About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Confessions of an economic hit man

It's the title of a book by John Perkins, where the author claims to have worked for an American company connected to the National Security Agency. Perkins' official job was to go into a developing country, assess its medium-term economic potential, and produce forecasts to be used as part of the process of getting the country in question loans from international organisms such as the World Bank.

In reality, Perkins says, he and some of his colleagues were charged with artificially inflating such economic forecasts, corrupt the local leaders, insure long-term lucrative contracts for a few well-positioned American companies, and especially operate so that the country to be “helped” would in fact find itself in so much debt to the US that it would fall inescapably under the latter growing geopolitical influence.

The book isn't particularly well written, and I don't know how much of what Perkins says about his own activities is false or inflated. Part of the book reads more like the sometimes simplistic internal struggle caused by the tension between Perkins' conscience on the one hand and his propensity to be lured by money and women (well, who doesn't experience that struggle from time to time?). In some sense, this is Perkins' attempt to come clean with what bothered him, and if that is the case, more power to him.

The interesting stuff is made of the glimpses that he gives about some of the more or less covert American operations that have marked US foreign policy through the second part of the 20th century, including the (allegedly) CIA-orchestrated assassination of two South American leaders (Ecuador's Jaime Roldos and Panama's Omar Torrijos' -- interestingly, both under the watch of Ronald Reagan). There is no way to know from the book how accurate Perkins' account actually is, but the external references check out historically, and it hasn't exactly been a secret that the US has in fact used a panoply of coercion means -- from economic pressure to assassination to outright invasion -- to expand its "democratic" empire in the world.

Perkins' book makes for good reading, though one's bullshit detector ought to be turned on at maximum level throughout. More importantly, it would be a good thing for the citizens of this country to re-examine their own history from the very beginning (starting at least with the idea of "manifest destiny" which provided a "justification" for the mass murder of native Americans). It would then appear clear that the US is a complex and contradictory entity, where the highest human ideals live side by side with some of the most egregious instances of violent interference in other countries' welfare. Perhaps it can't be otherwise given the nature of human affairs, but at least let's try to take off the pink goggles from time to time.


  1. People like Perkins are one of the reasons I don't believe in vast government conspiracies. There's always someone who will tell. That's not to say that the government doesn't get involved in many underhanded schemes, just that they never remain secret. And government funded schemes like Perkins talks about are exactly the reason we need to take money away from politicians and bureaucrats. They will never do with it quite what we want them to be doing. And many times they will do the exact opposite of what we want.

    p.s. to MP - that should be "... hit man"

  2. I don't believe it! The U.S government is for the people, by the people. We wouldn't set up a federal agency under the 'Top Secret' classified security level, give them a whole lot of money, and just look the other way when someone claims they did something wrong. NSA.. National Security Administration… they let us all sleep better at night : )

  3. "Chick" isn't necessarily demeaning because whether it is depends on what one wishes it to mean. Besides, it's use is offensive to some people (including some men),but isn't necessarily offensive to all others (including some women as Pigliucci's post implies). Overall, it comes off as black-and-white to claim that one word IS offensive as if it were an objective fact rather than a matter of context and taste that varied among different individuals according to various situations.

    The responses for this question were even more diverse than those for question five due to the fact that 95 out of 97 individuals answered it (the following percentages are out of 95). To start with, 6.32% would be willing to try a new place if it offered food, and the number was the same for those who would come for a free haircut as well as those who desired friendly service. Furthermore, 2.10% were attracted by free products and services, 2.10% by “hot chicks,” 9.47% by nothing, 33.68% by low prices, 20.00% by location, 1.05% by big screen televisions, 7.37% by referrals or recommendations, 4.21% by convenience, 29.47% by quality, 3.16% came for stylists who “fit” them well, 1.05% by good styles, 5.26% by special deals, 3.16% by the people who frequented the barbershop, 1.05% by specialty treatments, 1.05% by its reputation, 2.10% by its advertising, 3.16% by its atmosphere, 5.26% would be willing to try, and just as many would come if they became dissatisfied with their current. Additionally, 1.05% continue to patronize Sport Clips, 1.05% are taken to their current salon by a parent, and 4.21% were classified as “other.”
    Of those who selected “other” (11.34%), “free stuff” was by far the most popular promotional idea, with 80.00% suggesting it. Various kinds of special deals was the second most popular, with 20% of recommending it. Suggestions for food, free haircuts, “hot chicks,” specialty treatments, and better certified barbers, had 10% each as a share of popularity. Those who answered “nothing” are not included in the calculations.

  4. Regardless of how true what Perkins say is, I think an important point we can take from his allegations is this - if we can't properly determine how factually accurate they are, might that highlight the need for better transparency in how we conduct our foreign affairs.

    I understand that some clandestine activities might be necessary in the name of national defense, but I get uncomfortable at the idea of any gov't agency operating outside the rule of law - as the CIA has allegedly been doing for its entire history.


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