The Impulse Society Summary and Review

by Paul Roberts
Has The Impulse Society by Paul Roberts been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. There’s no time like the present to be an individual.
We have infinite possibilities as consumers, with a wealth of products to suit each need perfectly – from smartphones to high-tech cars and even our neighborhoods. But this rise in personal power comes with a high social cost. Now, we live in an impulse society, ruled by self-interested wants that have to be addressed immediately. Not only does this shape our daily attitudes, but we also can see this toxic status quo in our most essential institutions, whether social, economic or political. Impulse society is not a way of life to strive for; it's a dilemma that needs solving. This book summary shows you exactly how we arrived at this point and what steps we have to take to escape our impulse society and start creating a healthier life with long-term, sustainable goals for everyone. In this summary of The Impulse Society by Paul Roberts, you’ll also learn:
  • how the development of the first “personal bubble” originated with the Ford Model T;
  • how the American health care system is simultaneously the most expensive and one of the worst; and
  • why the future may be staffed with computerized lawyers.

Impulsive, Self-Centered and Shortsighted Societies

Throw a rock in a city and you’ll likely hit a hipster: a young person wearing the newest in streetwear, iPhone glued to their hand, completed with painstakingly styled, “bed-head” hair. Yes, hipsters are annoying, but their importance is more than one may imagine. They’re a walking representation of today’s impulse society.   We have endless possibilities to invent our identities and personal space, through the consistent consumption of goods and services. Search engines and smartphones forecast our needs; we fine-tune our moods by way of music and drugs; customize our bodies with surgeries, or move to a neighborhood that aligns with our values. We are continually looking to make the world our world. That is an impulse society. Currently, around 70 percent of economic activity in the United States is based on consumption. Contrastly, most economic activity approximately 100 years ago was alternately focused on production, or creating things by farming, crafting, brewing, building or baking. Today, Americans use their economic power to sustain the have-it-now reflex – not to address significant long-term problems. In the eighteenth century, economist Adam Smith claimed that when people pursue even their most trivial self-interests, an economy will develop that presents the most advantages for a majority of people. That's the American economy in a nutshell: generating wealth while encouraging innovation and individual adaptability – which, granted, doesn’t sound so awful. But in this type of situation, society’s true requirements for social, economic and environmental sustainability are oftentimes overlooked. We might be great at buying teeth whiteners and plasma screens, but when it comes to major social needs like education or infrastructure, we don’t deliver. 40 years ago, Tom Wolfe and other social critics foretold the replacement of the post-war era’s idealism with an increasing self-absorption. As you'll notice, they weren’t nearly pessimistic enough. Feeding Personal Needs and Ignoring Public Ones To comprehend how our impulse society came about, we have to look back through history to the one invention that transformed everything – the moving assembly line.   Producing cars used to be quite slow and costly, until, in 1900, Henry Ford developed moving assembly lines to create the famous Model T. Thanks to newfound productivity, the price of a car fell by almost 70 percent, enabling almost every citizen to be able to afford one. Likewise, assembly lines also made other consumer items, like telephones and radios, a lot more affordable.   Ultimately, the novelty of inexpensive cars slowed down and sales stalled. To keep business booming, General Motors President Alfred Sloan added a new ingredient into the sales mix – psychology. Sloan recognized that consumers desired to feel comfortable about spending their earnings, so he decided to introduce cheap financing by way of an in-house bank, so customers could buy now and pay later. He also formulated a range of various engines, colors, and prices for cars, so that people could choose a model that suited their lifestyle and socioeconomic standing. Soon, cars and other private goods grew to be especially popular, and consequently very profitable – more profitable, in fact, than producing public goods like roads and bridges. Personal needs, not societal ones, were the economy’s greatest priority. This trend was further intensified by a lateral jump in wages brought on by the post-war industrial boom. An average American white male in the 1960s worked just two-thirds of the hours his grandfather did and got paid more for it. This new affluence and wealth of available affordable goods spurred Americans to convert into consumers instead of producers. While all this was happening social and environmental consequences went overlooked. The booming automobile industry during the '60's formed a safety crisis on America’s highways, while air pollution and an over-reliance on oil imports worsened. It’s easy to envision America in the 1960s as the start of a societal slump. But additional forces are also to blame, as we’ll see in the next book summaries.

