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Commentary: The Summer Of Wretched Excess


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COMMENTARY: THE SUMMER OF WRETCHED EXCESS

"The institution of a leisure class is found in its best development at the higher stages of the barbarian culture..."

-Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class

Do you have a personal jeweler? Does the nanny bubble deeply trouble you? Are you braving a tear-down (demolishing that 20,000-square-foot perfectly nice house to put up a 40,000-square-foot edifice that is more truly "you")? Do you believe $1,000 to dine with President Clinton chez Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger is small change--less than the price of a suit, after all? And do you have both a Land Rover with a black steel ramming grill in front plus a Porsche Boxter in your garage (O.K., maybe a cute new Beetle, too, for your daughter who attends the Dalton School)?

You probably do if you're among the glittering classes that summer in the Hamptons, that cozy east end of Long Island that is so awash in money this season that it makes the Reagan years look downright bourgeois. There, people are being driven to a beastly frenzy of conspicuous consumption not seen since--uh-oh--the crazy days of the late '20s, just before the crash.RELIGIOUS FERVOR. Which is probably the reason for all that religious fervor. Not the formal kind, although having your own spiritual adviser is a kind of personal statement among the billionaire set these days. Religion in the Hamptons means repeating "thank God for Alan Greenspan" at every party, every polo game, and every benefit. It's the mantra of money in this summer of glut.

On the opposite coast, Silicon Valley is also going through its own money madness--with starter houses going for a million bucks. It seems that there are nearly as many money managers in the valley as there are software writers. But nowhere in the U.S. is the excess as palpable and visible as on the streets of East Hampton. Thanks to the bonus bonanza from Wall Street and the media boom in Manhattan, a money-to-burn milieu defines the moment.

And it's not just about the made-to-order tofu fudge and the carrot-tofu birthday cakes--this year's culinary rage. Nor is it only about the 9-year-olds on the tennis court talking on cell phones to Mom doing her Pilates stretches at the gym or the 66,000-square-foot single-family house--even bigger than Bill Gates's domicile--rising out of the potato fields in Sagaponack.

No, the real symbol of this summer's zeitgeist is the servants. Not that they are called that. Little Johnny and Jennifer each has a personal trainer. So do Mommy and Daddy. "My massage therapist," "my nutritionist, "my chiro (chiropractor)." You hear it in restaurants, at the movies, on the streets. "My," "my," "my." It's the service society gone mad.

Yet, all is not perfect in this monied paradise. Beneath the gloss, there is an edginess. "When will it end?" is heard as much as "Is that Martha Stewart?" Meaning, when will the stock market bubble burst? The anxiety shimmers in the hot beach sun. No one actually says it out loud, but the question is always there: If the market goes, how in the world will I pay for that enormous house? The cars? The lessons? The clubs? How will I remain a dues-paying member of the leisure class?

Truth is, no one really believes the party can continue much beyond the hot summer days. They worry that inflation will finally force Greenspan to raise interest rates. Or that the soaring trade deficit will kill the dollar and send foreign capital packing. Or that Asian deflation will take the air out of growth. Any of it, all of it, can send the market down 20%--maybe more. There's a gnawing fear among those whose wealth came in a sudden flash that it can disappear the same way. That makes them jittery, jumping in and out of the market, only to run right back in because the damn Dow doesn't stop rising.

So, the people bravely party on. The extravagant benefits with chandeliers adorning giant tents, the networking, the dancing, the celebrity shoulder-rubbing. It's splendid. It's exciting. It's like that other Long Island party that Gatsby threw in the '20s, waiting to end badly.By Bruce Nussbaum


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