THE MONEY SOCIETY How much does he make? How big was the deal? What did they pay for their house . . . their boat . . . their painting? Money seems to be the only thing that counts these days. Here's why.
By Myron Magnet REPORTER ASSOCIATE Barbara Hetzer

(FORTUNE Magazine) – MONEY, MONEY, MONEY is the incantation of today. Bewitched by an epidemic of money enchantment, Americans in the Eighties wriggle in a St. Vitus's dance of materialism unseen since the Gilded Age or the Roaring Twenties. Under the blazing sun of money, all other values shine palely. And the M&A decade acclaims but one breed of hero: He's the honcho with the condo and the limo and the Miro and lots and lots of dough. The evidence is everywhere you turn. Open the scarlet covers of the Saks Fifth Avenue Christmas catalogue, for starters, and look at what Santa offers today's young family, from Dad's $1,650 ostrich-skin briefcase and Mom's $39,500 fur coat to Junior's $4,000, 15-mph miniature Mercedes, driven by a 5- year-old Donald Trump look-alike in pleated evening shirt, studs, and red suspenders. Take a stroll along Manhattan's Madison Avenue and gape at the Arabian Nights' bazaar of shop windows, where money translates life's commonest objects into rarities rich and strange. Behold embroidery-encrusted sheets fine enough for the princess and the pea, or ladies' shoes as fanciful and elaborate as any that artisans painstakingly toiled over when Marie Antoinette graced the throne, or sumptuous lace underwear that makes the inconspicuous yet another arena for conspicuous consumption and adds the charm of wealth to the ordinariness of seduction. Visit Bijan, the temple of excess on Rodeo Drive and Fifth Avenue, and pick up five matched crocodile suitcases for $75,000 -- yes, thousand -- perhaps to be filled with business shirts at $550 and $650 apiece. Statistics tell the same glitzy story as the evidence of your senses. Luxury car imports more than doubled between 1982 and 1986, while the average age of the growing hordes of first-time fur coat owners has fallen from a matronly 50 to a yuppier 26 in ten years. An overwhelming 93% of recently surveyed teenage girls deemed shopping their favorite pasttime, way ahead of sixth-rated dating. Back in 1967, around 40% of U.S. college freshmen told pollsters that it was important to them to be very well off financially, as against around 80% who listed developing a meaningful philosophy of life as an important objective. But by 1986 the numbers had reversed, with almost 80% aspiring plutocrats as against 40% philosophers. The number and wealth of the rich have swollen accordingly, with U.S. millionaires proliferating sixfold over the last 20 years to around 1.3 million souls today. The richest 1% of Americans, who owned 31.8% of the national wealth in 1963, had upped their share to an even heftier 34.4% of it two decades later. But you needn't be rich to catch the money fever -- as witness those 26 million middle-class Americans, mostly earning under $40,000 a year, who treat themselves to such badges of affluence as $380 Burberry raincoats and $200 Mont Blanc pens, in the process raising consumer debt to its highest level ever. Their children have the bug too: In many high schools, they roll up to the senior prom in limousines, rented at $250 for the night. So many high schoolers work such long hours at after-school jobs that teachers have been going easier on homework assignments. ''Saving for college?'' you ask approvingly. Nope. Most of these earnings go for stereos, cars, trendy clothes, and the other material trappings of modern kid life.