What Drives Our Impulse Society

The impulse society that was produced in the '60s has grown and thrived thanks to the impact of the global financial sector. The financial industry is defined by short-sighted, and often questionable practices and strategies intended to generate profit as quickly as possible. For example, one study revealed that most British executives prefer a project that makes them £250,000 tomorrow, rather than a project that would deliver £450,000 in three years. Or look at the practice of stock buybacks, which appeared during the 1980s. Corporations discovered that the most expeditious way to boost their share price was to buy up their shares. This would artificially limit share supply, increasing demand and therefore raising the price – not to mention the executives’ bonuses! Previously, this was seen as illegal share-price manipulation, until legalized by President Ronald Reagan in 1982. By the 90s, as much as a quarter of American companies’ earnings were allocated towards buybacks: that’s around $200 billion! The financial sector is also lacking personal risk. If an investment professional loses a client’s money due to an unsafe venture, they will not be sued. This lack of accountability appears to have expanded from the tight-knit world of banking into a more widespread phenomenon. Realtor Todd Miller frequently has to give out eviction notices from banks to homeowners. He says, people are no longer bothered by the news: they aren’t distressed that they’re incapable of paying their debts. They often brag about it! This short-sightedness is even more terrifying as the financial sector is gradually beginning to rule society. Cities now infuse capital into banks instead of education, because it offers quicker and higher returns. Meanwhile, the talent we need in fields such as medicine and science have been absorbed by finance, as math and science graduates leave their academic pursuits for Wall Street, where wages for brokers have skyrocketed a lot faster than other economic sectors.

Current Politics and the Consumer Realm

While an impulse society may be worrisome, there's one institution that may halt such egocentric decay – government. It's too bad that politics work the same way that the consumer economy does. Narrow self-interest has affected political policy. Today’s “impulse politics” sees politicians concentrating on short-term goals, like campaigning to secure votes, while struggling to answer more pressing issues like unemployment, health care, and climate change. The uproar to gain votes is dominated by money, as both the Republican and Democratic Parties in the United States rely on donations for their re-election campaigns. Between 2000 and 2012, the spending budgets on presidential campaigns quadrupled, soaring to $2 billion. Political parties often utilize several of the same tactics as large companies. To acquire financial backers and voters, parties shifted into brands, emphasizing their differences so people could only identify with one or the other. As a result, Republicans have gone further right while Democrats have moved further left, leaving political compromise nearly impossible. The gap between Republicans and Democrats has become even broader through the application of another tool to secure votes: big data. In 2008 and 2012, President Obama hired social media experts to analyze personal data from Twitter, Facebook, and other companies. This enabled him to woo individual voters by forming micro-targeted, customized appeals. Applying this technique, candidates no longer have to tone their message down, or even bother creating something that would appeal to a wider constituency. This business-like approach of brand politics has already made an impact on society, by dividing and polarising it. The next book summaries will reveal some of the consequences of our impulse society.

Corporate Cost-Cutting and Computer Technology Creating a Social Divide

With matters as fraught as they currently are, what will our future society look like? Economist Tyler Cowen’s prediction is somewhat unpleasant. He sees society split into two classes: a group of the wealthy and very qualified, enjoying their success in specialized and technologically dynamic industries, while the other is masses of society’s less affluent. But what of the booming financial sector? Certainly, it could produce an abundance of jobs as corporations continue their major growth trajectory. Unfortunately, that’s not how the economy operates. Rather, companies try to raise profits by cutting costs: specifically, jobs. A new, powerful person in the post-war business world is the corporate raider. The role of a corporate raider is to purchase struggling companies and restructure them. This ordinarily involves cutting a bulk of employees and reselling the company at a profit. Between 1979 and 1983, more than 2 million American jobs were cut by corporate raiders. Even as the economy flourished in the late 80s, some 4.6 million manufacturing jobs were lost. On top of this, another drastic shift is eliminating even more job opportunities. While personal computers and the internet have provided access to an almost unlimited quantity of information, service jobs like travel agents, telephone operators and editors have been made redundant. This trend continues even to this day and might drive one of the most prestigious professions towards extinction: lawyers. Quantitative legal prediction, or QLP, is a computerized system that can convert information it receives into a prediction of a court-room judgment with 75 percent accuracy. Compared to human prediction rates of 59 percent, the average lawyer may likely be out of a job shortly.

