If you are standing still while others are getting richer, are you in fact getting poorer?
This question might be considered New York Zen, a modern, urban riff on the age-old "If a tree falls in a forest" koan, except that in 1999 New York, this question may indeed have an answer, even if the poverty in question is only in our minds.
We're nearing the end of the greatest stock-market boom in world history, and as the Dow has marched from around 2,500 in 1991 to 11,000, the Myth of the Roaring Nineties has developed. Unlike the insidery, elitist, Boesky-remote eighties boom, this was supposed to be our day in the sun. They called it the People's Boom. It was a market run of, by, and for the "little guy," which crept "from Wall Street to Main Street," as we heard all too often. In the nineties, everyone got in the game.
Never mind that most of us got in the game -- to the degree we did at all -- simply by channeling off a tiny bit of our biweekly paychecks into some stodgy blue-chip fund for our retirement. The Myth quickly centered on the Jed Clampetts of nasdaq, the neophytes -- or "newbies," in the current day-trader terminology -- who struck oil with the ease of a keystroke on Datek. These days, the air is thick with stories of the florist who abandoned her day job to pull down $150,000 a year day-trading, or the Jersey kids who left college and sold out their Website for millions, or most notably, the 32-year-old journalist -- journalist! -- who went from futon-living to Roger Clemens's income bracket the day his company went public.
In this climate, we've incessantly been told, everyone could get rich.
Except that not everyone did get rich. Few people I know even felt the heady rush of life inside the Boom. A friend of mine, a successful publishing executive, wears Hugo Boss suits and summers at an East Hampton rental. Still, there's something missing: "I've got a cousin up in New Hampshire who bought eBay at like $8, and it went up to, whatever, $164 overnight. Meanwhile, my wife and I have been sitting on the side, keeping our money in these safe, boring investments, trying to hoard enough for a down payment on a place on the Upper West Side. But the apartments that we're looking at have gone up 40 percent in the past year. By the time we can afford the down payment, we can't afford the apartment. Now my wife and I are like, 'What happened?' We feel like the Boom's almost over, the crash has got to come one of these days, and we just missed it."
Does he feel envy or resentment?
"No, I don't feel resentment," he says firmly. Then he stops. Reconsiders. "Well, envy? Maybe. Yes, I feel envy. It's like, 'Where were we while all this was going on?' "
Of course, stocks as a whole are far from dead. Lately, guys on Wall Street Week have even begun talking about a Dow 40,000 with a straight face. But what suddenly feels as if it's on life support is the definitive nineties dream, the vision of overnight wealth without work.
The people who feel left out of the whole mania are something of a new subclass. They're ambitious people from good schools with good jobs who assumed, back when the nineties started, that they would just sort of matriculate into the upper middle class, only to find that the Boom changed the rules of entry. First, the reality of the Boom changed the price of housing, which is any New Yorker's clearest prism through which to view his own success in life. The confidence that didn't get splattered when we had to downsize our housing dreams were further diminished when the very definitions of the words wealth and success started to change the way we looked at ourselves. We became, somehow, members of a new silent majority. A "majority" as a matter of basic mathematics -- only 28 percent of Americans have more than $10,000 in the market -- and "silent" for an even more basic reason: We feel just a little bit stupid.