JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, essayist Richard Rodriguez on the American dream.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, NewsHour essayist: For more than six decades, we Americans imagined ourselves to be free of class envy. Other countries might be bound by caste and by class. Our vanity in post-war America was to assume that the world envied us, envied our social mobility and our optimism.
In a country that afforded so much opportunity, why should we envy the rich? We regarded wealth with admiration. We gaze from the road at the great houses of Greenwich or Beverly Hills. The symbols of wealth reassured us. Someday we, too, might be rich, or our children might. There was wealth enough to go around.
The financial crisis in the last few weeks, the collapse of banks and mortgage houses and insurance companies, has changed the way Americans speak about money and social class.
Economists point out that Americans have grown careless with money. There are even some of us who bought houses with no money down. They bought on credit, and they bought on faith, that characteristic American faith that there will be money in the future to pay for what we can't afford today.
No sooner had Americans noticed that entire neighborhoods of new houses were in foreclosure than we learned that lenders had sold mortgages to banks that bundled them up and resold them.
The three-bedroom, two-car American dream was digitized into billions of intangible zeroes, a profit and then loss.
Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson came up with what he hoped would be a fix.
HENRY PAULSON, U.S. Treasury secretary: What we are working on now is an approach to...
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: The fix, too, resembled a bubble machine, a series of zeroes, $700 billion. Middle-class Americans whose dream of the future had long been inspired by the success of the rich found themselves in the position of having to bail out the rich.
MAN ON THE STREET: Looks like we're going to have to bite the bullet.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Secretary Paulson's plan had initially been called a bailout, but when taxpayers objected to the concept, Congress and the White House changed the term to "rescue plan," not that we were bailing out the wealthy, but that we were rescuing the economy.
REP. BARNEY FRANK (D-Mass.): The people who will feel the pain are not the top bankers and the top corporate executives, but average Americans.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: But whether it was a bailout or a rescue plan, there were demands from middle-class Americans -- we call ourselves "taxpayers" when we are angry -- demands to cut the strings of the golden parachutes, the lavish bonuses that corporate officers give their own kind, regardless of performance.
REP. HENRY WAXMAN (D-Calif.): Last month, the taxpayers bought out AIG in an $85 billion bailout. This was a direct result of the mistakes made by Mr. Cassano. Yet, even today, he remains on the company payroll, receiving $1 million a month.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Overnight, we began to speak of two Americas, of separate purpose. We began to speak of lenders as predators, which made borrowers victims. Overnight, we began to distinguish Wall Street from Main Street.
In fact, what we soon discovered was that, when a bank fails in America, another bank fails in England, and then the druggist in Omaha can't meet his payroll. But that's economics.
And what I'm talking about here is our dream life. The American dream has been devalued in the last few turbulent weeks.
NARRATOR: Within the year, three million Americans are ex-wage-earners.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Not since the 1930s have we heard bankers and CEOs described by politicians, left and right, by middle-class and working-class voices, as greedy.
The measure of how much has changed is the way we speak now. We have veered into a moral vocabulary to express a class tension. The symbols of great wealth that we used to admire -- the purring limousine, the mansion in Greenwich with its own ice rink, the polished yacht -- have been reappraised as symbols of greed.
Just so, the middle-class use of the word "greed" has brought us to envy, class envy of the sort from which we thought as Americans we were immune.
I'm Richard Rodriguez.