Bestselling author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man and now Secret History of the American Empire, John Perkins-former operative for our government-joined ele and a 100 guests at one of our first “elevision” talk shows in the backyard of the venerable Trident Café & Booksellers in Boulder, Colorado. -ed.
Waylon H. Lewis, for elephant journal: It’s my honor to be with John Perkins, who I saw 20 minutes of last night. I biked to the wrong church for your book reading. You’re the author, as millions of readers around America know-you’ve been on The New York Times Best Seller List for more than a year-of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. And you have a new book, The Secret History of the American Empire. First of all, what’s an “economic hit man?” Sounds kind of cool.
Perkins: Well, Waylon, before I start I just want to make sure…I’m assuming with all these elephants [stickers] around that this has been sanctioned by the Republican party, so I’m free to speak…
ele: I asked for the blue ones up here! [Holding up an elephant sticker; Laughter]
Perkins: It’s fair to say that we “economic hit men” have created the world’s first truly global empire. And we’ve done it primarily without the military.
ele: As a Republican, I’d like to say, “Good work.”
Perkins: Thank you. And we’ve done it in secret, which is the way your party would probably like to have it done.
ele: Right, well, Dick likes to do a lot in secret.
Perkins: Exactly. We use clandestine techniques so you don’t get the military involved. Perhaps the most common: we identify a Third World country with resources our corporations covet, like oil. Then, we arrange a huge loan to that country from an organization like the World Bank or one of its sisters. But the money doesn’t go to the country. Instead, it goes to our own corporations that build big infrastructure projects in that country, power plants, industrial parks, things that benefit a few very rich people in the country as well as our own corporations. But [these benefits] don’t reach the majority of the people: [who] don’t use much electricity; don’t have the skills to get jobs in industrial parks. But they and the country are left holding this debt, [which is] so huge that they can’t possibly repay it. So at some point we economic hit men go back in and say, “Can’t pay your debts? Give us a pound of flesh. Sell your oil real cheap to our oil companies, or vote with us on the next critical U.N. vote or, send troops in support of us someplace like Iraq.” I talk about in the books how I failed with Omar Torrijos, the President of Panama, I couldn’t corrupt him, I couldn’t bring him around…so on the few occasions when that happens, the jackals go in. Men that overthrow governments or assassinate their leaders. And because of my failure with Omar Torrijos, he was assassinated by C.I.A.-supported jackals. This is the way we’ve created this empire, in secret, without most Americans having any idea that we are the beneficiaries.
ele: I was climbing right before this out on 32nd and Walnut. Which is more detail than we need. I was saying, “What should I ask John? What should I ask John?” A lot of the climbers, interestingly, had read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. One of them said: “If you are an economic version of James Bond-sent into other countries to negotiate loans and get that pound of flesh if they couldn’t repay them, which they generally couldn’t-and [then] get our corporations in, to their benefit if not the American people’s, how is it that the government would let you write a best seller?”
Perkins: You’re asking how could I possibly be a good enough writer [to write] that book?
ele: Right. [Laughter]
Perkins: It’s a good question. I talk a lot in Secret History about how, after I stopped being an economic hit man, I started writing Confessions several times. I went out and talked to other economic hit men and jackals to get their stories. Each time I was approached by people who threatened my life, and offered me bribes. And I took the bribes. [Laughs] And for the most part I put them to good use for non-profit organizations and indigenous people who I’d screwed in the past in the Amazon and elsewhere.
ele: Right, you founded a renewable resources company back in the…
Perkins: …80s. You can go to pachamama.org or dreamchange.org for more info.
ele: In our farmers’ market we have a Pachamama [stand].
Perkins: I should be getting royalties off that. [Laughter]
ele: They’ve actually been unhappy [that] they haven’t been getting any from you.
Perkins: Oh, well, I’ll give them a few books. [Laughter] So, I didn’t write the book. And then on 9/11 I happened to be in the Amazon with one of these groups.
ele: 9/11? Which year would that be?
Perkins: Let’s see, um…2001. I was in the Amazon with the indigenous people there, but when I came back to the States I went to Ground Zero. And as I stood there looking down at that smoldering pit, I knew then that I had to write this book. I could no longer put it off: the American people needed to understand why there’s so much hostility toward us around the world. This isn’t to condone mass murder.
