We’re headed for disaster. You’d have to be totally blind not to recognize that. So if we don’t change — if this crisis doesn’t force us to change — there will be more and more and more and more. And who knows what the ultimate outcome will be? If we continue to resist, we’ll disappear. I mean, you have to be sustainable at some point don’t you, by definition?
– John Perkins
Initially, John Perkins seems to be a character you’d love to hate. His tales of spreading exploitation and pushing World Bank loans across the planet as an “economic hit man” make him easy fodder. Perkins has been a member of a group that finds itself more and more unpopular every day since the implosion of Wall Street last year.
In his latest book, he introduces himself as one of the “‘hired guns’ who promote the interests of big corporations and certain sectors of the U.S. government.” He adds that though he had a “fancy title” his “real job was to plunder the Third World.”
This was Perkins’ basic narrative in his wildly popular book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. But in his latest book, Hoodwinked: An Economic Hit Man Reveals Why the World Financial Markets Imploded — and What We Need to Do to Remake Them, he connects the plundering of the last three decades to the roots of today’s economic crisis.
“We were so successful in the Third World that our bosses directed us to implement similar strategies in the United States and across the rest of the planet,” he writes. This is where the global economic crisis came from, and we can only fix it if we understand that.
And that’s why BuzzFlash had to talk to the economic hit man himself. Turns out, the H-word that came to mind was not hate, but hope.
In this interview, Perkins explains why “economic recovery,” in the mainstream sense of the word, is not desirable for our country, and that such a “return to normal” will only precipitate the next looming crisis. He also told us what he thinks about the supposed “change” as represented by the Obama Administration a year after inauguration and what it’s going to take to transition from toxic, predatory capitalism to a sustainable, fair-market society.
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BuzzFlash: First of all, I want to thank you for taking the time, and let you know I really enjoyed Hoodwinked. But I do want to start by going back a bit to your first book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, and your persona in that role. I want to know how well you knew, when you were actually in this role, that you might be doing something wrong as an economist in the Third World.
John Perkins: Well, Meg, I think it was always in the back of my mind. From the moment I first met with Claudine — you know, this amazing woman who was my mentor and trainer — and she let me know what I would be in for. I think I had suspicions. But I felt that I could probably be different. I think we often feel that way.
Also, all my training in business school said that if you build big infrastructure projects in developing countries, that was the right way to increase economic growth. And of course, the business schools were teaching that while I was an economic hit man. I was asked to speak at places like Harvard and talk about these things. And the World Bank was very much behind it. Robert McNamara, president of the World Bank, patted me on the back and told me what a good job I was doing.
So there were a lot of ways to kind of convince myself that what I was doing was right. And I was living a very interesting life, traveling first class around the world, visiting countries that I’d always wanted to visit. So there’s a side of me that always wanted to convince myself. But as time went on and I questioned more and more, and heard more and more, I saw more and more. Finally after about ten years I reached a point where I could no longer fool myself. I could no longer be in denial.
BuzzFlash: As a follow-up question, I wonder if you could tell me what you think about some of the people on the political side of the free market capitalism theory such as, say, Ronald Reagan, or even Milton Friedman himself. Do you think they were aware of the underlining immorality of those policies when they’re in action?
John Perkins: Well, I can’t believe that they didn’t understand the implications. I have a sense that people like that don’t think in terms of morality very much. Somebody like Friedman says only responsibility of business is to maximize profits in the short run, regardless of the social and environmental costs. He doesn’t really leave any room for morality there. When you say the only responsibility is to make large profits, you’ve ruled out morality. I don’t know that Ronald Reagan thought in terms of morality very much. He certainly talked about family values and things like that.
BuzzFlash: I admit it’s kind of an unfair question. How would you know what these other people thought?
John Perkins: Right. But I can’t believe they didn’t understand the implications — that what we were doing was creating a bigger gap between rich and poor. What we were doing was supporting the rich people around the world. What we were doing was supporting big corporations. And that, in fact, was definitely a part of both Reagan’s and Friedman’s policies. So they certainly understood the implications. Whether they saw it in moral terms or not, I don’t know.
