Poor little rich girls and boys

Of course I know intellectually that the New York Times Style section exists solely in order to fill libertarians with existential disgust about the shallow, grasping lives that the free market enables its more successful denizens to lead. But even so, I was unable to control my visceral repulsion at the people described in this article who are--everyone got a hanky?--having to pare back their multimillion dollar lifestyles to a few paltry million a year.

These financial problems — if they can be called that — will hardly elicit tears from the rest of us. But in those gilded living rooms, there is a quiet nervousness about keeping up appearances.

“Even if they’re not in danger of not paying their mortgage, there’s still a psychological change,” said Chris Del Gatto, chief executive of Circa, which has watched its business jump by 50 percent in the last year as wealthy clients sell their spare diamonds and Rolexes. “The economy is an issue even for people who don’t need the money.”

THEIR spouses could leave them when they discover that their net worth has collapsed to eight figures from nine. Friends and business associates could avoid them as they pass their lunchtime tables at Barney’s or the Four Seasons. And these snubs could trickle down to their children.

“They fear their kids won’t get invited to the right birthday parties,” said Michele Kleier, an Upper East Side-based real estate broker. “If they have to give up things that are invisible, they’re O.K. as long as they don’t have give up things visible to the outside world.”

. . . wealthy clients are cutting luxuries that they think their friends and relatives won’t notice, according to Mr. Del Gatto of Circa. At Circa’s midtown offices, he said, the seven consultation rooms have been busy with customers selling their precious gems. Some older couples, he said, are selling estate jewelry to help support their children who have lost Wall Street jobs. Bankers are paring down their collections of Patek Philippe watches. Wives from Greenwich and Scarsdale are selling 2-carat to 35-carat single-stone diamond rings. One recent client explained to Mr. Del Gatto that she was selling $2 million in diamonds she rarely wore, because her friends wouldn’t notice that they were gone.

“She said, ‘If I sold my Bentley or my important art, they would notice,’ ” he said. “That we hear, in differing examples, every day.”

I went to school with a fair sample of the most obnoxiously rich people in the country. I don't remember anyone saying to their parents, "No, I don't want Emily at my birthday party--her father's bonus dropped 90% this year." I have also lived my life under the impression that friends are the people who know when you're in trouble. In fact, I've always thought that that was one of the main joys of having friends. It's not as if anyone's unaware that there's a quasi-recession going on.

But the saddest thing is that it matters so much that other people think that they make crazy amounts of money. I understand why people might want to present a show of strength for business reasons, but c'mon--this stuff isn't secret. Bonuses are well known, company financials are public, or known to the investors, and it's hard to hide it when a real estate goes sour. Still, they lie, because they think that not making millions of dollars is shameful. It's one thing to lie about your finances because you blew it on craps and crystal meth, but because of an economic slowdown?

This is when I start flirting with the Megan Tax, which is a special tax for people who have too much money. "Too much" does not refer to any particular sum, but rather to the effect on the possessor: Larry Ellison clearly has too much money, just as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs clearly do not. Mostly it comes down to how much of your income you spend in order to show people how much money you can spend. I sometimes therefore toy with the idea that the purchase of certain objects, like $20,000 Hermes handbags, should trigger the Megan Tax, where the government takes half your money because you plainly have too much. The purpose is not retribution, nor redistribution. It is entirely paternalistic.

Appearances in Style section articles like this one have just been added to the mental list of ridiculous luxuries which should trigger the Megan Tax.