But I knew this story had to be told. This time, I decided I wouldn’t contact anybody. I would write it completely in secret, even my wife and daughter didn’t know what I was writing until the book was in the hands of my agent and sent out in manuscript form to many publishers. At that time it became my best insurance policy, because it may sell a million copies now, but if I was assassinated, if I disappeared mysteriously, they’d sell a lot more copies of the book. And the jackals know that. So it is, in fact, my insurance policy.
ele: If you were to face death. [Laughter. The prior interview that evening had been with Buddhist Andrew Holocek, who discussed how to relate with fear of death]
Perkins: I do face death, but now it’s enjoyable after your last interview. I’m looking forward to it.
ele: Right, let’s do it together sometime.
Perkins: It’s nice to face [death] when you can have some control. It’s not nice to be looking down the point of a barrel and then suddenly have to go into meditation.[Laughter]
ele: It’s the only way my parents could get me in the meditation room as a kid.
Perkins: It’s called the “Smoking Gun Meditation.” [Laughter] Especially popular in Iraq today.
ele: I wish people would stop laughing. These are not jokes; it’s kind of hurtful. It’s serious: they actually had a gun.
I’ve only read 10 pages of [Secret History], thus far. I found it painful [to read], because I’m that rare breed-a knee-jerk Liberal who is patriotic. It’s unfortunate that more Liberals don’t fly the flag…that we’ve given the flag over to people who wear it on their shirt and their hats-who don’t have a sense of the ideals that are represented by that flag. To them [the U.S.] is just another baseball team [to root for]. I’m generalizing. America is a democracy with ideals like protecting dissent-we’d even protect the rights of neo-Nazis to march up and down Pearl Street, if it came to that. Because that’s an American right. So it’s sad to hear from someone who I respect that this stuff could be true.
Do you regard yourself as a patriot?
Perkins: Oh my. Of course. Extremely. I come from 400 years of Yankee Calvinists in New Hampshire and Vermont. My ancestors fought in the American Revolution. Tom Paine is a distant relative. My ancestors have fought in every major American war. I’m patriotic. And that’s why I wrote these books. Because I believe that we have been essentially taken over by subversives since World War II: the people who run our big corporations. They are subversives. They do not stand for the things that I grew up to believe is what makes America great: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, equality and justice for everyone. This was never meant to be restricted to the 13 colonies. I’m sure that the intent was to include Colorado and Texas and California. And I don’t think it was ever meant to be framed by the Rio Grande and the Canadian border. These principles are for the whole world.
ele: And it wasn’t meant to be framed or limited by skin color or gender. That’s what’s been so inspiring about the last century. Things are going wrong environmentally, but with civil rights and suffrage we’ve made some progress in fulfilling those original ideals.
Perkins: And the idea that you’re either with us or you’re against us is absolutely absurd.
ele: Right, it’s un-American.
Perkins: Un-American. Democracy in America is founded on dissent. I often think about how courageous those people were during the American Revolution. They were all insurgents. Martha and George Washington, the sharpshooters from Virginia and the fishermen from Gloucester were all insurgents. They were terrorists, traitors to their own country, the British Empire. And they would have all been hanged, had they lost the Revolution. But they had the courage to go for something bigger, a bigger principle. And we must do that today, we must turn this thing around. We must create a world that’s sustainable, peaceful and stable for all children, everywhere.
ele: You were saying we have to do that for everyone, everywhere. Boulder is often called the Boulder Bubble: we have our organic food, we get to go jogging in the foothills. But at this point there is no true bubble.
Perkins: The world’s much smaller than it was 30 years ago, when I was an economic hit man. We’re terribly interdependent on each other. We get oil from everywhere; we get all of our resources from…I’m sitting here looking at this toilet bowl [cover of elephant’s Autumn ‘06 issue] the whole time we’re talking. I notice that the world is in the toilet bowl, which is just about where we’re at today. We need to turn that around.
ele: We were talking about us being a small world, communication…
Perkins: Small enough to put in a toilet bowl.
ele: …Food systems. You were saying-so many people starve to death. We’re not isolated from-
Perkins: We know that we live in a dangerous world, a world with terrorism where global climate change is happening. And it’s been caused by us. Terrorism is dependent upon fanatical leaders-but those leaders can’t get anywhere unless millions of people support them. It’s shocking to travel now in Latin America, a Catholic and indigenous continent, and to see posters of Osama Bin Laden. These are not Muslim fundamentalists, these are simply people who are saying, “There’s a David out there standing up to Goliath, and we respect that.” I find that extremely disappointing.
It’s discouraging, sad…because I’m a patriot like you. Back when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in South America in the late ‘60s, despite Vietnam, our country was still held up as a valid model, as something that people respected. During the Vietnam War there was tremendous dissent in this country-and people around the world respected that we were discussing the war.
