This week I had lunch with a dear friend, an Indian businessman who has made a fortune from, among other things, selling plastic buckets to Africans. Sitting in the exquisite surroundings of Zuma restaurant in the Dubai International Financial Centre, tucking into scallops marinated in lime and soy sauce, blackened cod and an array of exotic fruits and sorbets, he told me: "Money's not important to me. I could lose it all, or give it away, provided my friends did the same thing."
There's the rub. It's not important what you make; it's important what your friends make. So while he has an enviable lifestyle, houses around the world lined with Georges Roualt paintings, his friends have Matisses on the wall. As the American satirist HL Mencken observed: "Wealth is any income that is at least $100 more a year than the income of one's wife's sister's husband."
Adjusted for inflation, it's the old conundrum: "Would you rather earn $100,000 when all your friends earn $50,000, or $150,000 when everybody else earns $300,000?" The overwhelming response to this question is always the former. Better to be richer than your peers than poorer.
This probably explains why bankers are always so miserable. Viewed from the salary of a nurse or policeman or even journalist, a banker's lot appears a very happy one. Imagine, an annual bonus! Alas for the poor banker, while he might expect to pick up a cool US$500,000 (Dh1.8 million) if he has had a good year, his pal down the corridor, whom he hates, might pocket $1m. Consider the shame, the chagrin.
Not only that, but the public is unable to grasp the intellectual importance of the bonus scheme. It's not about the money. I had begun to think that bankers at least had realised that as the public would never get it, at least they should try to mask the amounts they gave themselves. And they started to adopt the habits of mobile phone companies in the 1990s that used "confusion marketing" to hide their charges.
For anyone fortunate enough to miss out on the heady days of the last decade of the millennium, the wheeze went like this: all the phone companies, particularly in Britain, would offer deals of extraordinary complexity, mixing cheap phones with long-term lock-ins, free texts with expensive overseas calls, so that you could never quite compare which was the better deal. You weren't comparing just apples and pears, but apples, pears and papayas. Eventually you gave up, bought the first one that occurred to you, and went out to lunch.
Likewise some banks have offered share incentives, the possibility of clawbacks, bonuses in gold or vintage wine, to the extent that commentators have lost interest or at least the ability to criticise the masters of the universe.
Then, in the words of the Frank Sinatra song, somebody had to spoil it all by "saying something stupid". It occurred in the heady atmosphere of Davos. Fuelled by Alpine air and altitude, Jamie Dimon, the boss of JP Morgan Chase, a man who had otherwise enjoyed rather a good financial meltdown, attacked the level of regulation being imposed on banks. He went on to dismiss "irresponsible and ignorant media".
"I just think this constant refrain [of] 'bankers, bankers, bankers' - it's just a really unproductive and unfair way of treating people … People should just stop doing that," he said.
Er, why exactly? It strikes me that when a group of individuals have got away with one of the largest bank heists in history, lending so irresponsibly that the taxpayer has to bail them out, it wouldn't do any harm to be contrite. Henceforth in financial circles he will be doubtless be known as "Jamie Dim-one".
But then Davos is a dangerous place. As Alan Parker, the chairman of Brunswick, the financial public relations company, said to me this week: "I have one rule: don't do Davos." He said it in a way that implied that he once did Davos. I, on the other hand, have never done Davos. This is partly because I have never bothered, but partly because I wrote something about them last year that they didn't like so presumably now wouldn't let me attend even if I wanted to.
It's a club I can't join. Groucho Marx may have refused to join any club that would invite him to be a member, but for most people, the lure of membership is irresistible. Mr Parker can steer clear of Davos because he has been there and could afford to go again. I am a member of a golf club in England that I never play for the sole reason that most people cannot join. Even if you have a banker's salary.
Status is everything, and it's not about money. Take Tiger Woods. He had a lousy time last year. In fact, ever since hitting that fire hydrant he's been more a figure of fun than a role model. Last year he didn't win anything but still earned more than anybody else, helped by the fact that tournaments will shell out $3m to have him pitch up. This week Dubai Properties Group, a unit of Dubai Holding, suspended work on the Tiger Woods Dubai golf course because of "unfavourable market conditions".
First he can't hit a fairway, then he can't build one. Tiger may be richer than his peers Ernie Els and Colin Montgomerie, but they have already designed and built their courses in Dubai and can stroll down the fairways. Sometimes even being richer than everybody else isn't enough.