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Please, Explain This Financial Mess to Me

Drowning in facts? These six sources will help you get a grip on the backstory—and even give you a chuckle or two.

AS THE FINANCIAL CRISIS UNFOLDED this fall, I, like so many, found myself uncharacteristically glued to financial cable channels and surfing the web for daily (er, hourly?) business news updates. It didn’t take much of this to start drowning in information. Piling on new facts was not making me smarter; I needed less information—and a lot more explanation. Here, then, some sources that I found useful for anyone searching to pierce the veil of TED spreads and LIBOR and credit swaps and sub-prime mortgages, so they can understand the bigger picture.

1. The Giant Pool of Money. This episode of This American Life harks back to the days of gripping radio dramas. Producer Alex Blumberg and host Ira Glass teamed up with NPR economics correspondent Adam Davidson to do a program about the housing crisis. Blumberg and Davidson take you along on their reporting as they talk to people who were actually working in the housing, banking, finance, and mortgage industries, about what they thought during the boom times, and why the bust happened. First aired last May, it’s become the program’s most popular episode ever.

The reporters started where many listeners were: mystified and ill-informed, wondering, how did we get to this point? They interrupt each other with “wait a minute” questions and, slowly, understanding—for journalist and listener—emerges from the fog. As one listener, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, commented: “Coming out of the program, I understood the complete scam: what happened, why it happened, and why I should care. I had a good sense of the motivations and situations of players all down the line. In the weeks after, I became a customer for ongoing news. [It had created] a scaffold of understanding” on which to hang future facts and reports.

“The Giant Pool of Money” was rebroadcast in the fall, when a second segment “Another Frightening Show About the Economy”  (on the credit market freeze, credit default swaps, and the bailout), was added. Check out their ongoing blog and podcast, Planet Money, as well.

2. Warren Buffett’s Fireside Chat. On October 1st—after the Lehman bankruptcy but before the (first) financial bailout—Charlie Rose invited the legendary investor to do what amounted to a one-man teach-in on the credit crisis. His company, Berkshire Hathaway, hasn’t completely escaped the current crunch, but Buffett’s down-to-earth approach (“never invest in a business you cannot understand”) and decency make him the perfect steady voice of common sense in a world of greed and exotic financial instruments gone wrong. (It was Buffett who, in his 2003 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, wrote that derivatives were “time bombs, both for the parties that deal in them and the economic system…financial weapons of mass destruction.”) You can hear the conversation here.

3. Bill Clinton’s Reading List. I wouldn’t necessarily have expected Tina Brown’s new website, The Daily Beast, to be the go-to place for economic enlightenment. But there, in Buzz Board (“smart people recommend”), I was intrigued to find the ever-wonky former president’s bailout book list. “Especially at this time,” he writes, “every thoughtful American needs to learn as much as possible about the relationship of politics to economics,” suggesting “Michael Heller’s Gridlock Economy (about hoarding resources), David M. Smick’s The World Is Curved (why things could get much worse), and Larry M. Bartel’s Unequal Democracy (on how partisanship has hurt the poor).” Working down the list, I can report so far that David Smick’s considerable storytelling ability pulls you into his complex world of global finance in a more entertaining way than you might have thought possible.

4. Let the Stick Figures Explain. Mere words overwhelming you? This slide show conveys a serious explanation of how events unfolded, but by highlighting the absurdity of recent financial follies, it does so with some welcome laughs. (Warning: some expletives included.)

5. Attend the MIT Class. If you decide you want to dig deeper, MIT professor Simon Johnson, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, has launched a blog, Baseline Scenario, and an open class at MIT called “Real-time Deep Dive into the Global Crisis as It Evolves.” Johnson, an expert on economic crises, is clearly also a committed educator beyond his MIT classroom. “My friends (blog co-authors Peter Boone and James Kwak) and I felt that this was not a time to stand idly by,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “This is something we know a lot about and we had relevant experience and understand how to express our views….There’s a big thirst for accessible discussions.” The blog does indeed dive in at the deep end, but uses clear language and includes a section, Financial Crisis for Beginners, that is the site's most popular page. You can download the classes (four so far), and follow along with class readings and discussions. (Scroll to the bottom of the archive to start at the beginning of the course.)

6. Finally, Have a Good Laugh. The satirical publication The Onion does its own comedic take on the crisis in a mock news report: "In The Know: Should the Government Stop Dumping Money Into a Giant Hole?"

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.

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