Times have changed. As 9/11 has taught us, we live on a small planet. The conquistadores never had to worry about the Incas attacking Madrid. The French and the British empires never had to worry about their African and Indian subjects attacking London and Paris. Today, we know our cities are vulnerable, our Pentagon is vulnerable. If we want homeland security, then we must understand that the homeland is the entire planet. There’s no other way to look at it.
ele: So the silver lining here, which is exciting-and applies environmentally as well-is that we’re gonna be forced to become responsible for the repercussions of our actions.
Perkins: I hope that we’re smart enough to do it voluntarily. You could say that the patriots during the American Revolution were forced into it, but they weren’t. There were pressures. But then they decided that they had a larger principle, that they needed to do something bigger for their children and grandchildren. I see us as being in that position today, where we are recognizing, we’re waking up, becoming aware that we need to do something bigger, to change the world and make it a better world.
ele: We were in the so-called “green room,” which is the children’s section of the [Trident] bookstore. We were talking about the great Tibetan Buddhist saint Milarepa who famously…famously…um what was I saying?
ele: He killed people. He was a horrible person. And then he was overcome with remorse. And without being rude, I already tested this [question] out, and you didn’t punch me.
Perkins: We weren’t on camera.
ele: Oh, well, so I’m safer now I hope.
Perkins: Not necessarily.
ele: So…in terms of your own personal path, being a good human being…not to get too Boulder-ey on you…but you’ve got good vibes. How do you relate with the personal…do you have guilt?
Perkins: Yeah, I have…there’s a lot of guilt. You know, I did what I did. Stuff like that should be illegal, but it isn’t illegal. I was patted on the back by Robert McNamara, President of the World Bank, asked to speak at Harvard and another prestigious university about what I did. But I knew in my heart that what we were doing was wrong, despite what everybody was saying. I went through a struggle with my conscience. I talk about this in the book. And I have to live with that now.
ele: What was it that changed your mind? Because you obviously did it well for quite a while.
Perkins: I had been an economic hit man for 10 years. I was sailing in the Virgin Islands, and I anchored my little sailboat off St. John Island and climbed up this hill to these ruins on an old sugarcane plantation up on top of the hill. It was beautiful: villas, sun setting over the Caribbean. Felt really nice. And then suddenly I was struck by the fact that this plantation had been built on the bones of thousands of slaves. I realized the whole [Western] hemisphere had been built on the bones of millions of slaves.
And then I realized that I, too, was a slaver. That we all are slavers, to a certain degree: we live off slave labor in sweatshops that Nike controls.
ele: I pay Heather a bit.
Perkins: [Laughter] But what about the people that made your shirt or your camera, you know?
ele: Vintage. [Points to shirt] Vintage. [Pants]
Perkins: Good. So I had what you might call an epiphany. And I decided I would never be an economic hit man again. I went back to my headquarters, and quit.
ele: Why would they let you quit?
Perkins: They tried [to dissuade me], but I made a commitment that I would never talk about what I did. As I explained earlier, when I started to talk about writing the book they reminded me, threatened me, bribed me. I had a young daughter at the time. There’s many ways to keep people under control, and I fell for them for a long time.
Then, at Ground Zero after 9/11, I had another epiphany: Come clean. Write the book. People ask, “Aren’t you afraid of being killed, or having something happen to you?” The book is good protection.
We all need to have courage, these days. We’re at a time like the American Revolution. I don’t know whether I got two hours left on this planet, or 20 years. And as the previous interview [on the Buddhist view of facing death as a vehicle for appreciating life], death doesn’t concern me. What does concern me is that I might be lying on my deathbed and look back and say, “I did some bad things in my life…period.” I want to be able to say-whether it’s in two hours or 20 years: “I did some bad things in my life, but I spent all my last hours and years trying to make this a sustainable, stable and peaceful planet for my daughter and her son, and for every child on this planet. I want to know that.”
I still have to deal with my conscience-what I did in the past, but I’ve shape-shifted, in a way. Or tried to.
ele: I’m resisting hugging you right now. [Laughter] Um, so, um, the final thing I wanted to talk about is-I meant that seriously, I’m just uncomfortable with that sort of physical affection so-[Laughter]
Perkins: Our microphones would probably clash.
ele: Yeah, it would be bad for sound, so we won’t do it.
ele: [Laughs] Okay. Your prescription, the key to all of this is the corporations.
