Paul Roberts is disappointed and his disquiet is boundless.
Facebook, General Motors, Wall Street, Carl Icahn, credit cards, same-day delivery, Netflix, sport utility vehicles, Wal-Mart, Big Data, Twitter, the Tea Party and jogging all add to his dismay.
In his new book, “The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification,” Roberts contends they are all connected because “the market and Self are becoming one.” U.S. capitalism has become too good at delivering what Americans want, and does not even try to provide what they need.
It was not meant to be. Sociologists predicted rising material prosperity would lead the nation to excel at love and community and other fine things. But, Roberts laments, the market prevails because humans are evolutionarily unsuited to fend off profiteers competing to provide “the highest level of momentary pleasure for the least effort.”
The result is an insular, sad and fat America, according to Roberts. Inequality has exploded. Most workers earn less today than 15 years ago. Narcissism is rising — and, although this is “suited to a corporate world,” it has hooked Americans into a cycle of “rapid self-gratification.” The endless consumption of cheap consumer goods has become the method by which they define themselves.
Roberts is a journalist based in Washington state and author of “The End of Oil,” a book about the world’s dwindling oil supply. And he sees the consequences of his Impulse Society everywhere.
The housing bubble that ignited the Great Recession revealed a grand, Wall Street-driven scheme to manipulate individual greed. The healthcare system in the U.S., where millions were left for so long without basic insurance, is at the mercy of pushy narcissists who are “particularly unsuited to contemplating death.” They over-consume every expensive new treatment cooked up for profit.
Less homogenous and harder to unionize jobs have shifted rewards from labor to capital. In the 1970s, the share of output going to employees was 41%; by 2007 it was 31%. Work as a collective effort all but died, leaving U.S. workers to spend their days in an “atomized, impersonal, efficient environment” with few legal protections.
The nature of innovation has changed too, Roberts contends: from something that benefits everyone to something no longer to be trusted. Worse, a lack of ideas has driven the deliberate manipulation of share prices by overpaid chief executives.
U.S. politics has become little more than a “vicious cycle of short-termism” in which the meaning of words is so contested it risks the death of truth itself.
The result is two sides unable even to discuss their differences. This leaves America in a sorry state. Its needy, greedy and manipulated masses are losing against a contriving consumer culture that enforces “absolute material dependence.” The country is said to be little better than a second-rate oligarchy.
Depressing stuff, if true. And although the fight-back has apparently been “underway for decades,” the acts of resistance listed — such as phone-free days, not shopping online and avoiding Fox News — offer only temporary respite.
Given this, I was hopeful Roberts would map out the path America should follow to escape self-inflicted oblivion.
His proposition is to stop using gross domestic product to measure success, tax financial transactions, ban share buybacks, cut executive pay, break up big banks, make nuclear fusion work (will someone just get this done already?) and hold a lot more neighborhood meetings.
Even if this were the right course, Roberts rather undermines it by reminding us that “the current political culture would make this impossible.”
And, as any good drunk knows, if you take enough small steps, each of which feels right, you can become very competently lost. Making connections that seem plausible does not make them true. (Is the divorce rate really Wall Street’s fault?)
“The Impulse Society,” published by Bloomsbury USA, is a feisty read and full of energy. The problem is the attempt to produce a grand theory to explain a set of crucial issues facing the U.S. That they are all the result of primeval urges and a sudden onset of hyper-capitalism lacks evidence, which cannot be hidden by complicated language.
This, in turn, undermines the importance and urgency of the problems Roberts rightly identifies.
That he is well meaning is not in doubt. It is hard not to empathize with his yearning for simpler times, when communities were “willing to make sacrifices for a larger social good.”
Maybe America has sold humble contentment and unwittingly bought insecurity. And maybe people would be happier and more content in a slower, less-selfish world. But, if so, the steps to reach that point need to be made clearer to allow voters to choose it. Here’s hoping.
David Brown is a frequent contributor to the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.