At the beginning of last week’s This American Life, Ira Glass suggests that many of us are resigned to not really understanding what’s going on with the financial sector. Then the NPR boys go straight into explaining it, starting in the simplest terms and working up to the global collapse scale. Required. One of the more interesting people in the show is Simon Johnson (a former International Monetary Fund bigshot who’s worked with many other countries fixing exactly this situation), who Terry Gross had an interview that is also very interesting. That should prepare you for the Baseline Scenario post from Johnson’s blog, and all the other jargon-heavy reports you’ll to be encountering.
Update: Spoilers (don’t read on if you’re going to listen to the programs): The amount of debt Americans hold, as a percentage of GDP, typically oscillates between 20 and 50%; at two points in the last century it’s hit 100%: in 1929 and in 2007. So all these people yelling about how banks should lend out the money the US government is giving them are exactly wrong — arguably it was our level of debt that, as much as anything, caused the current crisis.
Johnson believes that the solution is fairly obvious: nationalize the banks. You nationalize, clean up the mess, and re-privatize them. Apparently that’s what the IMF, with the USA’s blessing, has been helping/forcing governments with similar problems do for decades, and it works reasonably well. Also, the US government does it all the time, just on a smaller scale than would be presently required. But were it not for the “obvious” political problems, the IMF would advise us to do exactly that. There’s also the suggestion that — maybe — that’s exactly what the Obama administration quietly is preparing to do.