we keep the pressure on they will come around eventually or they will go out of existence. The marketplace is a polling booth. If we just simply recognize it, if none of us ever again buys from Nike, and we send an email to Nike and say we’re not buying because you still have sweatshops and instead we buy from Patagonia and send an email to them and tell them we’re buying from them because they don’t have sweatshops, then Nike will eventually have to change its sweatshops into true factories that pay fair wages and give healthcare or Nike’s going out of existence – it’s that simple.
Why is energy such a big topic right now – is it because it is the most important thing in maintaining our global dominance? What is the new economic vision?
Economies run on energy. You can’t have economic growth without energy and you can’t breathe without energy. Energy is everything – when you come right down to it. Unfortunately the world has gotten itself in a situation where were extremely dependent on petroleum for all of our energy – that just cannot continue. There is a finite amount of petroleum out there and besides that, increasingly, getting petroleum is causing huge environmental and social disruptions. So we must move away from that.
The bigger issue is that we need to move into a whole new vision about what is economic growth. We don’t want to recover – we want to move forward into something new because the old world was where 5% of the world population living in the United States consumed 25% of its resources and you cannot repeat that – statistically there is no way you can do it. We can’t do that – it’s a failed model. We need to move into a new economic vision.
We need to focus instead on developing an economy that truly produces and sells to itself things that we need and things that will make a better world. I often wonder, “what if we took a percentage of our military budget and paid the same companies – Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics – to instead of building missiles and tanks – build equipment that will clean up the polluted lands of the world, and the polluted waters, and the polluted air? What if we took a percentage of our military budget and paid these same companies to come up with means to help starving people around the world feed themselves? That’s creating a whole new economy. And, also to come up with new energy methods using solar, wind, and the other things that Obama is promoting.
For the first time in history we live on a very, very tiny planet. We are all interconnected. We’re all buying from each other. We’re all selling to each other. We must recognize this. That was the vision of our founding fathers: a government of, for, and by the people, was never intended to end with the 13 colonies. It was intended to include Colorado, and California, and Texas, even though they didn’t exist as entities at the time. It was never intended to end at the Rio Grande or the Canadian border – those principles are for the whole world and we must recognize that we are truly one community and that the way to create better lives for ourselves and our progeny is to create better lives for all the children on this planet. And, part of that is creating this new economy that has a totally different approach to providing energy for itself.
What has been the biggest lesson you have learned, what was it, and who was it from?
Spending time with Omar Torrijos, President of Panama was an amazing experience for me because he was a man who really enjoyed life, he was anything but what you’d call a saint, and yet he was a man who was dedicated to making life better for his people, and for people throughout Latin America. I couldn’t corrupt him. He one time said to me, “Juanito I don’t need your money – I’ve got a good house, I’ve got cars that take me places, I’ve got everything that I need – I don’t need any more money. What I need is for my people to live dignified lives. I need to get the canal back into Panamanian hands. It’s a terrible insult to our people to have this slice of the United States running through our country. I need to get my people to feel proud that we no longer owe your country – that your country is actually going to pay reparations. Beyond that, I need to spread that word and that spirit throughout South America.”
So this was a man who, despite the fact that he loved his cigars and his rum and having a good time, he was anything but selfish. He was totally directed toward helping others. He had this amazing sense of responsibility to helping others. It greatly impacted me at a very impressionable time in my life. Here I was, an EHM, not enjoying my life at all. I was travelling first class around the world, staying at the best hotels, eating at the best restaurants, hanging out with gorgeous women and heads of states and presidents of corporations and I was miserable because I was leading this very selfish life. My life was directed at carrying out plans that ultimately led to exploiting other people and I hated it. Omar helped me understand that. Because of him, I was only an Economic Hit Man for 10 years and then I got out and have essentially spent the rest of my life trying to make this a better world. And, I have been very, very happy doing that. I feel very blessed to be able to talk to universities and business conferences all over this planet. We’re going through a revolution and feel honored and blessed to be a part of it. I might not have ever taken this route if it wasn’t for Omar Torrijos. I think I owe him a great deal.