It's no fun being rich when everyone else is poor. Who, for example, would be willing to show up to a dinner party in a brand-new lime-green Lamborghini, in the almost certain knowledge that some of the other guests would be among the growing ranks of the recently unemployed? Sorry about the medical insurance, Katy. Terrible news on the foreclosure, Bob. Too bad on the 401(k), Fred. Hey, check out my titanium wheel nuts!
This isn't a new problem. Pretty much every downturn in history has created the same delicate circumstances for the few who remain usefully liquid. Making things even more tricky is the fact that a recession is a great opportunity to splurge -- you just get so much more for your Benjamins. Now, for example, would be the perfect time to buy Iceland and turn it into a summer house. But whom could you tell? And whom would you invite? These days, even the queen of England is eating Spam for dinner and worrying about her rollover cellphone minutes.
I'm not asking anyone to feel bad for those with Kevlar-plated bank balances. But if they stop spending money out of good manners, then we're all in even bigger trouble than we thought. This much is clear from John Maynard Keynes' "paradox of thrift," which posits that if everyone saves, everyone gets poorer. Translation: Chicken McNuggets, bad; diamond-encrusted cupcakes, good. Without spending, we all go bust.
So what are we to do?
Clearly, we need to make the rich feel good about consuming again. Quite a challenge, in an era when an honest Wall Street banker like Merrill Lynch's former chief, John Thain, can't even buy a $35,000 claw-footed faux antique "commode" without getting ridiculed by the media.
But don't panic! There is a solution, and it can be found in the unlikely form of Bertolt Brecht, the Depression-era German poet, playwright and theater director (and thief, woman-hater and hypocrite, if you believe some of his biographers). After creating the hugely successful 1928 pro-Marxist musical "The Threepenny Opera," Brecht found himself in the sensitive position of being an extraordinarily wealthy anti-capitalist capitalist. Like the rich of today, he had money, but he simply couldn't spend it (You can't buy that, dear. What would the proletariat say?). So instead, he set about using his wealth to amass things that would make him appear broke. The most infamous example: a bespoke leather trench coat, constructed with great care (and at terrific expense) to feature perfectly crooked seams and a perfectly bent collar.
Some might call this good old-fashioned liberal hypocrisy. I prefer another term: "conspicuous thrift." Moreover, to misquote Gordon Gekko, from the movie "Wall Street," I believe that conspicuous thrift might not only save this city of ours but also that other malfunctioning entity, the U.S.A.
Take the hypothetical Lamborghini shopper at the top of this article. He could have solved his dinner party problem by simply walking into a Lexus dealership, where a salesman would have cheerfully relieved him of $105,000 for a state-of-the-art hybrid sedan with worse gas mileage than an $11,000 Kia. After all, you could hardly feel bad about boasting to your friends that you're saving money on gas (not to mention saving the human race). It's practically a gesture of solidarity.
There are plenty of other ways to flaunt your parsimony. At this year's post-Oscar Vanity Fair party, starlets in half-a-million-dollar frocks (as opposed to the usual million-dollar ones) will clutch gold statues while surrounded by decor ostentatiously recycled from previous years. What kind of sourpuss could begrudge anyone a champagne-soaked Oscar party when there's recycling involved?
Yet by far the most economically stimulative kind of conspicuous thrift involves a breathtakingly vast capital outlay in return for an entirely inconsequential -- yet pricelessly boast-worthy -- cost-saving. Take the episode of "House Hunters International" that aired on the HGTV channel recently. It featured a British family that had rebuilt their home underground so they could save on energy. Now that's the spirit: Knock down your property, drop a six-figure sum on architects, engineers, steel-reinforced retaining walls and a glass roof; redecorate the place; then brag about the $200 a month you save on utility bills.
So there you have it: a way out of this appalling crisis -- and one that is refreshingly reminiscent of the highly enjoyable yet ultimately catastrophic bubble that got us here in the first place. Not that most of us can afford any of this thrift, mind you. But mark my words, the second I get some cash, I'm off to buy some hens, hire a farmer, take out a mortgage on a ranch and congratulate myself on how cheap I get my eggs.
Chris Ayres is Los Angeles correspondent for The Times of London and the author, most recently, of "Death by Leisure: A Cautionary Tale."