"How poor are you?" That's what formerly rich guys ranging from hedge-fund kings and tech pioneers to bankers and trust-fund heirs are now asking each other at dinners around town.
This group doesn't care who ends up buying Wachovia. That's all background news; just one more sorry piece of detail in the carnage of a lost battle that's left them ruined. None believes US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's plan or its revisions can stave off devastation.
For a society that has pretended not to talk about money, while caring about little else, suddenly the experience of being nouveau pauvre is all that's on everyone's lips.
Startlingly, Manhattan bankers who once flew private, had yachts, homes, wives and servants, and owned art worth hundreds of millions, are not afraid to say: "We've lost everything."
Some of them even compare themselves with workers in Detroit: "At least I'm not as badly hit as that," they say.
Well, thank goodness for the reality check.
Last Friday night at a birthday party given for 200 of the former rich at a downtown circus where socialites wore jeans and the bar was open one financier asked about 10 other men in turn: "So how much have you lost?" All said: "Too much or enough to be ruinous."
People are even openly asking: "Dumped the wife yet? If not, why not? You hate her; she hates you. Now, you've nothing to lose ..."
On Saturday, I was invited to a baby shower. At the last moment we were called to be told: Absolutely No Gifts, Please. Social liberation is the upside of what many fear will be the most harrowing few years anyone under 80 has experienced. One financier was so troubled not just by the fact that he's lost his millions but also by the effective collapse of government that he told me he is planning to retire to study government and to develop a think-tank to ensure we never see a breakdown like this one ever again.
There was talk of the end of America as a superpower. "We're done. Watch China rise," people are saying. Yet a few loners weren't about to quit. "This is the time to put our thinking caps on and innovate," said a Silicon Valley overlord. Well, let's hope he's thinking hard. With Wall Street in tatters, Silicon Valley may be our last hope.
This article was originally published by the London Evening Standard .