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What Keeps Simon Johnson Up At Night

Question: What keeps you up at night? 

Simon \r\nJohnson: I worry about the financial system and worry that people \r\nare going to forget. Attention is hard to sustain, particularly these \r\ndays. You get a lot of focused attention, that’s an advantage of the \r\nInternet, and people grab onto issues and I think people have been very \r\nworried about these massive banks. But it will pass. Other things come \r\nup. The baseball season is just starting, always a great distraction. \r\nMany other issues will come to the fore and people will forget. And of \r\ncourse that is exactly what these masters of the universe and the \r\nfascists are counting on. As long as they can keep their positions and \r\nhold onto what they have, the public anger and the frustration will \r\ndrift away and they can go back to doing what they were doing before.

And\r\n that is really very dangerous. That is dangerous toward democracy, \r\nfrankly. That’s what Thomas Jefferson said, correctly, at the beginning \r\nof the Republic. He said, “Fear the emergence of a financial \r\naristocracy,” and we’ve had a few episodes, we’ve had some fights with \r\nthem along the way. And Andrew Jackson won, Teddy Roosevelt won, FDR \r\nwon. Now we have to do it again, but we have to do a modern version, \r\nright? The world is more complex, attention is more fleeting, politics \r\nare different, campaign contributions are massive. The Supreme Court \r\nsays they can give as much money as they want. This is going to be quite\r\n a fight. 

Question: Are you an optimist or a \r\npessimist? 

Simon Johnson: I’m an immigrant. I’ve been\r\n here 25 years. I became an American citizen. I thought about it long \r\nand hard and I studied for the test and I did well on the test, the \r\ncitizenship test... and I believe in this American project. I think it \r\nhas survived for 200 years for a reason. I think it’s a Republic that \r\nwas well designed and while some of its structures and some of the \r\ninitial language might seem anachronistic, it is actually a framework \r\nwithin which you can deal with big problems that come up and one of the \r\nbiggest problems is because we’re very innovative people, because we’re \r\nvery dynamic, we build new things fast and we allow new people to come \r\nto the fore, we also allow massive wealth to develop and a great deal of\r\n capture. At the end of the 19th century, the so-called gilded age, \r\nthere was enormous income inequality in the United States. There were \r\nhuge monopolies and Teddy Roosevelt said it was out of control. He \r\ndecided to take JP Morgan’s railroad monopolies called Northern \r\nSecurities to the Supreme Court. J.P. Morgan came to see him at the \r\nWhite House and he said, “If we’ve done anything wrong, send your men to\r\n see my men and we’ll fix it up.” And Roosevelt said, “No. We’re going \r\nto go to the Supreme Court. We’re going to see this through,” and he won\r\n five to four and from that came the anti-trust movement and from that \r\ncame the breakup of Standard Oil and all the other massive companies. 

The\r\n consensus, the view we have—big is beautiful, big is high quality, big \r\nis great—does not apply to the financial sector. We need a new Teddy \r\nRoosevelt. We need political leadership that can take that message, \r\nbuild an alliance, seize the moment and put us all on a path to a better\r\n century.

Recorded on March 31, 2010

The economist remembers a famous Theodore Roosevelt quote: "Fear the emergence of a financial aristocracy."

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