New Economy, New Millionaires, New Rules

Maybe it’s just me. But as I emerge from a three-month period of self-imposed hibernation-writing a screenplay-it seems to me that the world has changed.

It’s not just that Jennifer Lopez has thrown down an interesting gauntlet for those of you who are competing in the “least dressed” category in the Oscars. Or that I held two of the 485,000 credit card numbers that were ripped off from what I suspect was the Barnes & Noble Web site earlier this year. Or even, somehow, that the contributions I made to Bill Bradley’s campaign last October now seem like a lost, disappointing, quixotic dream. Rather, as I emerge from this period of isolation, I now find myself in the position of discovering that the primary topic of conversation in America has changed.

It’s not health insurance, it’s not politics-and it’s surely not anything as amusing as the question: “How many Pakistanis can you pack into a Staten Island living room at $1,000 a head under the guise of influencing Bill Clinton’s foreign policy, before Hillary will show up, scam the cash, and have her spokespeople announce that ‘this had nothing to do with influencing foreign policy.’”

No, it’s none of these things.

Instead, as I step into the daylight of early spring, it seems to me that Topic A-no, make that Topics A, B, C, D-through-Z, these days, comes down to one simple word: money.

Every conversation I have with friends in journalism sooner or later becomes “Where did I go wrong?” or “How do I cash in?”

Every time I play poker with my friends in the legal profession, the conversation wavers from rage to jealousy to gloating, depending on when someone bought or sold AOL. And then falls into endless speculation about how much cash one needs today to feel truly secure. (The March 2000 figure was $10 million-up from $7.5 million last October.)

And then there was the dinner party I attended where I sat next to an actress who spent 45 minutes informing me about how her well-paid C.E.O. husband had just quit his job and left for Beijing, where he intends to start an Internet company and return home in six months with $100 million in his pocket-in the middle of which, apropos of nothing, she took a breath and asked: “So tell me. How much money do you make per week on a movie rewrite?”

Yes, something has changed. And it rounds out the three absolute truths of our age: Sooner or later, all Internet chat groups and all second-rate art devolves into calling someone Hitler. Sooner or later, all magazines devolve into Playboy : girls, gadgets, charts, graphs and lots of fatuous celebrity interviews. And sooner or later, all adult discourse devolves into a fugue about money, with the major variations on the theme being real estate, stocks and the cost of upscale Manhattan living.

With that in mind, I’ve decided that what’s required here is a new etiquette. A new set of guidelines for public discourse, in this age of outrageous fortune.

1. Thou Shalt Not Be Jerry Seinfeld. Translation. Don’t be gauche. One should not cruise by summer houses or other men’s wives saying, “How much will it take them to move? Thirty million? Forty?” Similarly, when invited to dinner, one should not take out a roll of cash, and remark, “Nice rug. How much?”

2. Thou Shalt Have No False Idols Before Me. Resist the temptation to invoke the names Henry Blodgett, Mary Meeker or Jessica Reif-Cohen in domestic disputes. They will not get the dog walked, balance the checkbook, or make the cab come any faster.

3. Thou Shalt Not Tempt Fate. Thirty-five years ago at the height of Psychedelia, it was amusing to inflict one’s children with names like Sunshine, Flower and Dylan. Trust me: Thirty-five years from now, children named Case, Ipo and Nasdaq will be equally resentful.

4. Thou Shalt Not Worship at the House of Ferrari. C’mon. Just admit it. Even Enzo Ferrari himself looked like an asshole driving a Ferrari. O.K.?

5. Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Stock Options. It’s easy to feel worthless in un-I.P.O.-able, non-dot-com jobs like teaching or police work. Two words: bubble economy. Two more: Plant tulips.

6. Thou Shalt Not Impose Thy Idiot Offspring on Friends and Family. From 1929 to 1993, millionaire Daddy underwrote Junior’s first novel. From 1994 to 1999, it was his (or her) first film. Now, in 2000, it’s their first Internet start-up company. I’ve received four solicitations to invest in these things during the past month, proving yet another axiom of our age: Late to the party, when it seems like any idiot can make a fortune, every idiot will try. Save your friendships. Save your friends’ money. Pity Junior, but do not invest with a 23-year-old whose I.Q. hovers around Visa’s monthly interest rate.

7. Thou Shalt Remember That Even The Wall Street Journal Observes the Sabbath. It’s Saturday. Give it a rest, pal.

8. Thou Shalt Temper Thy Irrational Exuberance. Remember, not everyone is worth $100 million. Throwing your money around at temples, churches, preschools and country clubs will ultimately not endear you to the admissions committee, God or a Park Avenue co-op board.

9. Repent, Before It’s Too Late. As Balzac said, “Behind every great fortune, there is a crime.”

What’s yours?