Our current debates about economics are often several hundred years old. Welfare reform, for example, was debated in England in the late 1700s and early 1800s, as David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, and other economists tried to figure out how to help the poor and unemployed.
One view, which corresponded to the modern conservative "workfare" idea, was that if you just gave money to poor people, they wouldn't have any incentive to get jobs and they would have too many children. In the 20th century, Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman expressed the point even more succinctly in criticizing government welfare programs: If you increase the demand for poor people by having welfare programs, you'll call forth an increased supply of poor people.
Another long-running debate is over what causes economic recessions and how to cure them. And economists have been arguing just as long about taxes, free trade, and other topics. Here are some good places to learn about these hot issues:
A responsible, largely non-ideological site that looks at how government welfare programs work, fail to work, and what can be done to improve them. Hosted by the Brookings Institution and run by three well-known public policy analysts, this site provides an overview of poverty in the US, as well as analyses of specific poverty causes such as teen pregnancy and family breakdown.
NTU is often considered politically conservative, but it is animated mainly by the idea that tax money should be spent wisely and that taxes should be no higher than absolutely necessary. With admirable consistency, NTU bashes right-wing politicians for wasteful defense spending and left-wing politicians for wasteful spending on social programs. Its Web site includes ratings of Senators and Congressmen as well as a variety of studies on taxpayer issues. (Full disclosure: In the mid-1980s, I was executive director of the NTU foundation.)
Covers inequality as one of several economic issues, including international trade, the decline of America's manufacturing industries, and the decline in the quality and pay of American jobs. Founded by Robert Kuttner, a well-known writer on economics, and Lester Thurow, a professor at M.I.T., this site has a generally liberal slant and supports some restrictions on international trade.
A think tank that generally favors free trade but doesn't try to downplay the problems free trade can cause. The group's Web site has policy papers on a wide range of trade-related issues and is a good resource for students and researchers. The group also publishes book versions of its longer studies, and you can order these on the Web site.
Favors reducing levels of immigration into the United States. The group's Web site has policy papers that discuss economic issues, such as the effects of immigration on wages and unemployment, as well as non-economic issues such as crime and social policy.