As the stock market roared upward in the 1920s, securities and investing turned from being topics not discussed before ladies to the centerpieces of the politest dinner table conversation. Today we obsessively talk about money almost nonstop: how much they paid for their house, their boat, their painting; how big the deal was; how much this one makes -- and that one and that one. We read about it too, not just in Judith Krantz sex-and-shopping novels but in magazines that author Tom Wolfe lumps together as plutography, the graphic depiction of the acts of the rich. Peep into their windows in Architectural Digest, admire their indulgences in Town & Country or Connoisseur, eavesdrop on their gossip in Vanity Fair. Or tune in to the same fare on TV, from the wildly successful Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous to the goings-on of their fictional counterparts on Dallas or Dynasty and its clones. Says veteran Washington hostess Oatsie Charles: ''It's hard for the young to realize how much things have changed. I don't remember in my lifetime being so conscious of money.'' And what people won't do for it. Forget about televangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker and their squandered millions: Magnified by TV, they've only expanded on an old American tradition, rather than inventing something new. But John Walker Jr., the spy, seems entirely an emanation of our own age. Previous spies -- the Rosenbergs, say -- turned traitors out of conviction, however contemptibly deluded. Walker, by contrast, corrupted his family and betrayed his country for nothing but money. And what about wellborn Sydney Biddle Barrows, the Mayflower Madam? Add to vice a dash of marketing flair and managerial skill, and -- poof -- you're an entrepreneurial culture hero like Steven Jobs, welcome at the dinner tables of the fashionable and selling as many entrepreneur's-true-confessions books as a more upstanding competitor like T. Boone Pickens. ALL THIS, however, isn't a call to repent for the end is nigh. Modern materialism doesn't mean that America is hopelessly mired in corruption, despite some luminous instances of it, including those on Wall Street. A portion of the money furor has a healthy impulse at its base, and most of it grows naturally out of big changes in American life. Some of the excesses of the money craze will moderate as the circumstances causing them shift. Others are deeply rooted in the basic facts of modern life -- and it's there that you'll have to look if you seek to change them. In an earlier age, a whole generation had its attitudes, its very feelings, formed by the Depression. Though a much less spectacular or painful event, the inflation of the Seventies similarly sank into the marrow of many Americans. Saving and shunning debt was for saps, the lesson seemed to be; buy, buy, buy, before the money visibly crumbling to dust in your hand vanishes completely. Harvard Business School Professor Samuel Hayes III describes what happened to one of his elderly relatives: ''He was the epitome of the Protestant ethic. He had inherited money, he had saved, he was very frugal, had a very modest house, had part of his investment money in bonds and short-term securities, had always maintained liquidity. And he came out of the Seventies looking like a fool. The people who had frittered away their money, as we would say, on elaborate homes and material possessions were laughing all the way to the bank.'' Not just economic values but also moral ones got turned upside down by the inflation, in other words, and in the process the moral and the economic orders seemed to pull apart. Like a host of lucky Pierres unaccountably embraced by the Fates, people who had bought houses simply for shelter suddenly found themselves much richer than their neighbors who hadn't. That, along with the fortunes made by more calculating speculators, led many to feel that, as in a lottery, one's economic fate bore little relation to one's hard work or self-denial or contribution to human well-being. Compounding the sense of the injustice of the economic order was the spectacle of a Sheik Yamani lecturing the West on discipline and restraint, while his countrymen, inflation's accessories and No. 1 beneficiaries, gorged on every luxury that only the West and Japan had the skill and industry to produce. Europeans might have turned resentful. Americans had a different, purely American, response. Says James Kouzes, director of Santa Clara University's Executive Development Center: ''When other people are achieving certain things, you feel, 'How come not me? I'm entitled.' Some of the feeling of entitlement comes from the feeling that we all ought to be treated fairly.'' The practical expression of that sense of entitlement turned out to be a sharper money hunger and materialism. Don't forget that inflation made these impulses eminently realistic. You had to wonder whether you would have the things you had always expected to be able to earn -- a home, college for your kids, a non-poorhouse retirement. Kouzes, for instance, says he couldn't afford to buy from his mother the suburban Washington house he grew up in -- a house his father had afforded on a mid-level civil servant's income. ''So,'' says he, ''it's real hard not to focus on making a lot more than I'm now making.'' WHAT INFLATION started in the Seventies, the corporate restructuring of the Eighties completed. However necessary for improving U.S. competitiveness in a newly global marketplace, the plant closings and headquarters shutdowns, the givebacks and two-tier wage scales imposed on production workers, the purges of middle managers that followed bust-ups, mergers, and slim-downs -- all these stunned not only victims but also survivors, suffusing them with insecurity. Every man for himself was the implicit message; if you don't look out for No. 1, you can bet no one else will. Certainly not the top guys in your company: Spurred by their own