Watch CBSN Live

The Biggest Threat to the Economy? Your Ego

There's a reason, I believe, that most Americans haven't embraced the term "Depression" to describe our current economic meltdown. It's because we're not depressed.

After the crash of 1929, spirits were genuinely deflated. The optimism and excitement of the Roaring Twenties collapsed into tears with no sense of relief in sight. The mood was exquisitely and painfully captured by our then greatest writer, Scott Fitzgerald in "My Lost City":

From the ruins, lonely and inexplicable as the sphinx, rose the Empire State Building and, just as it had been a tradition of mine to climb to the Plaza Roof to take leave of the beautiful city, extending as far as eyes could reach, so now I went to the roof of the last and most magnificent of towers. Then I understood -- everything was explained: I had discovered the crowning error of the city, its Pandora's box. Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed but that it had limits -- from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground.
That's depression.

But it's different now, isn't it? We're angry this time. We're angry with investment bankers and credit-to-debt ratios and subprime mortgage lenders and collateral debt obligations and Bernie Madoff and outsourcing and the old president. (We'll be angry with the new president, too, as soon as the honeymoon period is officially over.) And we're angry with Mark McGwire for using steroids. So angry that McGwire's name is being expunged from a Missouri highway.

As the comedian Louis C.K. says, "Everything is amazing right now, and nobody is happy."

Don't get angry at me for mentioning it -- I'm only thinking aloud -- but who, exactly, is responsible for all this tragedy? That would be us. And why would we knowingly put those dark forces in motion? Because we always want and feel that we deserve the absolute best of what anyone else has. Maybe what's hurting most right now is the hangover resulting from an epidemic bender of self-esteem. Feeling warm and squishy about oneself may not be such a great destination after all. Somewhere along the way we adopted smugness as a symbol of affluence. Yet we know intuitively that misery and squalor have always been the springboards to real accomplishment.

Think about it. Men and women of singular achievement are often recognized by the traumas, insecurities and bad complexions that gave birth to their larger-than-life vision. Would we be selling consumer products in China today if Nixon hadn't been looking for that hug his father never gave him?

No one old enough to read could have missed the recent study dealing with American school children and self-esteem. You know the report -- where the kids with the lowest test scores felt the best about themselves and also had the most fun on dates. No surprise to anyone who still remembers high school.

Statistics aside, the evidence is overwhelming. Take a confident self-image to its logical conclusion and you get the hubris of a company like AIG. Pure narcissism -- the gold standard for what we now refer to as emotional health -- combined with an overblown sense of entitlement is the kind of "give it to me now" thinking that stridently demands double-digit returns on Wall Street...and in professional sports. Whether we've earned them or not.