My neighbor at dinner, a hedge-fund manager originally from Texas, was emphatic.
"If your only identity is in your job or your money then there is no point living in New York any more," he said. "Anyone who thinks like that will leave."
He had a point. This town seems to have become unhinged by the populist rage against Wall Street and the rich. President Obama has said openly of the AIG bonuses: "I don't want to quell anger. I think people are right to be angry. I'm angry." Meanwhile, a livid Congress has demanded a 90 per cent tax on bonuses.
This leaves many New Yorkers feeling dislocated, unsure of themselves. This town is the national epicenter of ostentation and consumerism. Now those qualities are considered tasteless. Wealth has become a dirty word.
Consider the divorce trial between Marie Douglas-David and George David, the head of United Technologies, now on the front pages of the tabloids. She is battling to raise her settlement from $37 million to $100 million -- and says $37 million will only last her 15 years.
While she's not the only woman to squabble over her divorce settlement, she is the first to do so in times when the mantra from Washington seems to be "kill the rich."
Marie Douglas David attracts ire because she precisely fits the stereotype of a rich New York dilettante: she appears spoiled, superficial, disloyal and keen to make a buck off someone else's back.
The problem, of course, is that not all the rich are like this, just as not everyone at AIG deserves no bonus. I know someone who left a top bank for a post at the insurance giant last year, taking a pay cut and no bonus. Now he has received death threats and requires 24-hour security.
So it is we New Yorkers who are caught in today's cultural crossfire. In my orbit last week there was yelling at the television screen from friends who believe Congress is trying to strangle the American dream of meritocracy.
I think the president will eventually find a middle road through this mess -- but it's hard to think clearly when passions run this high. And it's also hard to keep one's bearings living in the city that stands for everything this country currently holds in deep contempt.
This article was originally published by the London Evening Standard
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