fear of takeover, they often seem too busy protecting their own interests to attend to yours or the corporation's. Young people, in particular, took this lesson to heart. Roderick Gilkey, a psychologist who teaches management at the Emory Business School in Atlanta, says that students who are children of purged managers have been especially anxious to go out and make as much money as they can, to ensure a cushion for the hard times they see as inevitable. But even in students personally unaffected by the restructuring he sees a ''desperate, worried flight to get on the train before it leaves -- a sort of window-of-opportunity mentality that you've got to grab it while you can.'' Part of what makes the materialism of the Eighties different from that of the Fifties is this edge of anxiety. Says Senior Vice President Ann Clurman of the Yankelovich Clancy Shulman market research firm: ''The 1950s sense was, 'If I play by all the rules, I'll make it up the economic ladder rung by rung.' Now it's more like, 'I'm not sure I'm going to win even if I play by all the rules.' '' Meanwhile, watching the investment bankers who preside over the restructuring wallow so conspicuously in money, observers feel the same sense of unfairness and entitlement they felt when speculators made fortunes from the inflation of the Seventies. Whether they think, wrongly, that the restructuring is nothing but unproductive paper shuffling or, more accurately, that the Glass-Steagall Act gives investment bankers a windfall that a free market would withhold, they perceive the fees as undeserved -- whereas they don't begrudge Steven Jobs his fortune, earned by producing something of tangible value. Under the slightly Frankensteinian toupee of junk bond alchemist Michael Milken, they know, bubbles a redoubtable brain; but is it an organ worth the half billion dollars it has earned? They doubt it. And discovering that insider trading has helped make some of the Wall Street money only fans their sense of inequity and entitlement. THE CORPORATE restructuring isn't just an economic change. It is also a social change, transforming the relationships between individuals and their employers. Altered sometimes unrecognizably, cut loose from their traditions, no longer able to offer long-term career commitment, old companies can inspire neither attachment nor loyalty in employees. ''What we're living in now is an age of Hessians,'' says University of Rhode Island historian Maury Klein, biographer of robber baron Jay Gould. A realignment like this cuts people adrift from the traditional moorings by which they identify themselves, as do other of our era's social and cultural changes, from family breakdown to the newfangled relations between the sexes to the continuing attenuation of community ties. What has this to do with the money craze? Everything. Says historian Klein, ''Money tends to be more or less important in an age, depending on the degree of turbulence and social change that is taking place.'' Like the rapidly urbanizing and industrializing era of the robber barons, Klein says, ours is ''an age where traditional self-identities are under great attack and great strain just from the pace of change. In that situation, money becomes a way of defining who you are by what you have.'' That way of defining a self is rampant in the money society. Classic cases seem shoulder to pin-striped shoulder on Wall Street, where it's worth looking for the full-blown symptoms of a malady widespread in the society as a whole. ''Wall Streeters heavily look on their self-worth by their W-2,'' says the vice president in charge of compensation at a major Wall Street firm. And they look at others that way, too. ''I think people are being measured again by money rather than by how good a journalist or social activist or lawyer they are,'' says an investment banker at a prestigious New York firm. Explains one representative Wall Streeter, a managing director in the corporate finance wing of a major commercial bank: ''What differentiates you and says you're successful is the house in the Hamptons and the Ferrari in the driveway.'' As a result, this banker is continually comparing himself with others to make sure he's okay. He schmoozes about compensation to try to determine if he makes more or less than the person he's talking to. But such conversations can be inconclusive, so when he visits friends or business acquaintances he's continually sizing up the towels, the cars, the silver, with practically an auctioneer's eye, to see what he's worth by comparison. Told by his wife that friends were drinking out of Baccarat glasses, more expensive than his Waterford ones, he demanded to know why she hadn't bought Baccarat, too. ''It frightens me to be sensitive to the idea that my neighbor just got a big-screen TV that's three inches bigger than mine,'' says the banker. ''But that's something I look at. Or I know the guy got $100,000 more in his compensation package last year than I did. Why should that bother me? Can I spend it? Do I need it? Do I want it? Only because I want to make more than him. I think the stress and internal turmoil that creates in most of us is unhealthy.'' FOR THIS is an endless and unwinnable competition, even on purely economic terms. Says Harvard professor of political economy Robert Reich: ''When everybody is buying into the same status objects, such as the house in the Hamptons or the co-op on the East Side, they balloon in price, so it costs more and more to achieve relative status. It becomes a fruitless exercise after a while. That is part of the cycle of disillusionment that sets in.'' Out of this phenomenon came a recent, and notorious, New York Times story about investment bankers feeling poor on $600,000 a year -- a story that investment bankers, without irony, earnestly assure you is true. More important, this is an unwinnable game psychologically. Like an addiction, it requires higher and higher doses for the same