By David Takami
Special to The Seattle Times
Aug 31, 2014
America in the 21st century is much like a spoiled child who wants everything right now — quick profits, the latest smartphone, entertainment on demand — with no consideration of long-term costs or consequences. This is the withering appraisal of Paul Roberts’ brilliant and thought-provoking new work, which is sure to become one of the most talked about books of the year.
Much of what Leavenworth resident Roberts covers in “The Impulse Society” is not new. A number of recent sources, including books, offer numerous accounts of income inequality, the polarization of politics and the incessant quest for better, faster technology. What sets Roberts apart is his ability to integrate seemingly disparate observations (while drawing from more than 200 sources) into a coherent narrative that will have you nodding your head in agreement. He presents a powerful synthesis of current trends across many sectors — finance, labor, politics and health care.
To better understand the present, Roberts provides a tidy and fascinating survey of the last century, beginning with Henry Ford and his revolutionary advances in automation, which resulted in an unprecedented rise in personal freedom.
A century ago, Roberts observes, we made things — cars, houses, cities — while now we are defined by consumerism. Americans have “the tendency, wired in by evolution, to prize immediate rewards and ignore future costs. You can see this in the way our entire consumer culture has elevated immediate gratification to life’s primary goal.” In fact, as Roberts describes in one absorbing chapter, research shows that the limbic part of the brain seeks quick satisfaction.
By the end of the 20th century, the nation experienced a shift from an economy that generally benefitted the greater good to a system that catered to the individual. Americans became less civic-minded and more focused on personal wealth and status.
Deregulation and a new faith in free markets led to a “shareholder revolution” where publicly traded companies became more beholden to stockholders. The new paradigm valued short-term performance rather than long-term investment in, say, research and development.
Corporations did everything possible to raise quarterly profits including the increasingly common practice of stock buybacks, i.e., buying their own stock to artificially boost share prices. U.S. companies still led the world in innovation, but this 21st-century version of innovation, while pleasing to the consumer and investor, has led to a loss of jobs.
At the same time, “Self-discovery had turned into an orgy of self-centered gratification,” Roberts writes, citing rising rates of obesity, drug use and infidelity. Consumers have used easy credit to buy everything from groceries to houses. In the public realm, the polarization of political beliefs has led people to reinforce their own world views, while becoming intolerant of diversity or compromise.
After laying out a rather dismal present and future, the author offers some hope, citing the emergence of alternative lifestyles, bipartisan moderates and debate on income inequality. Many Americans hunger for connection and meaning.
Roberts glides easily from one topic to next, each more fascinating than the previous example. His explanations of complex topics are nuanced, yet simple to grasp. One irritant to report: The author repeats the title of the book on almost every page, as if he yearns to be anointed as a definer of the current age — as Christopher Lasch was with “The Culture of Narcissism.” That may well happen — but it will be based on the strength of his writing and thinking.
Despite its often grim assessment, “The Impulse Society” is immensely satisfying to read. Like an antidote to the title of his book, Roberts’ words bring gratification over time and a long and well-developed argument.
David Takami is the author of “Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle.”