Friday, January 11, 2008

Sarah Palin and Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

Governor Sarah Palin yesterday stood up to Conoco Philips and said their deal is no deal for Alaska. Calling the legislature back into session and leaning on them with the weight of her considerable popularity with Alaskans to revise the Petroleum Profits Tax was also an example of what a principled politician can do. Think about Frank Murkowski, Bill Allen, the large oil companies and their PR flaks as you read the opening to John Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.

Economic hit men (EHMs) are highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars. They 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. Their tools include fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex, and murder. They play a game as old as empire, but one that has taken on new and terrifying dimensions during this time of globalization.

John Perkins' book is hard for Americans to believe, even liberals. It contradicts most of the key interlocking stories that Americans learn:

Story I: The United States of America is the exceptional great nation where freedom and democracy were introduced to the world.
Story 2: The USA is basically good. Those who commit crimes will be punished. Those who work hard will succeed and do well.
Story 3: The Constitution and the Rule of Law are sacred in the USA.
Story 5: Capitalism is the only economic system that promotes freedom and justice
Story 6: What's good for General Motors is good for the USA (Today we can substitute whatever large corporation, such as Conoco-Philips)
Story 7: In other countries the press is not free, but in the US there is no censorship

While we all know there are exceptions to each of these, most Americans down deep tend to believe these stories. Thomas Kuhn (link to Science Friday audio about Kuhn), whose The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Wikipedia link) introduced the word paradigm into the modern American vocabulary, said that even when scientists (he used the word only about scientific paradigms) know their paradigm isn't quite right, they hold onto it until they have a better one with which to replace it. So even though we know there are problems, we stick to our old stories about the USA because we don't have an acceptable alternative. Churchill is said to have coined this phrase that shuts down those who challenge our system: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

But I don't think we have to challenge the system or the stories. Perkins' story doesn't challenge the values of democracy and freedom. Rather he challenges those who wrap themselves in the sacred stories of the system, while they pervert the system for their own power and wealth.

Instead of US policy and corporations being about helping other countries, he says its about conquering them economically and stealing their resources. This is a story Alaska is all too familiar with - starting with the Russians who were after furs, then those after copper and gold, fishing and timber, and oil. The original Pebble Mine folks were so brazen they even called their company Northern Dynasty. What sort of ego names their company "Dynasty?"

While the tactics are a little different when working within US territory, the basic purpose is to gain access to resources as cheaply as possible by buying off those responsible for protecting them. After the trials of Anderson, Kott, and Kohring, Alaskans can no longer believe the myths that our politicians are all working for us, or that the oil companies are giving us the best deal. The posturing of the oil companies this year is right out of Perkins' play book.

Perkins would go into a country to do an economic assessment for developing a power infrastructure. His instructions were to greatly inflate the future power needs of the country and design an infrastructure that would support the industrial needs of the corporations waiting to come into the country. They would snow the country leaders into applying for loans from the World Bank and other such international lenders. Loans they would never be able to repay. Once the countries had overwhelming debts, they essentially became the pawns of US foreign and economic policy.

If the leaders were reluctant, there was plenty of money with which to convince them. If the leaders still refused, the CIA backed real hit men to get them out of the way. The book is dedicated to two such leaders, who Perkins said were principled and stood up for their countries, Jaime Roldós, president of Equador, and Omar Torrijos, president of Panama, both of whom
died in fiery crashes. Their deaths were not accidental. They were assassinated because they opposed that fraternity of corporate, government, and banking heads whose goal is global empire.
I don't expect Governor Palin to die in a fiery crash, but she is pissing off people who aren't used to being refused. You've heard the arrogant tones of the oil companies and their supporters in court and on talk radio and in the newspapers.

I've held off on writing about Perkins because there was one aspect of the book that has bothered me throughout. If what he was being asked to do was so evil, why did he do it for so long? I think I'm irked especially because he was a Peace Corps volunteer and should have known better. He raises this question frequently in the book and I don't think he does that good a job of answering it. The words are there, but it's hollow for me. I think because it is an emotional issue and he doesn't do emotion very well. He writes about being born into "generations of puritanical ancestors," so that may play a part. I also think it's hollow because he does still feel guilty for his part in this. But I've looked on his website and listened to his short Democracy Now interview and I think I'm convinced.

Basically, his recruiters did a very good job. He had a day of interviews while hooked up to a lie detector. They pulled out of him all of his insecurities and weaknesses - his sex life, how he felt about money, his resentment for being the poor teacher's son at an exclusive prep school, etc. And then they used his insecurities to trap him into his job. He also knew what happened to presidents who crossed his bosses, what might happen to him? Besides, he got used to the expensive life he led, traveling the world, feted at international meetings, working with world leaders. It's heady stuff.

His website shows that he has been 'repenting' ever since. He held off writing because he was paid half a million dollars to keep quiet. He used that money he says to develop projects aimed at helping the people he'd harmed. Finally, with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, he felt he could keep quiet no more, and pulled out the manuscript he had started several times.

So, for understanding the power plays between Gov. Palin and the oil companies, as well as understanding why the rest of the world, particularly the less developed world, might not see the American Way quite the same as our stories of it, read the book. You don't have to agree, you don't have to believe it. But at least read it. Then tell me where it is inaccurate. In specifics.


  1. In discussion with foreign national students in classes at the University of London, the American myth is open to examination. It's something that is so refreshing, particularly within Britain, a country that understands empire, its planned and unintended consequences. America is politically, economically and religiously evangelistic and has been for some time, just as Britain was before it. In so many ways, America is child to the father.

    Americans do seem to be largely unaware of the uses of its power wielded by those they never see. You are right to speak of the myths we as Americans are taught and believe. I only wish more could begin to see. I'll plan to add the book to my reading list. Thanks for the heads up.

  2. I generally had the same thoughts on the book when I read it a while back. It was both shocking and, unfortunately, increasingly easy to comprehend. I only say 'easy' b/c we've seen enough Haliburtons, Blackwaters, and Pete Kotts in the last few years to truly make us open to more corruption and economic scare tactics that will hopefully keep us on guard.
    But I had the same feelings as you on Perkins' lack of remorse, even if he did state otherwise. After roughly 2/3 of the way through the book, I just about couldn't take his pleas of regret seriously, especially when he made it sound like every minute of his life was pure anguish during those decades of lying and greed. The stories were great, but his attempts at making himself seem more 'human' just didn't sit well. Thanks Steve.


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