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Wonk Week In Washington: When Briefings Are Better Than Blossoms

Pedestrians walk by the International Monetary Fund headquarters in Washington, D.C., site of the IMF/World Bank spring meetings.
Shawn Thew
Pedestrians walk by the International Monetary Fund headquarters in Washington, D.C., site of the IMF/World Bank spring meetings.

Let the senior-citizen tourists stare at the fluffy pink cherry blossoms.

Let the Midwestern seventh-graders tilt their heads back and gaze gape-mouthed at the Washington Monument.

Sure, this is a lovely week for them to be in Washington, D.C. It's April. It's gorgeous.

But no one is happier to be here this week than the wonks. And no, not the I-read-a-good-article-in-The-Economist wonk wannabes.

This week is for the true, serious wonks who just can't get enough of lecture halls, hearing rooms and soggy hors d'oeuvres.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says a wonk is "a person who knows a lot about the details of a particular field (such as politics) and often talks a lot about that subject."

Wonks are so happy this week because the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are holding briefings and lectures for their annual spring meetings. That means Washington is packed with economists, environmentalists, deputy finance ministers and interns of all sorts.

And of course, the "celebrity" wonks are out in force. Those are the "geostrategists" and former high-ranking officials who get invited onto Morning Joe on MSNBC. Think Zbigniew Brzezinski or Larry Summers. They are Wonk Royalty.

Wonk Royalty reigns at the many, many programs being staged this week by Washington's think tanks. With the IMF/World Bank crowd in town, this is the ideal time to shine if you are running, say, the Peterson Institute for International Economics or the Bertelsmann Foundation or the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The think tank fellows invite journalists and each other to join in as "thought leaders" to discuss ways to make the world a better place — or simply to understand that world.

The topics aren't of much interest to most people. But in Wonk World, they are genuinely exciting. If you are a thought leader, you can learn about "New Energy, New Geopolitics: Balancing Stability and Leverage."

Not your area of expertise? Then maybe you'd prefer "Fund Surveillance in an Interconnected World."

The intellectual possibilities are endless inside the think tanks that cluster around Dupont Circle or upfront in the lecture halls of the World Bank.

And you can head to Capitol Hill. Congress, which works only a fraction of the year, is packing in an array of hearings this week. If electricity is your thing, there's a hearing on electric reliability at the Senate Energy Committee. The witness list is loaded with wonks.

Or you could have joined a Senate Commerce subcommittee for a hearing on Mars. Very wonky stuff there.

And as an added bonus, Politico actually ran a story asking, "Is There a Wonk Bubble?"

The article deals with this week's launch of, a website that tries to explain the world. And there's Nate Silver's (is that name wonky enough for you?). And The Upshot, a new wonky blog coming from The New York Times. The list goes on.

To people who don't live in Wonk World, none of this may sound exciting. Fine. Maybe a big urn of hot coffee and small, hard bagels outside a lecture hall don't attract you.

Maybe you'd rather be outside looking at those cherry blossoms and tulips. Go ahead. See if the wonks care.

Inside, they'll will be thumbing their smartphones and scanning documents. This is their season, baby. Time to enjoy!

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Marilyn Geewax is a contributor to NPR.

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