See the essential primer on the financial crisis

Are you freaking out about the financial crisis — without really understanding it? If so, you’re in good company, and you won’t want to miss the excellent two-hour documentary The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (PBS, January 13).

Hosted by Harvard economic historian Niall Ferguson (and based on his book of the same title), The Ascent of Money tracks the evolution of finance back over 500 years — to Italy’s merchant princes — and follows it all the way up to the ongoing global meltdown. Along the way, Ferguson provides clear explanations of essential phrases (like subprime lending), speaks to key financial players (like George Soros and Paul Volker), and takes a close look at the rise of “Chimerica” (the economic marriage of convenience between the U.S. and China). Good news for those of us left wanting more: PBS will screen an expanded, four-hour version later this year.

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