thrill. Psychoanalysts find that many money addicts are children of parents too preoccupied, overworked, or withdrawn to respond with the appropriate oohs and ahs to baby's smiles and antics. The children consequently never stop looking for the withheld applause and pleased response, and money helps them get it -- even takes the place of it, as a sign of the employer's pleasure and approval. But, says Dr. Arnold Goldberg, a Chicago psychoanalyst, ''The ante always goes up because the need is never satisfied. The kid wants a human response; money is a nonhuman response.'' Some of these people, rich and successful, end up in Goldberg's office complaining that their life has no purpose. Worse, those cashoholics who fail to get their needed infusion of money, according to Dr. , Jay Rohrlich, a psychiatrist with offices in the heart of Wall Street, become agitated, anxious, combative, and depressed, like addicts deprived of their fix. TROUBLE IS, money is only money. ''There's a kind of bewilderment over what sources can be drawn upon to provide money with a sense of distinction, purpose, or value,'' says Hilton Kramer, editor of The New Criterion, a cultural review. The very rich have a smorgasbord of strategies. There's the high society route. Says Lazard Freres partner Felix Rohatyn: ''Today you can essentially buy social status immediately, with all the trimmings.'' That's because in the Eighties the old rich increasingly seem to take their cue from the new rich, rather than vice versa. Presumably that's because they like the glamour and glitz. ''Social status today involves an enormous amount of publicity and a certain level of stardom,'' says Rohatyn. ''We've become Beverly Hills.'' Or you can try to cloak yourself in the authority and solidity of the old regime. Here on the cover of the home entertaining section of the New York Times Magazine is dress designer Carolyne Roehm, wife of investment banker Henry Kravis of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, the leveraged buyout kings. In sweeping floor-length gown, she's just getting ready for a dinner party for 18 in an opulent dining room so perfect in every detail of its superb antique furniture and breathtaking 18th- and 19th-century paintings that it looks like a stage set or a model room in a museum. Add to this that she's displaying it all on a magazine cover and vaporing inside about how ''in college, when traditions went asunder, we all dined in blue jeans on the floor,'' and you can't help thinking that while some girls play house, this lady is playing castle. On a more demotic level, the Gatsby-like clothes and advertisements of designer Ralph Lauren, along with his baronial New York store in a mansion refurbished to look as if the original tycoon still lives there, have the same intent of using the outward trappings of a vanished order to appropriate its rootedness and dignity. Finally, there's the way of art. ''In this whole materialist explosion, an interest in art represents an interest in spirit,'' says Hilton Kramer. So urgent is this spiritual interest that the prices of paintings have rocketed in the last five years, with a Jasper Johns recently selling for $3.6 million. Some dignitaries of the money society buy pictures because of the status art confers; others really get to care about it. What then is one to make of that patron of the arts Saul Steinberg, chairman of Reliance Group Holdings, sometime greenmailer, and recently host to a gathering of such writers as Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg? What does he think when he walks in his door after a hard day at the office and sees, first thing, his Francis Bacon triptych? On one side a naked man throws up into a sink; on the other, a naked man strains on a toilet; in the middle, grotesque and half hidden, a third naked figure casts a batwinged, demonic, and loathsome shadow ominously across the floor. Who knows what these images might say to Steinberg of life in high finance? All this is what is really meant by the word ''lifestyle'' -- more superficial style than rooted, meaningful life. And the point of these examples is not that the money society has triumphantly driven out all the solid, estimable values, like the shaggy barbarians at the gates of Rome. Rather, the money society has expanded to fill the vacuum left after the institutions that embodied and nourished those values -- community, religion, school, university, and especially family -- sagged or collapsed or sometimes even self-destructed. Now we live in a world where all values are relative, equal, and therefore without authority, truly matters of mere style. Says Dee Hock, former chief of the Visa bank-card operation: ''It's not that people value money more but that they value everything else so much less -- not that they are more greedy but that they have no other values to keep greed in check. They don't know what else to value.'' Or as University of Pennsylvania sociologist E. Digby Baltzell puts it: ''When there are no values, money counts.'' Editorialists who recently have been haranguing the young to give up all this soulless materialism and return to the commitment of the Sixties have got it exactly wrong. That ''commitment,'' with its heavy charge of destructive anger and protest, ultimately helped bleed the value out of existing institutions, giving them their present zombielike character. Many who chose the materialist life were consciously rejecting the Sixties and their legacy of destructiveness and nihilism. They were trying to choose the solid bourgeois existence of home and hearth and work that the Sixties had jeered down as worthless. But after the mutilation of so many of the values that in the past had given that life its meaningfulness and security, many who opted $ for it discovered that little more than an empty shell was left for them. That this life should end up being only one more ''lifestyle'' is really what the problem of the money society is all about.