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"Economic Hit Man" John Perkins on the coronavirus and our global "death economy"

Onetime capitalist executioner warns: Any "return to a state of normal" is "highly unlikely" after this pandemic



Chauncey DeVega
May 1, 2020 11:00AM (UTC)

The coronavirus pandemic, enabled and accelerated by Donald Trump, has killed more than 60,000 Americans. At least a million Americans are known to be infected. The numbers of dead and infected are likely far higher than officially reported.

Beyond the tens of thousands already dead or who will die in the months ahead — and not including those whose lives will be shortened by the virus — the coronavirus pandemic has caused economic ruin in the United States.

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At least 30 million Americans are unemployed, close to one in five adults in the workforce. Again, the real number is almost certainly much higher. Leading economists warn that this pandemic may lead to a second Great Depression — and conceivably even an economic calamity worse than the one that transformed our country and the world in the 1930s. 

Note this report from Politico:

Across Wall Street and the economic world, forecasters are quickly ramping up their predictions of massive job losses and declines in economic activity by as much as an annualized 50 percent in the second quarter of the year. They're offering estimates unseen since the Great Depression that began in 1929 and continued for a brutal decade, reshaping governments and economies across the globe.

Morgan Stanley economists on Monday said they now expect a 30.1 percent annualized decline in gross domestic product in the second quarter, the worst quarterly performance in 74 years. The firm's estimates assume the virus peaks in April and May before growth starts to recover. But if the peak comes later and economic disruption continues in the second half of the year, they wrote, U.S. growth for even the entire year will be down to levels last seen in the early 1930s.

In total, the American economy has lost trillions of dollars because of Donald Trump's willful, malicious, corrupt and likely intentional negligence in responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

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This crisis has left millions of Americans desperate for such basics as food and shelter. Many unemployed Americans — and others who have seen their salaries and work hours reduced — are either on the precipice of homelessness or are now without a stable place to live.

The richest Americans do not live in the same world as the middle class, working class or poor. They have largely insulated themselves from the impact of disasters, both manmade and natural. Moreover, the plutocrat class finds ways to profit from human misery.

As reported by Business Insider, dozens of America's billionaires have become even more fabulously rich during the pandemic.

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The "coronavirus relief bill" provided more than a trillion dollars in relief for multinational corporations and other large businesses. In that same bill, Republicans gave the very richest Americans $90 billion in tax cuts. Writing at GQ, Luke Darby explains: "The Joint Committee on Taxation, a nonpartisan arm of Congress, calculates that 80 percent of the tax cuts in the coronavirus relief legislation will go to people making more than $1 million annually — just 43,000 people — and will cost $90 billion in 2020 alone."

Small businesses have been left unable to access promised loans and other supports. The average American will only receive $1,200 in assistance from the coronavirus relief bill.

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Donald Trump has said there will be no more direct payments to the American people beyond the pittance provided so far. Yet the Trump family and his allies are evidently using this national emergency to enrich themselves.

Trump has not been subtle -- or apologetic -- in using the coronavirus relief money as a personal slush fund to pay off his political allies and friends and to punish his enemies and other Americans he deems disloyal.  

Once again, the rich and the powerful are leveraging a human catastrophe to further empower and enrich themselves while others suffer. I recently spoke with someone who knows about this first hand: John Perkins, author of the bestselling "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man." He is an expert on how economic and political crises present unmatched opportunities for the rich and the powerful.

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For several decades beginning in the 1970s, Perkins worked for multinational corporations and global finance organizations, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

His job was to prey upon developing and "Third World" nations by offering "solutions" to the very economic and political crises that his employers and clients had caused. If those countries and leaders refused Perkins' "bargain," then the "jackals" — meaning mercenaries or foreign military forces — could be sent in to destabilize or overthrow those governments.  

In this conversation, Perkins explains how the destruction caused by the coronavirus pandemic offers an illustration of why America and the world need to move beyond a "death economy" — where all areas of life are financialized and profits rule over people — and toward to a new way of thinking and living that he describes as a "life economy." Perkins also outlines how the corporate oligarchy and its leaders plan to flourish both during and after the coronavirus pandemic.

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Economic hit men like him, Perkins argues, have long operated within the United States, reducing local economies to rubble to generate profits for multinational banks and corporations.

As usual, our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Given the state of the world with the coronavirus pandemic and Donald Trump's regime in the United States, how are you feeling? What is your emotional state?

It wavers. I'm a very hopeful person. I proceed from a fairly reasoned standpoint in my thinking. Over the last several decades I have been thinking and writing about how we as a species need to make changes in the way human beings relate to each other and to the planet.  We need to move from what I call a "death economy" into a 'life economy." A life economy is one that pays people to clean up pollution and regenerate destroyed environments. A life economy also develops new technologies that do not ravage the Earth. As I travel around the world, I have seen signs that we are moving in that better direction. The coronavirus is a reminder we need to move much faster towards creating a life economy.

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Given your background working as an "economic hit man" for some of the world's largest corporations, banks, the IMF, the World Bank and other organizations, how do you make sense of this moment?

People often ask me, "In order to move from a death economy to a life economy, don't we all need to be hit over the head by some terrible crisis?" I believe that is not necessarily the case. Half the world is already in a state of terrible crisis. We've been struck by hurricanes, fires, tsunamis and earthquakes. These are once-in-a-hundred-year events that are happening every year or so now.

