Simon Johnson

Coauthor, White House Burning and the bestselling 13 Bankers
Professor of Entrepreneurship, MIT Sloan School of Management
Senior Fellow, Peterson Institute for International Economics

Understanding America's debt crisis — and how
to solve it.

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Biography

The national debt has dominated discussions of American politics and economics for years now, but there's still very little clarity on the subject among citizens and almost no progress made towards a solution in Washington. That's where Simon Johnson steps in with his new book, White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why It Matters to You. Simon's powerful storytelling and analysis are already familiar to you from his bestselling 13 Bankers, a tough look at the U.S. financial sector; now you get to see them applied to the most pressing issue in this year's election.

"A must-read for anyone who wishes to understand the true nature of our fiscal problems. A fascinating and lively history of how we got into this budgetary mess and a brilliant analysis, dispassionate and balanced, of what we need to do to get out of it."
— Liaquat Ahamed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lord of Finance

A talk from Simon sheds light on all facets of the American budget crisis, from the nitty-gritty of how the government borrows to the political failures that led us to the current mess. His deep understanding of the situation allows him to make intelligent, concrete solutions about how to solve today's problems — a breath of fresh air in a murky, politicized discussion.

Simon Johnson, former chief economist for the IMF, is the Ronald A. Kurtz Professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT's Sloan School of Management and a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He is a member of the FDIC's Systemic Resolution Advisory Committee, the Congressional Budget Office's Panel of Economic Advisers. With co-author James Kwak, he co-founded BaselineScenario.com, a widely-cited website dedicated to following the current economic crisis. He is a regular contributor to the Bloomberg Views, NPRs Planet Money podcast, The New York Times' Economix blog, and many others.

Credentials

  • Ronald A. Kurtz Professor of Entrepreneurship, MIT Sloan School of Management
  • Senior Fellow, Peterson Institute for International Economics
  • Cofounder, BaselineScenario.com
  • Contributing Business Editor, The Huffington Post
  • Economic Counsellor & Director of Research (Chief Economist), IMF (Mar-07 – Aug-08)
  • Member, FDIC’s Systemic Resolution Advisory Committee
  • Member, SEC Advisory Committee on Market Information
  • Member, CBO's Panel of Economic Advisers
  • Research Fellow, Centre for Economic Policy Research
  • Research Associate, NBER
  • BREAD affiliate
  • Member, Advisory Group at the Center for Global Development
  • Member, Advisory Board, CASE in Warsaw
  • Non-resident Research Fellow, Asian Institute for Corporate Governance, Korea University
  • Co-director of the NBER project on Africa
  • Former Assistant Director, IMF's Research Dept
  • President, Association for Comparative Economic Studies
  • Ph.D. in economics; MIT; MA, University of Manchester; BA, University of Oxford

Books

White House Burning

The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why It Matters to You

Simon Johnson and James Kwak

America is mired in debt — more than $30,000 for every man, woman, and child. Bitter fighting over deficits, taxes, and spending bedevils Washington, D.C., even as partisan gridlock has brought the government to the brink of default. Yet the more politicians on both sides of the aisle rant and the citizenry fumes, the more things seem to remain the same.

In White House Burning, Simon Johnson and James Kwak — authors of the national best seller 13 Bankers and cofounders of The Baseline Scenario, a widely cited blog on economics and public policy — demystify the national debt, explaining whence it came and, even more important, what it means to you and to future generations. They tell the story of the Founding Fathers’ divisive struggles over taxes and spending. They chart the rise of the almighty dollar, which makes it easy for the United States to borrow money. They account for the debasement of our political system in the 1980s and 1990s, which produced today’s dysfunctional and impotent Congress. And they show how, if we persist on our current course, the national debt will harm ordinary Americans by reducing the number of jobs, lowering living standards, increasing inequality, and forcing a sudden and drastic reduction in the government services we now take for granted.

But Johnson and Kwak also provide a clear and compelling vision for how our debt crisis can be solved while strengthening our economy and preserving the essential functions of government. They debunk the myth that such crucial programs as Social Security and Medicare must be slashed to the bone. White House Burning looks squarely at the burgeoning national debt and proposes to defuse its threat to our wellbeing without forcing struggling middle-class families and the elderly into poverty.

