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The first time I visited Congress, I was amazed at how easily you can wander the halls. To enter the office buildings you have to pass through airport-style metal detectors and a bag scan, but no one asks your business and you don’t even have to show identification. (I’ve also visited the U.S. Treasury and other executive branch office buildings, and, without giving anything away, I can safely say that easy/open access is not a theme.)

But once you’re inside a Senate or House building, the thought strikes you – where do I go to hear the issues, see the debate, or even (if you’ve had enough coffee) figure out what could possibly be said that would make a difference? You can study clearly labeled floor plans and all the rooms are well marked, but – in intellectual, policy, or down-in-the-trenches political terms – where do you go?

As far as I know, for our current economic debate – a once-per-generation, perhaps once-per-century event – there’s no available roadmap. Probably even trying to write down such a map would be misleading, as the events and issues continue to prove so dynamic.

But surely there’s something we can do to figure out more precisely what is going on and why. And if we know that, perhaps we can also get some insight into what can be said, to whom, and under what circumstances that would actually make a difference.

After decades of working as a professional economist, I feel like I'm slipping into naive idealism. In many countries and situations, I think that trying to influence the political debate with ideas is essentially hopeless. But in the American democratic system, where politicians are regularly accountable to their constituents, it is possible for ideas to play an important role in making policy - as long as those constituents understand what is going on and what it means to them. Today, as we grapple with the most severe and disruptive economic crisis that most of us have seen, understanding what is going on can seem like an impossible task.

This blog is designed to raise broader awareness of economic policy discussions on Capitol Hill, focusing on formal hearings as the centerpiece, but also providing previews and reviews of many of the lower profile but influential economic debates on and off the Hill. The idea is to generate a roadmap to the debate through our postings, those of our guests, and your comments. Information, opinions, and arguing out workable proposals of all kinds are what we need to understand what is going on.

In terms of really changing anything, I realize that we are likely tilting at windmills. But in this time of financial catastrophe and economic quicksand, I revisit the inscription on the statue of Don Quixote, a gift of the Spanish government that stands on the grounds of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (and which many of our most powerful people must drive by frequently): “Well might the Enchanters rob me of my good fortune, but never of my spirit or my will.”

--Simon Johnson

By Sara Goo  |  April 23, 2009; 5:05 PM ET
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Next: A Commission on the Economic Crisis?


In watching the JEC hearing "Too Big to Fail" with Stiglitz and Hoenig, I was immediately struck by the empty seats meant to be occupied by Congress members.

Okay - maybe there is some truth to your saying "In terms of really changing anything, I realize that we are likely tilting at windmills."

But your statements are now a matter of record, time-dated recollections of actions and events. Sound bites can be gleaned by ambitious MSM. The public will be informed one way or another.

Please let us know what is being said that can make a difference and who is saying it. The public has been in the dark. No excuse, I know but now you have our attention.

Posted by: finally1 | April 25, 2009 9:44 AM | Report abuse

Prof. Johnson, if not today, history will applaud you, along with Dean Baker, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman for your efforts. While it may seem, that unlike other countries, America is in a stuporous state, unwilling to understand or to collectively cry out or act, you cannot stop your efforts. While the window for "real & positive change" appears to be closing rapidly there may still be time with a "full-court" press on public relations. I wish you good fortunes.

Posted by: thinkingquestioning | April 26, 2009 1:40 PM | Report abuse

I continue to marvel at what has been said, both inside and outside of the Congressional purview, and can't help but be (negatively) impressed with what has happened. But then the wheels of progress grind especially slowly in the American political system. Perhaps before we can possible effectively attack regulation and restructuring of the financial community, we need to better regulate our election laws. If not for PACS and others who control our lawmakers by campaign (and other) contributions, there could be actual sanity, if not real wisdom, occurring on Capitol Hill. The oligarchs, in the present system continue to flex their influential muscle, and retard any progress that they consider detrimental to their extreme control. Much like our quixotic quest, I feel that it will take a real, grass-roots populist revolution (think about the Vietnam protests and the race riots of the '70's) to make Congress understand WHO THEY REALLY ARE ELECTED TO SERVE.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not really angry, but cynically amused at what passes for democracy at the moment in this country. What I find really stunning is to hear the real buffoonery in the Republican Party make fools of themselves daily in their utter failure to understand what America is really about. Their constituency continues to shrink dramatically to include only small extreme special interests which seem to include fewer and fewer people under the age of 40. Forget about their elected officials, they can't even find cogent spokesmen who are not elected. I have yet to see their views upheld by a single economist. The best they have gotten in that realm is a few who are overly worried about the monetarist FED spurring inflation somewhere down the road.

The hearings will go on, and my greatest hope is that they will not turn out to be simply the latest of Congressional "lip service" regarding the country's and world's confidence in their ability to act constructively.

Posted by: Bumpmeister | April 26, 2009 8:34 PM | Report abuse

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