Perkins: Corporations run our world today. [They’re] the modern equivalent of the emperor. What I call the corporatocracy-a few men control our big corporations. This isn’t a conspiracy theory-these people don’t have to conspire. They all have as their main goal maximizing profits at any cost-social cost, environmental cost.
ele: Who are we talking about? Coke?
Perkins: Sure. Nike, Monsanto, Exxon. Practically all the big corporations. There are a few exceptions, trying to do the right thing. Down the street from here you’ve got a Whole Foods; they’re trying very hard. None of them are perfect at this point. But we need to help them become more perfect.
Your magazine. There’s a lot of people like that. You’ve got a brewery nearby here-
ele: New Belgium.
Perkins: New Belgium, yeah. Great organization.
ele: They’re fantastic. [Gives a thumbs up, faces camera, in funny 50s newscaster voice]
Perkins: [Laughter] They’re one of your sponsors?
ele: They are, yeah.
Perkins: So everything is controlled by big corporations. They finance our political campaigns. Every politician is in some way beholden to them. They own our media-directly, or through advertising. And at the top, they’re constantly moving back and forth through the revolving door policy-one year a guy is the C.E.O. of a big corporation, the next year he’s President or Vice-President.
ele: Right: Gale Norton is an infamous example. She was the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, which is a joke. And then she immediately…I think before that she had worked for, I don’t know [who]…I’m running out of facts…
Perkins: [Laughter] Yeah, exactly. So-
ele: And then she went and did this other thing, it was horrible! [Laughter]
Perkins: Yeah, you got it. So if we want to turn around…
ele: It’s all that New Belgium [we’ve been drinking]. They’re fantastic. [Laughter]
Perkins: Yeah, why don’t we have any [beer] here? From the standpoint of the global empire, it doesn’t matter whether we have the Democratic or the Republican [party] in the White House. It’s the corporations, the corporatocracy that controls this.
ele: What if we, say, had an Independent who had billions of dollars and didn’t need any type of corporate funding? [N.Y.C.’s Mayor Bloomberg had declared himself an Independent that week.]
Perkins: Well, he’d still have a whole system out there, the Senate and the Congress and everybody. Look at Jimmy Carter: a decent human being, a person with integrity, yet he had one of the most draconian National Security advisors ever: [Zbigniew] Brzezinski. Why? How did Brzezinski get in that position? You’re too young [to remember]. Well, it was the corporatocracy. After Nixon, we had Ford in the Presidency and the corporatocracy knew that the next president was going to be a Democrat. So they wanted a weak one, one they knew would only make it one term. Carter was the ideal choice. A good man, but [he] wasn’t an insider, wasn’t going to hang in there. Then [they helped place] people like Brzezinski [and others] as his top advisors.
But the good news, Waylon. I want to focus on corporations [that], instead of maximizing profits at whatever cost, say, “We’re going to be good citizens in a good community.” More people on the planet today relate to a corporation as their primary community than to a village or a town, city, state or country. Corporations have to set as their goal to help their employees now and after they are retired; to take care of [their employees], whether they are making shirts in Indonesia or growing cotton someplace else. Take care of their environments and communities. In this way, we must recognize that we need to create a stable, sustainable, peaceful world for everyone.
ele: How do we get these apparently ruthless corporations-who will do anything for the bottomline-to change?
Perkins: We have tremendous power over them: they can’t sell anything unless we buy it. We’ve had incredible success at changing them when we’ve set our hearts and minds on it.
When I was going to college, you couldn’t walk beside the Charles River in Boston because it was so polluted. We were destroying the ozone layer with aerosol cans. That’s not happening any more. The corporations have cleaned those things up. They’ve opened their doors to minorities. They’ve installed seatbelts and airbags in cars, although Detroit initially resisted it. They’ve taken trans fats out of McDonald’s-because we demanded that. Tyson, the chicken manufacturer, just announced that it was going to take antibiotics out of its chickens-and they said this in this full-page ad in The New York Times, “Because you, the consumer, demanded it.” We have power over these corporations when we exercise it. When we make demands. Now we must ratchet this up a notch and demand that they become good citizens in our communities. Not maximizing profits at any cost, but rather setting as their main goal the creation of a sustainable, stable and peaceful world for all children everywhere.
ele: So that comes back to democracy: the whole answer lies in one person, one vote. It’s up to us, is what you’re saying. But also in terms of consumerism?