Carefully researched and informed by the same compelling storytelling and lucid analysis as 13 Bankers, White House Burning is an invaluable guide to the central political and economic issue of our time. It is certain to provoke vigorous debate.

Vintage (February 12, 2013)
Pantheon (April 3, 2012)

Article

What Is This White House Burning?The Baseline Scenario

Review

The debt debateFinancial Times

Praise

"A must-read for anyone who wishes to understand the true nature of our fiscal problems. A fascinating and lively history of how we got into this budgetary mess and a brilliant analysis, dispassionate and balanced, of what we need to do to get out of it."
— Liaquat Ahamed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lord of Finance

"In this powerful book, Johnson and Kwak cut through both the partisanship and the complexities of the debate over America’s national debt to give us a clear understanding of why it matters and what to do about it. America’s future depends vitally upon bringing our deficits under control while also investing in our growth, and this book tells us how to do both."
— Charles Ferguson, director of the Academy Award-winning documentary Inside Job

"By skillfully placing the debt debate in an insightful historical context and providing detailed recommendations, Johnson and Kwak make a major and timely contribution to a national debate that will only get more heated in the years ahead. It’s a must-read for those wondering about the relationship between the national debt and America’s challenges; the choices that we must make to restore fiscal viability, promote growth, create jobs, and reduce inequality; and the way that polarized politics torpedoes coherent discussion of these complex issues."
— Mohamed A. El-Erian, CEO of PIMCO and prize-winning author of When Markets Collide

"Johnson and Kwak have written a book every American should read. It gives us a rich context for understanding the problem of today’s national debt. Full of wisdom and specific recommendations, it reminds us that only when citizens understand the seriousness of our predicament will politicians take the necessary steps to strengthen our country. Let’s hope this book is a best seller."
— Bill Bradley, former United States senator and cosponsor of the Tax Reform Act of 1986

"Could there be a more important subject today than the national debt? And could there be two smarter, clearer, more incisive writers to tell us about it than Simon Johnson and James Kwak? With precision and common sense, White House Burning tells the story of where our debt came from, what it means, and what we can do about it. This is the kind of important, informed, and accessible book a democracy can’t do without."
— Noah Feldman, Bemis Professor of International Law, Harvard Law School, and author of Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices

"As they did in 813 Bankers*, Johnson and Kwak imbed a crucial current policy debate in the history of the United States economy. Their blueprint for resolving the budget problem without trampling on the basic needs of average Americans is must-reading."
— C. Fred Bergsten, director, Peterson Institute for International Economics

"If you are puzzled about how our country’s finances got so messed up, look no further. Johnson and Kwak explain, with great lucidity and flair, how the battle lines on debt and taxes have been drawn going back to the founding fathers, and how things got off the rails in the last two decades. And they have good news for you: even if our politicians are incorrigible, our problems are not insoluble."
— Daron Acemoglu, Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics, MIT, and coauthor of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty

"The politicians don’t care about the economics. The economists don’t understand the politics. Johnson and Kwak get both, that’s why you should read this book."
— James Robinson, David Florence Professor of Government, Harvard University, and coauthor of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty

13 Bankers

The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown

Simon Johnson

Even after the ruinous financial crisis of 2008, America is still beset by the depredations of an oligarchy that is now bigger, more profitable, and more resistant to regulation than ever. Anchored by six megabanks — Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley — which together control assets amounting, astonishingly, to more than 60 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, these financial institutions (now more emphatically “too big to fail”) continue to hold the global economy hostage, threatening yet another financial meltdown with their excessive risk-taking and toxic “business as usual” practices. How did this come to be — and what is to be done? These are the central concerns of 13 Bankers, a brilliant, historically informed account of our troubled political economy.   In 13 Bankers, Simon Johnson — one of the most prominent and frequently cited economists in America (former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, Professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT, and author of the controversial “The Quiet Coup” in The Atlantic) — and James Kwak give a wide-ranging, meticulous, and bracing account of recent U.S. financial history within the context of previous showdowns between American democracy and Big Finance: from Thomas Jefferson to Andrew Jackson, from Theodore Roosevelt to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They convincingly show why our future is imperiled by the ideology of finance (finance is good, unregulated finance is better, unfettered finance run amok is best) and by Wall Street’s political control of government policy pertaining to it.   As the authors insist, the choice that America faces is stark: whether Washington will accede to the vested interests of an unbridled financial sector that runs up profits in good years and dumps its losses on taxpayers in lean years, or reform through stringent regulation the banking system as first and foremost an engine of economic growth. To restore health and balance to our economy, Johnson and Kwak make a radical yet feasible and focused proposal: reconfigure the megabanks to be “small enough to fail.”   Lucid, authoritative, crucial for its timeliness, 13 Bankers is certain to be one of the most discussed and debated books of 2010.

