The subject is money -- big money.
''Who Reallym Makes Money in Sports?'' demands the cover of Esquire. And there , right at the end of the question mark, huddle the heads of Dave Winfield of the New York Yankees, Gary Carter of the Montreal Expos, and Mike Schmidt of the Philadelphia Phillies, who will be paid a total of $5,300,000 this summer for their ability to hit a baseball with a bat, very hard. (Carter alone will earn, if you will pardon the verb, $2.2 million.)
''Rich Rich Rich Rich Rich Rich Rich'' screams the headline stretching across the top of the page in the fashion weekly W. The story below informs the reader that Calvin Klein -- the man, not the company -- will pull in $15 million this year. His fellow designer Ralph Lauren will have to struggle by on $12 million.
There are details about what is called their ''Byzantine lifestyle'' that ought to leave poor Gary Carter crying for his safety net. When Lauren wants to fly from New York to his home in Jamaica, or perhaps the two houses he is building on several thousand acres in Colorado, he simply hops into his $6.5 million Hawker Siddeley jet.
''Why, that's more than I paid for my house,'' we can hear you gasp.
''Who Makes What,'' Boston magazine promises on its cover, adding: ''A Gourmet Guide to the Fattest Salaries in Town.'' For ten pages the figures will spill out expansively, starting with the chairman of the board of a high-technology holding company who makes $2,185,605 a year.
Listings are arranged under such categories as Arts and Education as well as Business, allowing the curious to learn that Seiji Ozawa earns $233,216 for conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, while Derek Bok makes $74,449 for being president of Harvard -- less than the presidents of Boston University, MIT , Brandeis, Northeastern, and Bentley College, not to mention one of his own deans as well as the vice-president for alumni affairs of Harvard University.
It seems cruelly insensitive, but the more you read about unemployment and bankruptcy these days, the more you read about big money too.
Call it the Marie Antoinette syndrome.
The New York Times reports on the rage for luxury lingerie -- silk satin nightgowns, priced at $250.
The Wall Street Journal announces that quail eggs are big in Greenwich Village.
There is, it seems, nothing like somebody else's recession to sharpen one's sweet tooth. Godiva chocolates have multiplied in sales 900 percent since 1978. The manufacturer is now introducing ice cream at $5 a pint. Neiman-Marcus cannot keep up with the demand for ''Jelly Belly'' jelly beans at $10 for one pound three ounces, sold in a glass jar.
As Fats Waller used to ask his audiences from time to time in the course of a tune, ''I wonder what the poor people are doin' tonight.''
Maybe saving up $6 or so to buy a ticket to ''Annie.''
Well, poor Columbia Pictures has to do something to recoup the $50 million it has sunk so far, counting the advertising.
But what an odd way to spend the summer of '82 -- watching a comic-strip fantasy about an American multimillionaire!
We can't devise a federal budget. The national deficit just keeps rolling along. And yet we appear to be inexhaustibly charmed by this unjust, inflated, tattered-paper stuff: money.
Do we really think that money makes Gary Carter ten times as interesting as the conductor of the Boston Symphony, or Calvin Klein 200 times as important as the president of Harvard?
At times like these, the ever-present price tag on American life is a bit of a comedy that can make you laugh until you cry.