The Economics of Narcissism

Man looking at a mirror
Man looking at a mirror

Narcissism is back in the news, thanks to Sarah Palin. Todd Purdum's Vanity Fair profile, which appeared just days before Palin announced her resignation, described the Alaskan governor this way:

More than once in my travels in Alaska, people brought up, without prompting, the question of Palin's extravagant self-regard. Several told me, independently of one another, that they had consulted the definition of "narcissistic personality disorder" in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—"a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy"—and thought it fit her perfectly.

The diagnosis clearly resonates, not because it is accurate (who knows?) but because narcissism is the psychological substrate of our troubled times. During the credit boom, an unquenchable need for short-term success, combined with a lack of empathy for those who didn't share in the economic windfalls, was a byproduct of a society trying desperately to survive beyond its means. We both empowered the most ruthlessly self-aggrandizing among us and succumbed to the erosion of any authority that might have contained the overweening. We lost any independent measure of the American dream.

Still, a question remains: Was the army of narcissists unleashed upon our society a product of the boom or the cause of it—or both? For John Gartner, grandiosity was a precondition for success. His 2005 book The Hypomanic Edge praised the reckless abandon of Americans who leapt before they looked. (Slate's Dan Gross made a great case for why those leaders ultimately threaten the institutions they lead.)

In the noughties—given our obsessing over celebrities, insatiable consumption of debt to keep up with others, and the loss of any meaningful values that might sustain us in adversity—the country seemed to be caught up in its own culture of narcissism. As exceptional as this new culture was, it was not new. The culture of narcissism first appeared as a popular concept 30 years ago. And this week marks the apogee of its influence with the anniversary of President Jimmy Carter's infamous "malaise" speech (delivered on July 15, 1979).

That much-reviled address is an unlikely subject for study. But historian Kevin Mattson has done his best to reclaim it in his new book What the Heck Are You Up to, Mr. President? To Mattson, a desperate nation, hobbled by a stagnating economy with chronic energy shortages, a crumbling manufacturing sector, and crippling inflation, was buoyed by Carter's willingness to level with them. Carter tried to snap the country out of its frenzy of selfishness and return it to a civic-minded purpose. The speech boosted the president's poll numbers by 11 points in one evening, and the event seemed to provide a catharsis of sorts, if a short-lived one.

The 1970s were a nadir of American self-confidence. Carter came to give the "malaise" speech at the prodding of Patrick Caddell, who was himself inspired by a reading of historian Christopher Lasch's surprise best-seller of 1979, The Culture of Narcissism. A quiet Midwesterner with a cranky pen, Lasch was the Paul Krugman of 1979—an esoteric thinker whose political stance was informed by raw anger and disgust. Lasch may have used radical cultural concepts to inform his views, but he himself was deeply and personally conservative. He would later write a book dismissing the notion of progress and locating our best hope as a society in small-town acceptance of limitations.

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The Culture of Narcissism was an attack not only on the excesses and disillusionment of the '70s but also on the growth of institutions—the liberal state, corporations, and the therapeutic culture—that broke down the individual's independence and authority. Those institutions may have grown out of a need to protect us from depredations. But the unintended consequence was to replace our freedom and individual authority with insecurity and anxiety.

Thus was born the narcissistic personality of the 1970s. The cultural narcissist—as opposed to the clinical one, like Palin—can overcome the anxiety created by his or her lost economic and social independence, according to Lasch, only "by seeing his ‘grandiose self' reflected in the attentions of others, or by attaching himself to those who radiate celebrity, power, and charisma. For the narcissist, the world is a mirror whereas the rugged individualist saw it as an empty wilderness to be shaped in his own design."

Narcissism thrives only where positive authority—a world of role models who establish genuine, trusted leadership and an economic system where rules are defined and enforced—no longer presides. Lasch's narcissism was a direct result of the hypocrisy of the liberal state and its collapse under the multiple assaults of the Vietnam War, Watergate, the degraded environment, and the emasculating energy crisis.

The path to the future leads where?

In our own day, narcissism seems the direct result not of societal failure but of success run amok. (Though we've had our own fruitless, frustrating war with its concomitant betrayals of public trust and an awareness of impending environmental collapse, too.) Beginning in 1994—15 years after the "malaise" speech and 15 years before today—the United States turned itself inside out. The Republican congressional victory of 1994 brought about a libertarian detente between left and right centered around globalization, in the form of NAFTA, and cultural truce, where everyone agreed to disagree on hot-button issues like abortion.

The new order unleashed an explosion of wealth, new technology, and a reinvention of politics both domestically and internationally. The '90s ended up being the 1970s in reverse. Instead of the decline of industry, we had the upending explosion of the Internet. Where the 1970s had eroding pessimism, the 1990s had the optimism that "this time, it is different."

In both cases, the path from past to future was no longer clear, which created confusion and doubt about what rules to follow. Clinton's new liberalism sought deregulation and a return to personal responsibility, but only one side of the equation took hold. Throughout American society in the 1990s, authority was eclipsed by the unparalleled success of young people.

There were other similarities between then and now that contributed to the emergence of the cultural narcissist. Both eras had presidents who were threatened with impeachment. Both eras had a vertiginous rise in housing prices. In the 1970s, homes became a rare anchor for embattled Americans as their most important asset became a refuge from rampant inflation.

For us later, our houses were the devil's candy to satisfy our insatiable needs. Instead of the last and most vital of our assets—the one protected from bankruptcy by homestead laws in many states—we used property as a grub stake in a poker match, hoping to win shallow advantages like better-looking kitchens, elaborate home theaters, and more authentic personal experiences. Each one of these desires fits neatly into the Lasch-ian definition of narcissism: the frantic need to distinguish ourselves without ever mastering our anxieties.

Lacking her own goals, and an independent measure of success, the narcissistic personality keeps chasing a fleeting dream. Perhaps that is why the debt bubble churned endlessly without restraint. We had everything, but it was never enough. Insatiability, of course, is a hallmark symptom.

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Another era of adversity might have restored the bulwarks of our society. The excesses of the Internet boom were burned off in the scandals of Enron, Tyco, and the like. The Sept. 11 attacks also seemed to presage a new era of rationality. The Bush administration's response, however, was narcissism through and through. A sober response would have been to track down the malefactors to ensure that justice prevailed. Instead, the neocons in the Bush Pentagon pursued an unlikely target—Iraq—with the misguided idea that they could transform the politics of the Middle East through shock and awe. (Grandiose?) They even imagined they would be greeted as liberators. (Admiration seeking?) And they failed to address the root causes of Sept. 11 attacks: the frustrations felt by the disenfranchised toward the United States. (Not much empathy there, eh?)

So the flood of credit from 2002 on only fueled the narcissism raging at the center of our society. To read the Culture of Narcissism today is to look at ourselves through a distant mirror. We have a better communicator as president, but many of the same maladies confront us—a crippled economy, a recently discredited president whose White House was filled with dirty-tricksters, and a sense that American power no longer has a place in the world. The only good thing is that the feeling of desperation so pervasive during Jimmy Carter's time has not taken hold; but that could be because we just haven't hit bottom yet.