Pantheon (March 30, 2010)

Reviews

ReviewSan Francisco Chronicle
Your Money, Their PocketsThe New York Times
Too Big to Prevail?Bloomberg Businessweek

Praise “Simon Johnson makes it clear that our financial system is broken, and that Wall Street and Washington broke it. Sadly, he also makes it clear that they want to keep it that way. His gripping book explains how the economic crisis developed and what must be done to create a fair system, one that will benefit all Americans rather than just those who are the members of the club.”
— Herbert A. Allen III, President of Allen & Company

“The U.S. financial sector is incredibly bloated and a drain on the productive economy. It uses its enormous economic power to buy politicians and policies that favor its interests and perpetuate its power. This is the main argument of Simon Johnson’s new book. The views expressed are especially striking because Johnson is the former chief economist at the IMF. He has had decades of experience dealing with financial crises. This often required working with corrupt governments dominated by powerful financial interests. It is striking to see Johnson putting the U.S. government in this category.”
— Dean Baker, Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research

“Johnson and Kwak embed the financial crisis in a sophisticated analysis of U.S. economic history, explain its evolution with unusual clarity and propose policy reforms to prevent its ever happening again that are both straightforward and compelling.”
— C. Fred Bergsten, Director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics

13 Bankers is surely the only book about the financial crisis of 2007-09 that begins with a quote from The Great Gatsby. But the analogy is appropriate. Johnson and Kwak not only tell us in great detail how the crisis happened and what we must do to avoid another crisis, but they see the deeper political and cultural context that permitted carelessness and excess nearly to break the financial system and plunge us into a depression.”
— Bill Bradley, Former U.S. Senator (D-NJ) and Member of the Basketball Hall of Fame

13 Bankers is a chilling tale of the dangers of concentrated economic, intellectual, and political power.  Even if you do not agree with everything the authors have to say, this book makes it clear why ending ‘too big to fail’ and reforming the institutions that perpetuate it–particularly the Federal Reserve–are essential for our nation’s future economic prosperity and, more fundamentally, our democratic system.”
— Jim Bunning, U.S. Senator (R-KY) and Member of the Baseball Hall of Fame

“Too many discussions of the Great Recession present it as a purely economic phenomenon–the result of excessive leverage or errors of monetary policy or algorithms run mad. Simon Johnson was the first to point out that this was and is a crisis of political economy. His and James Kwak’s analysis of the unholy inter-twining of Washington and Wall Street–a cross between the gilded age and a banana republic–is essential reading.” — Niall Ferguson, Professor of History at Harvard University, Professor at Harvard Business School, and Author of The Ascent of Money

“This is a timely, informative and important book. You may not agree with all the analysis but the issues so clearly discussed are real, current and vitally important. Financial industry reform must be undertaken soon; inaction, as the authors convincingly argue, would have dangerous consequences. This book explains it all and it’s great reading.”
— Larry Fish, Former Chairman and CEO of Citizens Financial Group

“What Simon Johnson is telling us is that we are subjecting ourselves to rule by a self-perpetuating banking oligarchy. Which leaves two questions: Are we listening? And if we are, then what are we going to do about it?”
— Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL)

13 Bankers is a tour de force.  For those many Americans who believe they have never received an adequate explanation about why the United States economy crashed in 2008, who is to blame, where their tax dollars went, and why the villains have thrived while everyone else has suffered, read this book or be prepared for history to repeat itself soon.” — Michael Greenberger, Law School Professor at the University of Maryland and Former Director of the CFTC Division of Trading and Markets

“Prescient and powerful, 13 Bankers provides a battle plan for the fight to ensure that America’s ‘too big to fail’ megabanks will no longer be able to hold the global economy hostage while accumulating record profits, doling out obscene bonuses, and spending millions of dollars on lobbying to gut financial reform.  Johnson and Kwak demonstrate that what is good for Wall Street is decidedly not good for Main Street, and present a bracing, and at times frightening, analysis of how Big Finance has undermined our political system.  Most importantly, they offer specific proposals for turning things around.  Our future depends on fixing our financial system; 13 Bankers shows us how.” — Arianna Huffington

