01 April 2009

Economic Hit Man at Regis University: John Perkins' Revolution

Last night we saw John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, speak at Regis University here in Denver. To start, I should say that I have read a chapter and assorted pages of Hit Man, but not the whole book. For those who aren't familiar, check the teaser: John Perkins with Amy Goodman, via the Perkins web site.

"Transforming Turmoil into a New Economy" was an exciting talk that veered toward repetition by the end. Perkins was much less the James-Bond-without-a-gun type that his book jacket intimates and more the socially conscious New England lib. Though the Regis cafeteria appearance was a lark--Perkins is fresh off talks at Wharton, Harvard, Stanford, and the U of Michigan Executive MBA program--the speaker gave himself to the room. It should be noted that Perkins was lured to Denver at the request of a single student who, in the course of a senior leadership capstone, called Perkins out of the blue after reading his book. Perkins took the call, and at the end, though he didn't know where Regis University was, accepted an invitation. (Said student then scrambled to raise Perkins' engagement fee.)

Perkins began with the premise that we are at the beginning of a revolution on scale with the agricultural and industrial revolutions that have so decisively shaped our modern world. In the new revolution, the entire world is communicating for the first time. Cell phones penetrate from "the deepest Amazon to the highest Himalayas," and everyone is talking. The Internet now reaches almost every part of the world. Global actions have always had local consequences, but we are more aware than ever how those consequences shake out, thanks to instant communication.

Additionally, the entire world faces the same crises. If crisis used to be a local or a regional incident, such that Californians faced earthquakes and Indonesians tsunamis, we now all face climate change together. We are all affected by deforestation in the Amazon. We are all threatened by the same rising oceans. We are all at risk when our drinking water dries up. And we are all talking about these issues at the same time.

This is the revolution Perkins speaks of. For the first time in human history, we all face the same problems together, and we have the tools to talk about those problems together. Not to talk at the national and nation-state level, but at the person to person level. We no longer wait for our governments or our popular media to carry our voices across oceans. Call, click, compare. We've each got the tools individually to create a groundswell.

Perkins argues that the challenges we face and the ability to discuss them directly with one another now uniquely inform our understanding of global power. Gone are the days when a handful of truly powerful nations, measured by military force and diplomatic achievement--Russia, the U.S., Great Britain--shaped the global environment in which we live. This is not to diminish a rising China's clout, I think, but Perkins would have us understand from where China's new power comes.

Global interconnectedness and interconnectivity allow us to see the few multinational corporations pulling the strings behind all the world's politics. These power mongers know no borders and defy national categorization. These corporations are greater than nations or nation-states, and are unencumbered by the rules that fix governments to particular paths. The multinational corporations are everywhere and nowhere. These companies exist in one country for the leniency of its tax laws, another country for favorable or nonexistent labor laws, and yet another country for the benefits of stock valuations. While these companies manipulate global politics they also transcend the selfsame politics: these companies enjoy alliances with China and Taiwan and Tibet, with Israel and Palestine and the Arab nations. Rather than seeing these organizations on the globe, given the small world our technology has rendered, Perkins suggests that we look at these entities as cloud layers over the earth, moving as convenience, opportunity, or necessity demand and taking advantage of an entire global landscape at a glance.

This new power model, Perkins argues, is actually a good thing. This is another revolution, one that took place without military might. The current global power structure is predicated on finance, and that, therefore, gives every one of us our dollar proxy. If our consumption patterns created this dynamic, then our consumption patterns can undo it.

All that is merely preamble to get to Perkins' main jumping-off point. He sees four points at which we can encourage positive change to make a sustainable, just, and peaceful world.

  1. Consumer responsibility: Forgo a pair of Nikes, because Nike still employs sweatshop labor, and buy Patagonia or another socially responsible manufacturer instead. And send Nike the email explaining why, even though the Swoosh is cheaper, you won't buy it. And send Patagonia an email to explain why, even though the organic cotton sneaker is more expensive, you will buy it. Buy fuel efficient vehicles. And don't drink bottled water.

  2. Get our loyal soldiers back: Perkins quotes his business school prof from the sixties. A good executive is like a loyal soldier who fights for and protects the long-term interest of the country/company. Those loyal soldiers are largely gone from the business world, Perkins laments, replaced by mercenaries. The mercenary objective is to make as much money as quickly as possible. And this will always involve exploitation. Stop rewarding exploitative, mercenary behavior. Insist on sustainable growth.

  3. Create a new economy: There must be a paradigm shift. Instead of featuring mercenaries on the covers of TIME and Fortune, let's demand the responsible stewards, the loyal soldiers. Let's demand that our government, which pays Raytheon and Lockheed to develop weapons technologies, also pay those same companies to develop environmental technologies. It's not out of the realm. If ten percent of the military budget went to social-environmental innovation, where could we find ourselves? Get Monsanto working to engineer new micro-agriculture technologies so that the hungriest in the world can feed themselves. We put men on the moon, right?

  4. Milton Friedman was wrong: Free markets, unchecked, do not reliably self-regulate , mostly because the market engineers (CEOs) will not simply "do the right thing," but will rape and plunder and exploit without regard for peace, justice, or sustainability. And CEOs take those actions because unregulated markets reward those actions fabulously. In other words, consumers reward those actions fabulously. And so we're back to Step 1.

So there it is. Simple enough, right? Well, I dunno. If some of these steps seem specifically vague, perhaps it's because Perkins glosses over the nitty gritty in his 90 minute talk. I'll check the book and get back to you. If there's one thing I wasn't prepared for, it was John Perkins the raving sentimentalist. Seriously. The guy is a spectacular romantic. "For my one-and-a-half-year-old grandson," he says, we have to change the status quo. The first time he used the line, it resonated. By the third time, I was bored.

I will not say that sentimentalism discredits any of his theories. Nor will I suggest that his theories won't work. They carry an air of eminent sense. Consumers are god-awful powerful in this world. Furthermore, Perkins does not argue for a restoration of pre-housing bubble burst and bad-mortgage financial success. Now is the time to get away from all that, he says. We should not want our government to invest again in the magical power of an unchecked stock market. Instead, we should demand that government help to ensure that every corporation be committed to the common good. Make as much profit as you can, he says, but only in the pursuit of a sustainable, just, and peaceful world.

So not a bad story, and not a bad night. I'll look forward to checking Perkins out in more detail via my branch library.