To understand the mortgage crisis, listen to This American Life

The past couple of weeks have been equal parts confusing and unsettling. With all the comparing of the latest financial problems to the Great Depression, it’s enough to scare the heck out of anyone with a dime parked in a bank.

But what often makes crises like this one so terrifying is that they seem infinitely complex. If the titans of Wall Street blew it, how can helpless half-wits like me ever hope to understand what is happening, or even how I feel about the mammoth bailout?

Well, at last, some good news.

The folks at This American Life, the phenomenal National Public Radio show (broadcast locally on KQED) that explores a different theme each week, have done a couple of stellar shows that explain the mess. And they have another one coming up this weekend (check your local listings, of course).

There are two shows, available as podcasts, that you must check out if you want to get up to speed.

First, start with “The Giant Pool of Money”, which was originally broadcast on May 9, that was done as a partnership between TAM producer Alex Blumberg and National Public Radio’s Adam Davidson take the whole hour to trace the path of this crisis from a homebuyer on up the chain to the bigshots on Wall Street. By the time you’re done listening, you’ll have a solid sense for the players involved and how they got us into this mess.

Next, listen to Act 2 of “Enforcers,” whic originally aired on Sept. 12. In Act 2. Blumberg explores why the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has been missing in action during this whole crisis. Of particular interest is the explanation of how short selling works, why the SEC decided to ban it,  and the implications for our supposed free market system. The bottom line, according to Blumberg: Short selling has played almost no role in the current crisis, which makes the ban even more mysterious.

Finally, the show has announced another follow up that will be aired this weekend: Another Frightening Show About the Economy.”

Here’s the description from the show’s site:

“Alex Blumberg and NPR’s Adam Davidson—the two guys who reported our Giant Pool of Money episode—are back. They’ll explain what happened this week, including what regulators could’ve done to prevent this financial crisis from happening in the first place. To cover the daily ins and outs, Alex and Adam (with a few colleagues at NPR News) are also doing a free daily Planet Money podcast and blog.”


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  • Ann Marie

    At the suggestion of a friend, I listened to the “Giant Pool of Money” this summer. It shocked the hell out of me. Not sure I have the stomach for the others in light of everthing that has transpired, but if you say so…

  • well done! Thx!