Society's “Clinical Narcissism”

An impulse society gives more to the individual – which initially, doesn’t sound that bad. Yet, if the self is the center of everything, the ties that hold us together as a community or culture are weakened. This eruption of the power of the individual is a pressing social concern. We can see the impacts in culture currently. As sociologist Daniel Bell has remarked, the question we ask of books, poems, and music is no longer, “Is this a good or bad piece of art?” Instead, it's, “What does it do for me?” Cultural consumption just grows into food for our ego. Our personal world is essentially the only world we exist in now. We willingly disconnect ourselves from people who don’t align with our ideas and beliefs. Disagreements are time-consuming and tiresome; so why not relocate to a neighborhood with a distinct demographic, so you could surround yourself with people just like yourself? Moreover, our local community has shifted another field of consumption, in the competition for “likes” or comments on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Despite our consistent online presence, we’re becoming increasingly uneasy about our communications with others than ever before. Today, parents get concerned when their child doesn’t respond to texts immediately; friends may feel bad if you don’t like their new profile picture on Facebook. We can identify these bizarre symptoms as “clinical narcissism,” a condition which social psychologist Keith Campbell believes is expanding as quickly as other health issues, like obesity.

The U.S. Health Care System is a Victim of the Impulse Society

If you were asked what the purpose of government-supported health care is, what would be your response? The answer should be simple: to assist citizens when they fall ill. Or at least that's the theory, as the U.S. health care system is yet another instance of a narrow self-interest infiltrating institution. The U.S. health care system is a microcosm of the impulse society. The United States has one of the most costly health systems in the world, and not because it cares so well for its citizens. Rather, big investments are made in cutting-edge medical treatments that extend no practical benefits. For example, proton beam therapy for tumor treatment is around five times more expensive than the standard treatment and has virtually no advantage. However, the government has invested in as many as 31 proton treatment centers so far! Oncologist Anthony Ziethman has even speculated that due to such misguided investments, the U.S. health care system could fail as soon as 2020. Statistics also support this trend. U.S. health care expenses accounted for about 5 percent of GDP in the 60s. Today, they are as high as 17 percent, approximately 5 percent higher than any other nation. Despite that, the United States struggles behind many other countries in numerous critical health metrics, from life expectancy to infant mortality. Yet the bulk of U.S. citizens appear to have no problem with a short-sighted, poorly managed system. 46 million people in the United States don't have health insurance, and citizens continue to reject the government’s approach to improving access to insurance by way of the Affordable Care Act. While over half of Americans supported health care reform before Obamacare, a quarter of them believed that the goal should be to cut their costs, and not to extend coverage to those who need it. And in this, the impulse society shows its uglier side: Americans remain engrossed with keeping their health expenses low rather than improving care for everyone. How To Curb Our Impulse Society From the economy to government to health care, narrow self-interest has expanded to all of the most important institutions. What society needs at this point is an overhaul: but is that conceivable? The financial sector, as we discovered earlier, fuels our impulse society. As a first step toward reform, we need to check its impact by refocusing the economy on long-term goals like ecological sustainability, income equity, and human happiness. A way to do this, as proposed by economist and environmentalist Bill McKibben, would be to propose a carbon tax, to decrease consumption and encourage businesses to work with energy-friendly technology. We can also handle corporate stock buybacks. Why shouldn’t we just make buybacks illegal, like they were at one time? This would lessen market manipulation by short-sighted companies looking for a more accelerated track to profits. Further steps entail dividing up banks that were once “too big to fail,” and still induced the 2007 global financial crisis. Doing so would enable regulators to monitor and address possible criminal activity better (no institution should be “too big to jail!”). Additionally, we need a more extensive political shift that focuses on major social issues like unemployment. Once we begin understanding our shared interests, we’ll grow closer as a community and be moved to act altruistically. Politics could bring people together once again instead of breaking them apart. These changes might sound sweeping, but they are not impossible. The notion that a self-centered, short-sighted society is the best we can do is just not accurate. We may be attached to our hyperpersonal lifestyles, but we have to remember that existing in our bubbles is not genuine freedom; a community that serves all is the ultimate aim.

In Review: The Impulse Society Book Summary

The key message in this book: Your lifestyle today may be customizable and suitable, but it is a mark of a social disease. Short-sighted self-interest governs not only our attitudes but also institutions, like banks and government. To give our “impulse society” the overhaul it requires, these sectors need a radical change – challenging, but surely not impossible. Actionable advice: Want an authentic connection? Close the Facebook app and go hang out with a friend! The social networks we love are no more than the manifestation of the principles of an efficient market: highlighting rewards, self-promotion and disposable communications. Look for true personal interaction instead, and don’t shy away from differences in opinion or walks of life! That is what enables us to evolve as people. Suggested further reading: Affluenza by John de Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor This book is about our severe addiction to consumption: affluenza. Since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve grown addicted to shopping, thinking that we can purchase happiness. Affluenza affects us and our society like a disease, and this book advises how we can immunize ourselves from it.