Perkins: Every time you shop, you’re exercising power. Every time you speak to someone, you have power. Every human being, every day, has tremendous power. I often think about how when I grew up in rural New Hampshire, I had no idea that African-Americans had to ride on the back of the bus. Until Rosa Parks taught me, and the whole world-she set off the whole Civil Rights movement. Who was Rosa Parks? She’s a woman who sat on the front of a bus. You could do that. I could do that, anybody could do that. And I had no idea that D.D.T. was killing birds and fish, [not just] mosquitoes, until Rachel Carson wrote the book Silent Spring and started a whole environmental movement.
ele: And just last week, the American eagle, our country’s [symbol], was taken off the Endangered Species List for the first time since D.D.T. was outlawed.
Perkins: We could all be Rachel Carson. My third grade teacher taught me to stand up to a bully. I wouldn’t be sitting here with you if I hadn’t done that, probably. Who was Mrs. Schnarre? You ever heard of Mrs. Schnarre?
ele: Of course. [Laughter]
Perkins: We have the power to change corporations. And they will make a better world if we force them to. But we have to take action. Behind it all are executives, people who run our corporations. They are human beings: they have children and grandchildren. I know a lot of executives. I don’t know one that wants to see Florida sink. I don’t know one that wants to see the ozone layer destroyed, climate change or the rainforests destroyed. But they keep operating out of this principle because we’ve told them it’s the correct principle: we buy our stocks this way. They have to maximize profits in the short run. We must tell them that their basic conscience is right: the right principle is to save those rainforests, the ozone layer, stop climate change.
ele: I was pointing out earlier in the green room that [we both] went to Boston University. I went a couple of years later, and no one tried to recruit me. I’m a little hurt.
Perkins: Well, it’s because you went to the journalism school instead of business school.
ele: One of the seven things [elephant] talks about is conscious consumerism. As an editor of a magazine that is close to its grassroots-we’re pretty small at this point-we feel frustration in terms of education, trying to get people to be conscious consumers. Half my own friends don’t really try and go to the independent hardware store. When they get sushi, they don’t ask if it’s sustainably harvested. If you read The New York Times, you’ll see that Japanese chefs are now putting deer in the place of tuna, because tuna populations are collapsing. And if they ever come back, they are going to be so inbred you probably won’t eat them. So how do we educate people?
Perkins: Great question. We have to recognize that our self interest is served by taking the right road. My daughter’s pregnant; I’m about to have a grandson. She just called me yesterday and said that she found four cribs. One that’s $200, made in China, probably in a sweatshop, she wasn’t sure, she was going to check that out. And three others that are not made in sweatshops: one’s made in Oregon, one’s made in Italy and one’s made in Chile. And they run anywhere from $800 and up. I said, “So what are you going to do, Jessica?” And she said, “Well of course, I’m going to buy the $800 one. Because I know that the $600 is an investment in my child’s future. I think, Dad, you and I ought to write a book after this so that other mothers will understand this, ‘cause most everybody’s going to go for the $200 one but I’ll tell you what, we could prove to them that that $600 is going to save their kid’s life…”
ele: It’s well spent. It’ll come back to them in some way.
Perkins: …They’re saving money! Then [people] would invest in [fair-trade companies]. They would invest in it if it was for their kid’s education later on in life. So what we need to let them know is that $600 is going to save their child’s life 20 or 30 years from now. It’s going toward creating a sustainable, stable and peaceful world. And this is the way we must think, not: “So I can buy this sweatshop-made shirt for $10 bucks!” Or, I can pay $40 for something that the laborers get good compensation for. What am I gonna do? Well, that $30 is not wasted money. It’s an investment.
I’d like to buy shirts made in China and Nicaragua; it’s one world. But I don’t want to buy [from] sweatshops. So if we can convince the Chinese or Nicaragua and the Nikes not to create sweatshops, then [prices] will start to equal out. And the most environmentally and socially [responsible] made goods will actually be the cheapest.
ele: So concentrate on fair-labor.
Perkins: Fair-labor and environmental…what we call externalities in economics, which have taken into account those things that would have to be spent to clean things up. What is the price for the world of slave laborers working in sweatshops in Indonesia making $2 a day? What does that cost us in terms of terrorism, health care? What’s the true cost of destroying the Amazon in order to get oil out of it? We need to factor those things in.
ele: Also I would [offer] my solution to the crib thing: I just got a Restoration Hardware couch and chair off of craigslist.org. You can get quality stuff, and it’s re-used, which is the most eco thing you can do on some level.
Perkins: Yeah, the more stuff we can re-use, the better.
ele: Wonderful. We’re going to close here. Those who want to stay, we’re going to ask a couple of questions. So thank you so much. John Perkins!
For more: read The Secret History of the American Empire, or johnperkins.org