John Perkins used to be a corporate hotshot. As a young man he was what he calls an "economic hit man." In The Secret History of the American Empire: The Truth About Economic Hit Men, Jackals, and How to Change the World he exposes corporate misdeeds and influence spanning the world.
CP: Explain what the title of your book refers to.
JP: Well, I think it's fair to say that we've created the world's first truly global empire, and for the first time we've created an empire primarily without the military; we've done it with economics. Perhaps the most common method is that we will identify a third-world country that has resources that corporations covet, like oil. Then we arrange a huge bank loan to the country from the World Bank. However, the money doesn't go to the country. Instead, it goes to our own corporations, which build things like power plants, industrial parks, highways; projects that benefit a few rich people in the country and our corporations. They don't help the majority of the people who are too poor to buy electricity, don't have the skills for industrial parks, don't own cars to drive on the highways, but the whole country is left with this huge debt; they can't afford to pay it. So we go back in and say, "Listen, you owe us a lot of money, so sell your oil real cheap to our oil companies, or vote with us on the next critical UN vote, or send troops in support of ours in Iraq or some other place of the world." In that way we've really managed to create this empire without people even realizing we've done it.
CP: Could you just give me a thumbnail sketch of how, in your experience, the world functions as a whole?
JP: The world is run by institutions whose primary goal is to maximize profits regardless of the social and environmental cost. That's extremely dangerous. It's very shortsighted. But I'm also extremely hopeful that we can change this. The fact that we have a world empire that's been created primarily without the military means that for the first time in history, we probably don't have to defeat it with the military. We can defeat it, change it, transform it by how we shop and by the way we relate to businesses. These corporations are vulnerable to us as consumers and workers. For example, we've forced corporations to clean up polluted rivers, or to get trans fat out of food at KFC and McDonald's. We need to convince corporations to change their overall goal. Rather than maximizing profits regardless of social and environmental costs, maximize profits within the context of creating an environmentally sustainable, socially just, peaceful world.
CP: Part of the subtitle is "How to Change the World." What do you suggest the average American do to change the world?
JP: Shop more responsibly. Don't buy things made in sweatshops, do a little research. Don't buy water that's sapping the aquifers of Fiji. Cut back on things. We all have to be less consumption-oriented and realize that real joy doesn't come from buying things in stores, it comes from the way we relate to our friends and neighbors and the world around us. We can all walk down different paths as long as all those paths are headed toward a destination of an environmentally sustainable and peaceful world. Every executive I've ever known has been a decent human being. I've never met an evil executive. But they're living in an old paradigm that says maximize profits regardless of the social and environmental costs. We need to change the paradigm of our leaders and ourselves.
John Perkins reads at Borders tonight.
Tue., May 13, 7 p.m., 2008