BuzzFlash: Now getting to Hoodwinked, I was really glad to hear you address the “good news” distractions that would keep us from actually changing the toxic way we’re doing things. Because it’s something that the media reproduces all the time with this economic recovery talk. And it makes me wonder if this current crisis can’t convince us to change, then what, if anything, will?
John Perkins: A bigger crisis.
BuzzFlash: Do you see another looming crisis on the horizon?
John Perkins: This is not ending. If we don’t do something to change it, it’s going to get worse. There’s no question about that. I mean, we should have seen this crisis coming — and anybody who was really looking did see it coming.
When your country is as deep in debt as ours is, when you’re doing essentially what the Spanish empire did back in the sixteen- or seventeen-hundreds, which was plundering the rest of the planet, and not building up your own manufacturing base, but instead going to other countries, borrowing huge amounts of money. This is exactly what the Spanish did. They plundered Latin America for gold and silver, and they took out huge loans based on that plunder from the Dutch and the British and many others, and just lived this lifestyle. They didn’t really build up their own economy, and it imploded.
We’re doing the same thing, and it doesn’t work. And in addition to that, it’s worse today because we’ve created this world for less than five percent of us who live in the United States and consume more than 25 percent of the world’s resources. And you can’t — the world’s so big — it’s such a big population that there’s no way anybody else can replicate that. The planet’s just not big enough. We’d have to have another five planets to do that.
And so, we’re headed for disaster. You’d have to be totally blind not to recognize that. So if we don’t change — if this crisis doesn’t force us to change, there will be more and more and more and more. And who knows what the ultimate outcome will be? If we continue to resist, we’ll disappear. I mean, you have to be sustainable at some point, don’t you, by definition? The species has to be sustainable. A lot of species have disappeared from the planet because they haven’t been sustainable. A lot of human cultures have disappeared from the planet because they weren’t sustainable, like the Mayan culture for example. We have to either become sustainable or perish.
BuzzFlash: I wonder, a year out from Obama’s inauguration, what grade you would give the president on becoming a more sustainable society?
John Perkins: Well, of course, I come at this from a different perspective. We’re the people who have to do it. I think we’ve put too much stock in our presidents, and a president can come along once in a while who’s truly exceptional. I think Franklin Roosevelt was truly exceptional. Even people who don’t like his policies would have a hard time not agreeing with that statement. But these exceptional people are very few and far between. Churchill was that way for England.
Obama’s not in that mold, I think, and I don’t think you can expect that in general of presidents. I think people put a lot of expectations on Obama. Do I think he’s done a good job? No, absolutely not. I’d give him a very, very low rating.
And he has brought in exactly the people who caused the problem. His financial sector is run by guys from Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms that caused the problem, and his agricultural policy is run by people from Monsanto and other big companies.
I’m very disappointed in that, on the one hand. On the other hand, I didn’t expect a hell of a lot more, to be honest with you.
I think we need to recognize that we’re at a time in history unlike any other before. The most analogous time would be when the city-states became nations, except today the nations are becoming irrelevant and the presidents are becoming irrelevant. I think I talked in Hoodwinked about how it used to be. Our globe was roughly 200 countries, of which a few had a lot of power: the U.S., the Soviet Union, others at other times.
But today, we really envision the power bases being these huge corporations drifting around the planet. They’re calling the shots. And they’re calling the shots on Obama. They’re calling the shots on any powerful leader in the world. They threw one out in Honduras recently, the big corporations did. And Obama’s very aware that he’s extremely beholden to them, and he’s in a very vulnerable position.
We the people have to create the change. And in fact, that’s always been the case.
Women didn’t get the right to vote because Woodrow Wilson was pro-suffrage; he wasn’t. They got the right to vote because they’d been fighting for it for a long time. And when he was president, he traveled around the country trying to drum up support for U.S. troops to be sent into Europe to defend democracy there, and women followed him everywhere, and screamed and shouted and carried placards that said, “Why should we send our men off to defend democracy in Europe when we don’t have it here? Half of us can’t vote. We women can’t vote.” And he gave in to that. This is an American tradition — that we the people have to do it.
