Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 8, No. 1, 2009
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Mark Goldfarb
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Bernard Dubé
Sylvain Richard
David Solway
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
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Diane Gordon
Serge Gamache
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Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Marcel Dubois
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
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Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
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David Solway
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




Thomas Sullivan’s writing has recently appeared in a number of webzines and magazines, including Bad Idea Magazine (UK), Eleventh Transmission (CAN), The Short Humour Site (UK), Backhand Stories, and The Externalist. He was a finalist at the 2008 Pacific Northwest Writers Association contest for his memoir Life In The Slow Lane, which recounts a hair-raising summer spent teaching driver's education. Contact the author at

The man behind the counter scans my Nicorette and raises his eyebrows. He chuckles, looks up at me with bemusement, and says “$29.99, that is expensive.”

As if I didn’t know this.

I gaze back at the gnomish clerk, a balding man with thin hair that races away from the base of skull as if he’s standing inside a wind tunnel. As a longtime user I get this type of critical comment frequently and I’m ready with a reply.

“Cheaper than a lung transplant and chemo,” I say, “just putting aside the shame and thinking long-term here.”

The man takes my card and slides it through the slot. I glance down at his shirt and see the small badge: JERRY—CUSTOMER SERVICE IN TRAINING. It seems that the training program is outdated, failing to mention that customers are abandoning retail en masse and should be retained at any cost. Maybe the program’s been cut.

Jerry hands me my gum, but he isn’t done with me yet. He puts his palms on the counter, leans forward, and says, “You just need to get some willpower.” I stare back at the pharmacy’s long shot for Employee-Of-The-Month while he beams, proud of his insight. I feel like Luke Skywalker taking advice from Yoda, the minor difference being that Luke wanted it. I’m an inch from making a childish comment I’ll instantly regret, but I hold back. I know what’s happening here. This stranger is handing out wisdom not to help me but to boost his own self-esteem.

* * * * * * * *

Why is this important? Why should anyone care about this silly exchange? For this reason: the need to boost self-esteem is the primary force behind the economic turmoil that is affecting us all. The day to day mechanics of the financial crises involve a messy jumble of faulty mortgages, CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) and the like not working as planned (if there ever was a plan), but the larger question to ask is: What’s behind that? What drives one person to risk everything on a sketchy loan and a second person to risk the health of their employer by packaging that loan? What caused ordinary people to play a game of American Roulette?

The sad reality on Wall Street is that the majority of people working there gain their self-esteem from money. More money and a bigger bonus translate into greater self-esteem and vice versa. Hence, the never-ending drive for more that is guaranteed to end badly. Why else would someone earning one million dollars this year need twice that the next year and do anything to get it? On the other end of the spectrum, why would a first-time buyer forego a reasonable house or car for a McMansion and an SUV whose loans put them on the edge of financial collapse? More house and more car translates into more self-esteem.

This can be found everywhere, surging through the population like an epidemic. Why would a country with huge, looming financial demands use its military to invade a third world desert backwater, acting like some fifth-year senior bullying the smallest freshman on the playground? For a confused leader with a dismal track record and mounting disapproval, kicking ass builds self-esteem, pure and simple. The people cheering him on like the other kids on the playground get the same boost as well.

The end result of everyone trying to enhance his self-esteem simultaneously through asset acquisition is the mess we see today. Companies collapse. Neighbourhoods empty out. Marriages fail. At the beginning the players in a communal entity (household, company, nation etc.) start losing focus on the health of that entity, ignoring the shared responsibilities needed to make it function. For a while the group stumbles along, frazzled and fracturing, picking up steam as individuals turn toward building their self-worth. At the critical point a plague breaks out. Middle-school teachers start buying five homes while bankers contemplate building derivatives off a pool of library fines. The system gets overwhelmed as almost everyone joins in. While most of the public anger gets directed at the elites (CEOs and such), the blame is everywhere, at all levels of society. Bankers, traders, mortgage lenders, homebuilders, electricians, and consumers crash into each other like feedlot animals stampeding toward a trough of self-esteem feed. Then the feed disappears and the game shuts down with everyone scratching his head and wondering what happened.

Given the economic system we have, people will always need money for food, housing, and other necessities, but their most urgent need now is for something entirely different. They need to find a way to value themselves that doesn’t involve money and assets as the primary focus. A return to finding worth through being good at something regardless of economic reward would be a start. Pride in a job well done is an asset that never loses its value or ends up being overpriced when everyone jumps on board. Perhaps one day it will be hip to be un-wealthy, at which point we might discover we’re feeling good about ourselves again. = shared webhosting, dedicated servers, development/consulting, no down time/top security, exceptional prices
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