How to Feel Sort Of Broke When Everyone Is Rich

The investment banker turned to me and grimaced: “I can’t believe how much money that guy is making.”

“That guy” was working for an Internet startup, and his paper worth had recently soared into the hundreds of millions of dollars. The banker watched him cross the room. “If I hear about one more guy making that kind of money, I’m going to shoot myself,” the banker said. He had a look of disgust on his face despite the fine caviar he was at that moment washing down with a sip of Champagne.

What a time we live in, when investment bankers whine about the rich without a trace of irony. The rich certainly are different from you and me, but I never thought I’d live to see them become different from investment bankers.

Recently, I found myself in conversation with three friends. Instead of trying to handicap the weekend’s football games, they were talking about investments (they were all eager to invest in independent films), new homes and the millennium. They weighed their New Year’s options: chartering a “private boat” in the Caribbean, renting an entire top-drawer restaurant in Manhattan or jetting off to Rome for a day or two. I’m going to a snowbound wedding in St. Paul, Minn.

This season of holiday excess and disparity brings out the bitterness in everyone. Everyone’s rich except … everyone else. Just scratch the surface of a Manhattan evening and the same decadence that infected the late 1980′s is there. Long lines on Thursday nights, no available cabs, friends with parties at Lutèce, drinks at Danube, weekends in Paris and London. Clever conversation now revolves around your interior designer, your dog walker and your new DVD-electronics setup. It all becomes a blur before dessert. Is this growing up or getting fat?

The new extravagance snuck up on us quietly. For a while there, it looked as though this decade’s boom was all about inconspicuous consumption. Essentially, its subtext was that everyone was atoning for the wild days of the 1980′s. In 1997, in the midst of a strong stock market, you could hop in a radio car and hear the driver moan about how things really roared in the 1980′s.

But it’s hard to keep all those dollars bottled up. Quiet chatter about diligent work has given way to smooth conversation about private jets and second homes.

Once again, the city is no longer shy about embracing wealth. Reminders of an earlier, more dangerous era are eerily prevalent. The Metropolitan Opera is premiering The Great Gatsby . The Talented Mr. Ripley , derivative of Gatsby , is on the big screen. And, of course, the stock market is feeling much like it did back in the 20′s.

Most notably, the roaring 90′s have captured a class previously unable to participate in the market’s riches. The chattering class–the writers, the editors, the information professionals–finds itself in high demand. In an information economy, many of the information providers are getting rich, too.

Even an editor like myself finds himself trying to figure out what stock options are all about. It used to be we journalists could all safely talk about the rich with some distant disdain. Sure, the television types and the odd book author would manage to knock down a couple mil, but that group would inevitably move to the outside of the conversation, becoming a target like those who had “gone over to the other side” to become corporate flacks. Now, however, it’s getting tougher to sort out the suffering scribe from the newly paper-rich journalist. Instead of meeting at the Blarney Stone, folks want to meet at the “21″ Club or some other ossified place that charges too much for the same bourbon on ice.

I wonder how long the recent fire hose of happiness will continue dousing financial journalists. Someday, the argument goes, the stock market will tumble, the massive demand for financial writers will dissipate, and the journalists will retreat to their cool damp corners like roaches in a newly lighted room. Until then, journalists will continue to grumble about how all of this stock market cash isn’t right. Journalists may be getting more dough, but they still enjoy carping about that half-empty glass.

I’m left thinking about the investment banker, my enriched journalist friend and the others finding stock in their stockings. I think what grinds me up is that in this time of peace and goodwill toward men, we’re increasingly focusing on what others have that we don’t.

It’s a Christmas of unrequited greed, which is not what you’d expect in an era as flush as the 1990′s. Maybe things will be different a thousand years from now.

Dave Kansas is editor in chief of TheStreet.com.