Franklin Roosevelt certainly saw that when he told union leaders, after meeting with them, “I think you understand that I agree with you. Now you’ve got to go out there and force me to do the right thing.”
We have to force Obama to do the right thing. We have to force the corporations to do the right thing. It’s not likely that we get a president that is so courageous, and comes from such an independent resource base that he feels comfortable challenging the status quo. That happens very seldom in this country.
BuzzFlash: When you talk about using that individual action to create change, I wonder if the two-party system keeps going the way that it is, and lawmakers keep refusing to do what the people demand, then what?
John Perkins: Well, parties are very much manipulated by big corporations. I’m starting to sound kind of like a stuck record. Maybe part of the reason I sound that way is I come out of the corporate background, not a political background.
So my bias is the corporations, that they call the shots. And I’ve seen this, and I know this. They do call the shots. And both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party have been controlled by the corporations and the money that they provide. Nobody gets elected in this country without a lot of corporate backing, either directly or from major stockholders in corporations that may do it as a private donation. But they’re certainly using it to leverage support for their corporations. And we really have to recognize that.
Obama originally started off saying he wasn’t going to take corporate funding. But even if he hadn’t — if he were really upright in that regard — he’s not, but if he were, he’d still have to work with a Congress that’s beholden to corporations. He’d still have to deal with approximately 35,000 lobbyists just in Washington, D.C. And corporations control the press. So they have tremendous power.
So my whole thing here, and what I tried to point out in Hoodwinked, is that we have to force the corporations to understand that they have to change their goal from that of maximizing profits regardless of the social and environmental costs to making profits within the context of creating a stable, just and peaceful world. If we can really convince the corporations that the only ones we’re going to buy from or allow our tax dollars to buy from are those that are committed to that sort of agenda and that sort of a goal, then they will see to it that our elected officials come up with policies that level the playing field in a way that ends up making everybody responsible for creating a sustainable, just and peaceful world. But I really believe that if we cannot convince the corporations, it’s not going to happen, because they are calling the shots. And they are dependent upon us to buy their goods and services.
BuzzFlash: Well, let’s look at the less public, kind of “shadow corporations” that don’t directly depend on Americans going out to buy their products. Do we still have a lot of influence with them? What can people do to send that message to those companies that don’t really depend on the consumer market?
John Perkins: Can you give me some specific examples?
BuzzFlash: Well, I’m thinking say, this product you may not know comes from General Electric. Or you may not know that the corn that is part of this food product may be from Monsanto. The corn might be grown from genetically-modified seeds, but this product looks sustainable. How can we, as consumers, sort through the myriad of corporations to tell them what we want them to do.
John Perkins: That’s a challenging question and I get asked that frequently when I’m on public speaking tours. And I usually responded to the person who’s asking the question, “Well, make it happen.” Create a system where we can see that. You know, it is happening. I agree; we need a more — what’s the right word? What’s the word that’s always bandied about? We need –- you know, we need to be more open. There needs to be greater…
John Perkins: Very much. We need to have more transparency in that regard. But there is a lot of information. My daughter is 27. She’s really good at this. She goes on the Internet. She gets a lot of information on my Web site and on the Dream Change Web site, there’s a lot of links to information. It takes a little work.
By the way, we’re getting there, I think. I know there are several organizations currently that are working on creating kind of a bar code that every product would have, and you could hold your cell phone up to it, and it would basically tell you the whole life cycle of the product, and whether the workers that created this product get fair wages, and so on and so forth. Whether or not at the end, the disposal process is recyclable, et cetera. And it’ll rank them, so you can have a decision-making process, kind of like with food. You can see how many calories are in your food, how much fiber and how much fat, and so on and so forth. All right, we need to move in that direction with other products. There needs to be a lot of transparency, and I think we are moving in that direction.