13 Bankers is an absolutely brilliant and spellbinding forensic analysis of Main Street’s economic murder at the hands of financial behemoths who gambled recklessly with the taxpayers’ chips while paying Washington to look the other way.  From Jefferson and Jackson to South Korea and Russia, the book traverses time and space in documenting that banks that are ‘too big to fail’ are far too big to preserve.  The message is clear–bust the financial trusts and do it now!”
— Laurence J. Kotlikoff, Professor of Economics at Boston University and Author of Jimmy Stewart Is Dead

“A beautifully written and powerful story that ties the current financial crisis to a cycle of politics as old as the Republic, and to a pathology in our politics that is as profound as any that our Republic has faced. We are far away from solving that crisis, and hopelessly far from even understanding how we could cure this pathology. Required reading for the President, and anyone else who cares for this Republic.”
— Lawrence Lessig, Professor of Law and Director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation for Ethics at Harvard University

13 Bankers explains our financial crisis in the context of the recent experience of other nations and our own history. Our financial crisis fits a tediously familiar pattern of unrestrained, vulgar excess followed by collapse. We should heed the lesson that Simon Johnson and James Kwak draw: the continued concentration of economic and political power makes future economic crises inevitable and undermines democracy.”
— Congressman Brad Miller (D-NC)

“If the wads of money you’ve stuffed into your mattress for safekeeping don’t keep you up at night, Simon Johnson and James Kwak’s 13 Bankers will — a disturbing and painstakingly researched account of how the banks wrenched control of government and society out of our hands–and what we can do to seize it back.”
— Bill Moyers

“As Simon Johnson makes lucidly and compellingly clear, the problem with Wall Street leads directly to the core problem of our democracy. American politics now feeds on money, and Wall Street is where the money is. Unless we separate money from politics, we’ll never be safe from another financial meltdown. In fact, we’ll never really be safe. Read this fine book and get to work.”
— Robert B. Reich, Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Former U.S. Secretary of Labor

“Over the last 50 years, the FAA, the airline manufacturers, and the airlines worked together to make a highly complex air travel system more efficient and much safer. If you’ve ever wondered why, in contrast, our financial regulators and banks made our financial system less efficient and much more dangerous, you should read this book.”
— Paul Romer, Senior Fellow at the Stanford Center for International Development and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research

13 Bankers is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what comes next for the world economy.  Dangerous and reckless elements of our financial sector have become too powerful and must be reined in.  If this problem is not addressed–using the ideas in this book or similar reasonable and sensible steps–there is serious trouble in all our futures.”
— Nouriel Roubini, Professor of Economics at NYU Stern School of Business and Chairman of Roubini Global Economics

“Johnson and Kwak deftly survey the roots and aftermath of the financial panic of 2007-2009, daring to ask whether institutions deemed ‘too big to fail’ are merely a symptom of a Wall Street that is ‘too well-connected to fail.’ Now, as policymakers, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Will we perpetuate this phenomenon or will we finally stand up to the barons of high finance? According to the authors, it is not too late to redraw the lines of regulation to protect taxpayers, investors, borrowers, and ultimately the financial system from itself. We in Congress would be wise to take their advice.”
— Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA)

“Simon Johnson and James Kwak provide the best explanation yet for how the smart guys on Wall Street led us to the brink of collapse.  In the process, they demystify our financial system, stripping it down to expose the ruthless power grab that lies at its center.  If you want to understand how Wall Street captured Washington and how it tenaciously hangs on to that power, read 13 Bankers.”
— Elizabeth Warren, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and Chairwoman of the TARP Congressional Oversight Panel

Topics

Simon tailors each presentation to the needs of his audience and is not limited to the topics we have listed below. These are subjects that have proven valuable to customers in the past and are meant only to suggest his range and interests. Please ask us about any subject that interests you; we are sure that we can accommodate you.

White House Burning

America's Debt Crisis

Videos

13 Bankers | MIT World

Feedback

A banking corporation:
Simon was just wonderful. Before the event, he spent a couple of days doing media interviews which really helped pack the house. His presentation to us was very interesting and well received. We all loved him, he is easy and wonderful to be with.