This is the first time I can remember the national economic news hitting so close to home. Neighbors and friends fret about their jobs, worry about their mortgages, talk about scaling back on their spending. It's more than a downturn; there's a major psychological shift you can feel everywhere.
As retailers brace for more bad news this week, you don't need any special powers of perception to see how interconnected we all are.
Sure, there is a feeling of comeuppance for the greediest: the investment houses that tumbled along with their pyramid schemes built on sub-prime mortgages, or the auto execs who flew their private jets to Washington to ask for billions in a taxpayer-financed bailout.
But the people who have it the worst have already been weathering hard times for a while. On Sunday, The New York Times ran a story on Michigan, where more than half of the Big Three automakers' workforce lives. The state has been in a downward spiral since 2000.
"The bad news keeps coming to Michigan...a state at ground zero in the national economic downturn," the Times reported. "But unlike in months and years past, there are no exceptions to the despair."
As layoffs spike, tens of thousands of people who are already out of work are running out of unemployment benefits, unable to pay for health care, losing their homes. One in five Michiganders is now on public assistance.
"We put all our chips on a poker hand called durable goods manufacturing, particularly the autos," Charles Balard, a professor of economics at Michigan State, told the Times.
Unionized manufacturing jobs propelled the rise of the middle class. The collapse of good jobs with benefits that supported Michigan represents the collapse of what we think of as America.
Yet along with money and hope for the future, empathy for the blue-collar middle class is also drying up. The United Auto Workers, whose fate is inextricably bound to the automakers, is having almost as hard a time as G.M. making headway with the public, despite a TV-interview blitz by union president Ron Gettlefinger.
After agreeing to job cuts and taking over its members' health care, the UAW is now having to defend a deal that protects laid-off workers, paying thousands of them 95% of their wages and benefits.
"The union would have a difficult time justifying" those benefits given the current economic climate, Gary Chaison, a professor of labor relations at Clark University, told reporters last week.
In other words, Americans are as skeptical of good benefits and retirement for rank-and-file autoworkers as they are of the massive perks for the CEOs who engineered the fall of Detroit. That's bad news for all of us.
People making $27 an hour and sending their kids to college, getting good health-care and retirement benefits, are not the executives on corporate jets. They are the much-vaunted "middle class" the candidates talked about endlessly on the campaign trail this year. This is the American Dream the labor movement built. And while clearly the auto industry is a mess, we shouldn't give up on expectations of a decent life for ordinary workers.
The ungenerous attitude that cheap, no-benefit, service-sector jobs are a reasonable norm is not going to help the vast majority of us.
Instead, as we look at the painful adjustments we have to make in this recession, we should be glad for what unions managed to build in the last century, and try to carry those principles with us into the future.
Ruth Conniff is political editor of The Progressive.