But you’re right: It’s not always easy these days. And it takes a bit of an effort. And yet, there still are ways to make comparisons. I mean, we know a lot of companies that are not working hard to do a good job — Nike for example, seems to always try to convince us it’s doing a good job. But all the evidence is that it has slave labor in its sweatshops in places like Indonesia. Or Dole. I love bananas. I won’t buy Dole-secured bananas because they’re behind the coup in Honduras this past year. And so there’s a lot of areas where it’s pretty clear. And there’s a lot of other areas where it’s foggier and we need to develop a better information base in those areas.
BuzzFlash: I know you’re more interested in the corporate responsibility angle — but if there were one thing that the government could do to make companies behave more responsibly, what would that be?
John Perkins: Well, that’s actually an easy one to answer. I talk in Hoodwinked about how, in the first hundred years of this country, no corporation could get a charter unless it proved it was serving the public interest. And on average, charters were only good for ten years. There were exceptions, but most of them were for ten years. And then you had to prove you had done a good job of serving the public interest and you were committed to continuing before you got your next ten-year charter. I think we should have some laws that reflect that again.
There are a lot of laws that we need to get back to that would have protected us from the recession. Glass-Steagall was the most famous one, implemented after the Great Depression, that I think we need to bring back in.
What’s more important is new laws — general laws that mandate that corporations have a social and environmental responsibility. Mandate that they be good citizens. After all, corporations were given by the Supreme Court in the late 1800s all the rights of individuals, but not all of the responsibilities. I think they need to have the responsibilities forced on them. They need to be good citizens, corporations. We need to have laws that say a corporation simply won’t have a charter unless it’s serving the public interest, unless it’s committed, unless it’s doing things that are aimed toward creating a sustainable, just and peaceful world.
BuzzFlash: If there were one thing that you could tell our readers to go out and do tomorrow to help this idea of toxic capitalism die out in our society, what would that one thing be?
John Perkins: It sounds self-serving, but I would tell them to read this section in Hoodwinked. It talks about what they can do.
There are five general areas of action that I have in Hoodwinked. Every one of us could do any one of those, or all five of them. But I would suggest that people look at those and pick one or two. But pick the ones that really speak to their passion. Everybody has passion, and everybody has talent. And when we follow our passions, and use our talents to follow our passions, we move mountains.
Part of the lesson is that people don’t follow their passions. They go and do something they’re not passionate about, and it doesn’t work too well. So there’s no point in that. We really want people like your readers, who follow their passions. Do what most appeals to them — their bliss. Use their talents to do that, and apply those in one of these five areas or more that are all aimed at making a sustainable, just and peaceful world.
BuzzFlash: I think that about does it for all my questions. But is there anything you want to add?
John Perkins: Just that I appreciate you doing this very much. I think this is what democracy’s all about: getting this word out. It’s people like you that are getting the word out.
And I’m very, very hopeful. I think we’re at an amazing time in history, a time of incredible transition. Many indigenous cultures have prophesied this. You know, the Mayan legend of 2012, the Inca legend of the eagle and the condor, the Himalayan legends — there are many that say that this is a time for opportunity. And I think we’re really at that time.
I’m hopeful and I just encourage people to be hopeful, but at the same time to realize that it’s going to take some — we’ll call it work. But I think actually a better term would be it’s fun. It’s going to be fun. You know, it is work, but there’s nothing in the world that’s more satisfying than devoting yourself to creating a more sustainable world, a world that future generations will want to inherit. And I think we should have fun doing it while we’re about it.
BuzzFlash: It’s funny you should say you’re hopeful, because reading your book was one of the first times that I actually felt hopeful about coming out of this recession in a positive way, so I appreciate that.
John Perkins: Thank you.
BuzzFlash: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
John Perkins: Thank you so much.
BuzzFlash interview conducted by Meg White.
John Perkins’ new book Hoodwinked: An Economic Hit Man Reveals Why the World Financial Markets Imploded – and What We Need to Do to Remake Them is available at the BuzzFlash Progressive Marketplace.