Friday, December 3, 2010

Book Review

I’ve been reading a book lent to me by my brother-in-law chronicling the career of a self-described “economic hit man.” John Perkins’ biography is Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, published in 2004 by Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco. I’m reading the Plume (Penguin) paperback edition first published in 2006.

Perkins tells a good story, the story of an idealistic kid who, through almost no fault of his own, got a good education and went off to spend 3 years in Ecuador with the Peace Corps. Then, people who should have known better, hired him for his ability to go semi-native. The engineering firm sent him off to gather economic data upon which to base loan and project proposals.

Sadly for him, they didn’t want his reports to reflect the poverty and misery he found in a series of third world countries. They wanted optimistic reports which would justify big loans to pay for big projects from which their engineering firms would make big bucks. No kidding, they really wanted to make money.

In country after country these big projects enriched the few wealthy families who typically run the economy and government of a third world country. In country after country the poor didn’t benefit while their countries became enmeshed in the global economy, forced to do the bidding of the first world countries since they couldn’t pay back their loans.

Perkins blames all this on some sinister plot to form a de facto global empire of de jure independent nations, without the empire ever being out in the open. He never thinks to blame the economic structure of third world countries, which so often defeats development projects by siphoning off their earnings into the Swiss bank accounts of the few local ricos while the many pobres continue to suffer.

For example, the vice president of Afghanistan was recently caught carrying hundreds of millions of dollars into another country. He and the money were released as there was no proof he had the money illegally. Of course it was legal, and pigs can fly, too.

This book is a classical example of a square peg whining about being in a round hole, about being the wrong person in a job. Perkins would have been happy working for some NGO like CARE, the Red Cross or Save the Children. Instead he ended up working for people who wanted to make and keep money, not those who merely beg for donated money and disburse it.

I think Perkins somehow believed that development projects could be focused on the poor, the descamisados. The world doesn’t work that way. If you build a road network for a developing country, it is logical that only those who can afford at least a motorbike will be able to use it. If you build an electric power grid and generators to power it, people too poor to afford a toaster won't find it useful.

Somewhere in the book Perkins makes fun of offering a dollar a day job to someone who has none. Relate that to what is happening in China, the beginnings of labor unrest as cheap labor starts to organize. Perkins has it wrong, but it makes a good story nevertheless.