Financial ruin has a way of focusing the attention. All of a sudden, lipstick and pigs don't seem that important.
In our previous financial crises there was a difference between Wall Street and Main Street. Wall Street was populated by rich people in top hats and striped pants (at least that's what the guy on the Monopoly box wore) who dealt in stocks, bonds, futures, derivatives and others things that few ordinary people really understood. Little did we know that few people on Wall Street really understood them either.
When there was a collapse on Wall Street, some of these rich people would jump out of windows, but as long as they didn't fall on any of us, things were OK on Main Street.
Today, however, Wall Street and Main Street are pretty much the same street.
Ordinary people who have never bought or sold a share of individual stock are now involved in the stock market through mutual funds, retirement plans, college funds and a number of other financial vehicles.
And these days a lot of people watch cable TV news not for the talking heads (unless it happens to be my talking head, of course) but for the stock market information that appears on the bottom of the screen.
For several years all this was fine. It seemed like you really couldn't miss by investing in stocks. The market had ups and downs, but it always went up eventually and sticking your money in an ordinary savings account seemed ridiculous.
This was, you will remember, the driving force behind the argument for "privatizing" Social Security: If people could invest their Social Security taxes in the stock market, they could make oodles for their retirement. (And what makes me think we won't be hearing that argument again for awhile?)
We have now found out, much to our dismay, that the stock market is not actually fueled by helium. It does not always go up. And, even more distressing, the real reason for the collapse of giant financial institutions still seems shrouded in fog. It can't all be because a relatively small number of people took out some risky mortgages.
Could there be something more fundamental going on here?
You would not know it from the speeches of our candidates for president at their recent nominating conventions. They stuck to generalities, which, I will admit, is what nominating speeches are all about.
"We measure the strength of our economy not by the number of billionaires we have or the profits of the Fortune 500, but by whether someone with a good idea can take a risk and start a new business, or whether the waitress who lives on tips can take a day off to look after a sick kid without losing her job," Barack Obama said.
"These are tough times for many of you. You're worried about keeping your job or finding a new one, and are struggling to put food on the table and stay in your home. All you ever asked of government is to stand on your side, not in your way. And that's just what I intend to do: stand on your side and fight for your future," John McCain said.
Very inspiring both.
Neither man picked a running mate with a business background. Warren Buffet, the richest person in the world, endorsed Barack Obama in May, but was never really considered for the ticket (possibly because he is 78.) Obama selected Joe Biden, largely because of Biden's foreign policy experience.
John McCain could have picked Mitt Romney, who made a fortune in private business before going into politics, but McCain passed him up for Sarah Palin, not because of her vast experience or long record of accomplishments but because he felt she was a "maverick" and somebody ordinary people could respond to.
One of these two teams is going to get into office, but which one really understands the economy?
Ralph Nader, who almost certainly is not going to get into any office this year, stopped by Politico Monday, and said the roots of the current crisis can be summed up in one word: greed.
"The press is not using the word greed enough," Nader said. "It's just greed and concentrated power."
Think what you want about Nader, but every time I read one of those long postmortems on why this financial giant or that has collapsed, it really does seem to get down to plain old greed. Enormous profits are not enough anymore. Obscene profits are not enough. Profits must be enormous, obscene and astronomical. And so financial institutions overreach and fail.
Unfortunately these institutions take a lot of ordinary people down with them. But we will pull through. Or at least Warrant Buffet says so.
'They say in the stock market…buy stock in a business that's so good that an idiot can run it because sooner or later one will," Buffet said earlier this year. "Well, the United States is a little like that. We can take a little mismanagement from time to time."