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Undermining poor nations in the name of profit

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, By John Perkins, Plume, paperback, 320 pp., $15

Should you believe a self-professed con artist? That's the question at the heart of ''Confessions of an Economic Hit Man." John Perkins accuses corporations, banks, and governments of being a cabal, a global empire he terms a ''corporatocracy." Perkins was chief economist at Chas. T. Main, a defunct Boston international consulting firm. He admits he had no real credentials and says he acted as an economic hit man for more than a decade in the '70s and '80s for the sinister triumvirate he now disowns.

According to Perkins, ''Economic hit men (EHMs) are highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe of trillions of dollars. They funnel money from the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and other foreign 'aid' organizations into the coffers of huge corporations and the pockets of a few wealthy families. Their tools include fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex, and murder. They play a game as old as the empire, but one that has taken on new and terrifying dimensions during this time of globalization."

True to its title, Perkins's book is in the form of a confession. It is not up to the style of St. Augustine's ''Confessions," but its hot gospel is clear enough: Perkins says he's guilty of scarlet-letter economic hit man activity; he loathes what he has done and wants absolution. He writes: ''Confessing a sin is the beginning of redemption. Let this book, then, be the start of our salvation."

The author tells us that his seducer and trainer, a mysterious woman named Claudine, gave him his assignment in 1971: ''to encourage world leaders to become part of a vast network that promotes US commercial interests. In the end, those leaders become ensnared in a web of debt that ensures their loyalty."

This doesn't sound too sinister to me. It's called capitalism. In fact, the Department of Commerce has had this as one of its goals for quite a while. And, if one looks at the US balance of payments, America's got a way to go, tangled as it is in its own web of debt.

''Confessions" contains what logicians call the ''post hoc, ergo propter hoc" fallacy. This error stems from the assumption that when one or more things happen, other events taking place after them must be their consequence. Perkins hand-casts kernels of after-the-fact truths, but they are largely a harvest of unproven conclusions.

It is too easy to make light of Perkins's confessions. Instead, let's look at the record. America is a generous country. The United States, with its foreign aid, tries to help the poor across the world. At the same time, some American administrations may have been more pragmatic than moral. In dispensing aid, they look for a ''quid pro quo," spreading democracy, for example, in return for their dollar dispensations.

Perkins excoriates American companies' records: ''Executives at our most respected companies hire people at near-slave wages to toil under inhuman conditions in Asian sweatshops. Oil companies wantonly pump toxins into rain-forest rivers, consciously killing people, animals, and plants . . . The pharmaceutical industry denies lifesaving medicines to millions of HIV-infected Africans. Twelve-million families in our own United States worry about their next meal."

Perkins says that he is not a conspiracy theorist. He's worse. ''We seldom resort to anything illegal because the system itself is built on subterfuge . . ." The author rebuts the view that ''economic growth benefits humankind, and that the greater the growth, the more widespread the benefits." In fact, Perkins tells us that in many countries economic growth benefits only a small portion of the population.

The author has done one single service. He has reminded readers that there are such things as free will, sin, and virtue. As a result of being a shill for private industry who extrapolates his guilt to others, he demonstrates at least one good suggestion: World governments should do more to keep multinational businesses in line.

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