Review of A Game As Old As Empire

January 12, 2009

Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Wednesday March 28, 2007

Your average Bay Area liberal can tell you that globalization is ruining the world by enabling corporations to exploit developing countries. But it’s rare that anyone can actually explain how this works — or shed light on the impenetrable mystery of global economics generally. In 2004, John Perkins began to do so with Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, a scathing autobiographical exposé of the inner workings and inherent hypocrisy of international aid and development, as used by financiers and corporations to draw countries into debt and dependency. Now A Game as Old as Empire, an anthology of essays compiled by San Francisco editor and writer Steven Hiatt, with an introduction by Perkins, further illuminates the shady world he once inhabited.

In 12 chapters the book unspools a cycle that starts in the conference rooms of private banks and international financial institutions such as the World Bank and ends in offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands.

In between, billions of dollars flow through troubled, resource-rich nations with weak governments such as the Philippines, Iraq, and Nigeria, where they fund civil wars and destructive resource extraction. According to Game’s contributors — researchers, journalists, and former economic hit men — this so-called aid does little to address the grinding poverty in these countries, which end up more unstable and deeper in debt.

Though much of the material will be familiar to anyone with an interest in international development — and some of it is quite tediously recounted — the book does contain shocking examples of corporate avarice. The standout contributions are first-person accounts of the cinematic world of high finance, where 25-year-old rookie bankers are picked up at the Manila airport in shiny Jaguars with beautiful women in the backseat and World Bank officials shake hands with Liberian colonels whose first words are “Where is the money?” These scenarios are every globalization critic’s worst nightmare, in which fraud, graft, and embezzlement are the bottom line and the only change is the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

Game’s earnest call for reform of a clearly broken system is endearing, but it continually fails to question the roots of the problem. “We must begin today to re-create the world the corporatocracy has inflicted on us,” Perkins writes — as if the whole mess were all “their” fault. Financial mismanagement and corruption are placed at the foundation of the system; the bankers and elites who control it are deemed the culprits. Nowhere do the contributors question the lifestyles that necessitate and feed such behavior. Still, while its examination of the workings of global capitalism is incomplete, the book exposes many of the mechanisms enabling the concentration of so much money in so few hands.

A Game As Old As Empire: The Secret World of Economic Hit Men and the Web of Global Corruption

Edited by Steven Hiatt
Berrett-Koehler Publishers

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