Planetary ecosystems are changing rapidly in ways that are not conducive to life as we know it. These are also events that are local in their impact as much as they are global.

With the coronavirus the world is in crisis. No outside force is going to show up and come to the rescue, making everything better. We're all in this together. Everyone on the planet is talking about this pandemic.

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People deep in the Amazon are feeling it. People who live in the Himalayas are feeling it. People in all the major cities are feeling it. I am not sure if I really see any possibility for true recovery from this pandemic. I would not say that it is impossible. But I do believe that it is highly unlikely that there is a return to a state of "normal" as previously understood before the coronavirus pandemic. We will have to create a new type of normal — and that may be something that we will have to recreate frequently, because the health experts and scientists are warning that the coronavirus is not going to end soon. It is likely to be something recurring and may very well mutate over time.

Societies all over the world experience sudden economic change. The coronavirus is not novel in that respect. In Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa and elsewhere, economies were changed, sometimes overnight and mostly for the worse, by the actions of the United States and other Western countries. The bankers and financiers have that much power. Most Americans have never experienced such shocks and do not have the vocabulary or emotional and cognitive skills to make sense of it.

I was in Ecuador when it was forced by the IMF and the World Bank to use the dollar as its currency. In that one moment everything changed. The people that had their money in sucres — which was all of the lower classes and most of the middle class — lost half their money relative to the world economy. People who had their money in dollars — the rich families and the foreign corporations in Ecuador — increased their net worth and spending power. That happened the minute, the second, the dollar was put into effect. Similar shocks are hitting the United States and parts of Europe as well as Asia, places which are not used to such sudden economic change.

How do plutocrats and other financial and economic elites make sense of a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic? How do they see crisis as an opportunity to maximize profits?  

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First, we have to be careful about generalizations: If you're the executive of an oil company right now, you're probably not feeling very good. If you're the president of Boeing, you're not feeling good right now. On the other hand, if you are someone like Jeff Bezos who is the CEO of Amazon, or the CEO or other senior executive of a company that deals in computers, online services and similar technologies, then there is tremendous opportunity available. Such companies are going to thrive. Universities are at a critical juncture right now because of this crisis. Their deans and presidents are saying to themselves, "OK, there's an opportunity here for us to move more and more into online schooling and get rid of tenure, get rid of our buildings. We don't need all this maintenance. We don't really need all these buildings. Where are my opportunities here to cut way back on expenses, cut back on tenure, do all of our classes virtually?"

If you happen to run a grocery business or a restaurant, you are suddenly seeing the importance of being able to do things through the internet and providing services where you deliver to people's homes or where people come up to a window and buy things. What one sees in terms of opportunity and challenges from the coronavirus is really a function of their economic and social location.

I think we do have to ask ourselves what happens if the government is not able to subsidize all these people that don't have jobs, and they can no longer buy food? These big supermarkets that are currently thriving by selling things remotely and delivering to the home or having people come up in their cars or whatever, how are they going to protect themselves from the starving people? These are questions that are hypothetical now, but those horrible events may very well happen in the near to far future, depending on how the coronavirus pandemic continues or not.   

For decades you were an economic hit man. Looking at the United States, what are some of its vulnerabilities and choke points? How has the coronavirus exposed those societal and economic weaknesses? 

The coronavirus pandemic has shown the world that the United States is very ill-prepared for any real emergency. That lack of preparedness is true on any number of levels.

The Trump administration appears to be paralyzed. The national government keeps wavering on what to do. President Trump is wavering almost every day. It is hard to understand what he really wants. This is a leadership crisis at the highest levels. Trump is causing a crisis in confidence among the American people during the coronavirus crisis.

It is not just Trump. The coronavirus is really exposing many other deep problems in American society. America spends roughly $700 billion a year on weapons. The country just spent $2.2 trillion to fight this virus. Wouldn't it have made more sense if the United States put a lot less money into the defense budget and a lot more money into preparing for emergencies such as the coronavirus? Money on a proper health care system or even a guaranteed income?  

Economic hit men are now working within the United States and not ,just abroad. Predatory gangster capitalism has made the coronavirus much worse here in the United States. Flint, Michigan, is one example of that fact and its horrible outcomes for real people.

Flint is a city that at one point was the beating heart of the American car industry. Consider what the death economy does to itself. It consumes itself into a state of extinction. Here in the United States, the corporations dispatched their economic hit men to places within the country where the corporations could operate with fewer taxes, cheaper labor costs and the like. The corporations basically abandoned Flint. Production was largely moved overseas. The economic hit men and corporations also targeted the American people through debt — health care debt, college debt, credit cards.

The economic hit man has become stronger since I first wrote my book "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man" in 2004. Now every major corporation has its own economic hit men. They are operating both within the United States and around the world on behalf of huge multinational corporations.

You are advocating a move from a death economy to a life economy. At present, Donald Trump, the Republican Party and their propagandists and supporters are a death cult that wants older people, people with pre-existing conditions, the poor and working class and any others they deem "less than" to go out and risk their lives for "the economy." How does that fit into your framework? Trump and his allies want exactly the opposite of a life economy.

Such encouragements are absolutely disgusting and very disturbing. One has to suspect that such behavior is being driven by the desperation of Donald Trump and his family, his son-in-law's family and other Trump allies who have huge holdings in real estate and are probably losing enormous amounts of money because of the coronavirus pandemic. They are actively trying to figure out a way to take advantage of the pandemic. I am sure that is happening.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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