Econ 101 Not Cutting It? Ask the Web for Help

Today's economic crisis is more complicated than anything covered in a freshman-year course. Here's where to go to see it all more clearly

The ins and outs of the current economic situation are somewhat beyond the scope of my freshman-year Principles of Economics class. Credit default swaps? Bailouts? I don't seem to remember covering any of these things. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways for me—and you—to get educated about what's happening today, all thanks to the Internet.

Plain-English Economics

While sites from CNBC and to Slate offer news aggregators, sometimes you need help grokking what, exactly, is happening to the economy. This American Life's "The Giant Pool of Money" episode, produced in collaboration with NPR's David Kestenbaum, became the must-download podcast of the year when it first aired in May. The show's popularity online also spurred Kestenbaum and co-creator Alex Blumberg to start the Planet Money blog, which aims to explain economic trends in plain English (and which both Om and I love). The same folks then returned to This American Life in early October with a follow-up to the May broadcast called "Another Frightening Show About the Economy."

Other sources of plain-English economics include a what-just-happened tutorial put out by Steven Leavitt and some of his colleagues on The New York Times' Freakonomics blog back in September, as well as a second, follow-up post in mid-October. Other picks: Paul Kedrosky's blog, Dean Baker's Beat the Press, and Om's favorite, The Big Picture. Still need more background before diving in? Brush up on your finance terms and definitions at the Forbes-run Investopedia.

What Are You Doing with My Money?

The $700 billion bank bailout, now more commonly called TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program), may have been what caught everyone's attention, but the government spending didn't start—or stop—there. Slate's Big Money blog put together an amazing infographic that shows, in eye-popping detail, the ever-growing tally of federal money being funneled into bailout packages. Open Congress can help show you what could be next.

And what are banks, insurers, and auto companies doing with all that money? Well, actually, it's kind of hard to tell, but the Government Accountability Office is at least trying to keep tabs; its efforts are available in the Problems in Financial Markets & Housing section of its Web site. The TARP oversight committee, headed by Elizabeth Warren, issued its latest report on Dec. 10, which also sheds some light on the situation. (Felix Salmon at Portfolio's Market Movers blog has some thoughts on what it says and what he expected it to say, if you're not up to reading the whole report yourself.)

A Rocky, Horrible Picture Show

Some folks like to read their news, some like to listen, and some like to watch. If watching is your thing, there are plenty of places to get video online. YouTube is a veritable online university, with videos from Stanford and University of California at Los Angeles, among many others, all aimed at explaining the economic crisis. C-SPAN provides video coverage of congressional happenings, most of which is available online, including everything from Republican press conferences to the House hearing on TARP oversight.

Statistics to Watch

If your first-year economics class did better by you than mine did—or if you're a "just the facts, ma'am" type—you might be more interested in looking at some key indicator statistics for yourself. For that, your best source is the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployment rates aren't the only thing this agency tracks. A snapshot of the U.S. economy provides the big picture, while more obscure numbers provide additional insights.

Still, mass layoff events, defined as when companies ax 50 or more employees, are an excellent indicator of just how widespread the economic doom and gloom is. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports these data on a month-by-month basis. And how bad is it? Well, from April 1995 to October 2008 (the data set that's available), only five months saw more than 2,000 mass layoff events: September and October 2008, and September, October, and November 2001.

Or maybe, as Om suggested earlier this year, it's a good idea to watch commodity prices. For agricultural commodities, those with an eye on ethanol and food prices might turn to the Chicago Board of Trade. If detailed metal data are your thing, try; the rest of us can keep an eye on the big materials via CNN. Of course, if all else fails, I could try going back to Ec10. Today, the current professor of that course (and the author of its primary text), Greg Mankiw, keeps a blog for his students—and for the rest of us.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.