For months, Americans have been subjected to a sort of economic water torture - a maddening drip of bad news about jobs, gas prices, sagging home values, creeping inflation, the slouching dollar and a stock market in bumpy descent.
Then came Bear Stearns. One of the five largest U.S. investment banks nearly collapsed in a single day before the government propped it up by backing emergency loans and a rival stepped in to buy it for a paltry $2 per share.
To the drumbeat of signs that seemed to foretell a traditional recession, this added a nightmarish specter — an old-style run on the bank, customers clamoring to pull their cash, a stately Wall Street firm brought to its knees.
The combination has forced the economy to the forefront of the national conversation in a way it has not been since the go-go 1990s, and for entirely opposite reasons.