On the cover of the current New Yorker, three casually dressed men are gathered around a tree, bushel baskets in hand and megawatt smiles on their faces. Who can blame them? For this isn't just any tree. It's the rarest of botanical species, a money tree. Dollar bills in varying denominations float from its branches and cover the ground, just waiting to be scooped up and spent or invested.
The scene serves as a fanciful lead-in to a special edition of the magazine called the Money Issue. Articles, cartoons, and ads all revolve around the timeliest of subjects: the almighty dollar. What a perfect way to capture the current all-money-all-the-time mood of 21st-century America.
One article profiles John Falcon, a struggling performance artist who won $45 million in the New York State lottery. After realizing he held the winning Lotto ticket, Mr. Falcon left his office at Harcourt Brace publishers, where he worked as a software formatter, never to return. When his boss called a week or two later to ask if he would come in briefly because she was short-staffed, he refused. "Are you crazy?" he asked indignantly. "I'm never getting up that early again!"
So much for generosity of spirit.
Elsewhere, the magazine's film critic, David Denby, recounts his efforts to become a Wall Street millionaire in a single year. "I have decided that I want - I need - to make a million dollars in the stock market this year," he writes, conceding that "greed becomes a way of life."
As if to encourage people like Mr. Denby, an investment-firm ad in the same issue carries the headline, "The first half-million is the hardest." It explains that investors with $500,000 can qualify for "customized asset management," a perk not available to the less well heeled. In similar vein, an ad for E*TRADE says, "Trying to make money is only half the fun. No ... that's pretty much it."
Ah, the joys of life in a windfall society, where greed lives and the unwritten imperative is: You're a success only if you go to bed richer than when you woke up.
By coincidence, the same week that the Money Issue arrived in the mail, the Discovery Channel aired a fascinating documentary on a primitive Amazon tribe whose moneyless culture has remained unchanged for centuries.
For members of the tribe, life centers around the basics of survival - food and shelter. Yet their tribal values remain strong. Family ties are close. There is laughter. The birth of a baby is cause for major celebration and dancing. Children are cherished. Aggression is almost unknown.
No one wants to trade places with them, of course. But their apparent serenity makes a viewer wonder: Would money make them happier?
Money has traditionally been the most private subject for Americans. Now reticence is giving way to braggadocio as investors gloat about their successes and trade sympathetic stories about the stock they sold too soon or the tip that came too late.
It's enough to make conservative investors - or noninvestors - feel somehow deficient. To be "risk-averse" is to become an object of pity. Not to be able to drop the phrase "my broker says" into casual conversation is to be left out of the loop, lacking an essential status symbol.
Yet in the midst of all this bullish prosperity and heady talk about the New Economy, certain Old Priorities remain urgent. Earth Day, for instance, came and went on Saturday with a minimum of attention. With a collective yawn, a nation fixated on the Dow Jones seemed to ask: The environment? Is that still an issue?
And then there is that other Old Priority, helping the working poor, for whom investing remains an impossible dream. For them, a single wish might prevail: If only scientists could clone that money tree on The New Yorker cover and spread the New Economy wealth to those without portfolio.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society