The Impatient Society

When President Obama took office in January 2009, 76 percent of Americans believed he would "bring needed change to Washington." Within three months, that figure had dropped to 63 percent, and by January 2010, it had dipped to 50 percent (it is now 44 percent). In February 2009, the president's job approval rating stood at 68 percent. By the end of the year it was 50 percent, where it remains. Within months - certainly by the end of his first year in office - much of the public had lost confidence in his ability to fix the economy, create jobs, reduce the national debt and end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Welcome to the impatient society.

The reality, of course, is that no president and no Congress can fix these very difficult problems in a short time. We know this in our personal lives - sound finances, good skills to get a decent job (or a better job) and strong relationships with those we care about take years to build - and when they are broken to rebuild. Yet in the public arena, we expect fast results.

Perhaps our lack of patience is a function of the 24/7 news cycle, where finding fault with the president and government is essential to fill up air time. Perhaps it is a function of the two-year Congressional cycle, which invites us to expect a lot in a short time or else replace our representatives with others who promise to deliver. But the impatient society is most likely due to more than this, because American impatience shows up in so many other parts of our lives.

The phrase "snail mail" typifies this. What comes through the postal service is much too slow for our tastes; we prefer texting and tweeting, both minute-by-minute accounts of our fast-paced lives. We have created our own credit card debt crisis because "why should we wait?" for the things we want. Children who do not grow tall enough fast enough are given synthetic growth hormones, in many cases when merely waiting for their genes to kick in would do the trick. Pre-adolescent girls are hurried into adulthood by peers and media ads (some even now ask for, and get, breast enlargement surgery in their teens). Movie trailers tell a story just like they always have, but the on-screen images change much faster and movies that don't sustain a lively, often frantic, pace are criticized as "boring." The "sound bite" length on much of TV news has been cut at least in half in recent years, regardless of the result that news "bites" are almost devoid of context, real meaning, and nourishment for the intellect. We take pride in "multi-tasking," even if brain research confirms that we substitute quantity for quality when we do so.

Perhaps it's inevitable that we live our lives at "Web-speed" (think about how frustrated you get when you click on an Internet icon and it takes more than a fraction of a second for the screen image to change). But we should not blind ourselves to the impact. Nor should we fail to consider mitigating strategies for our own impatience.

While American impatience can produce benefits - a desire and willingness to change, energy to create new ideas, businesses, and social arrangements - it fails us in areas of our lives where complexity and its attendant interdependence do not lend themselves to quick fixes.

Our current national financial situation is just such an area. The economy continues to be dragged down by massive home foreclosures, and the housing sector cannot improve until most of those foreclosures have run their course. The consumer economy is unlikely to improve until the housing industry improves, since buying homes and what goes into homes is a key part of consumer spending. Jobs are not likely to grow significantly until people start spending again, which means until people gain the skills for the new jobs being created and can pick up and move to where those jobs are, which is impossible if they are stuck in an under-water home. No stimulus package and no amount of tax cuts will produce quick results in a complex economy that the federal government does not (and we don't want it to) control. That doesn't mean that federal action can't help - but it can't help quickly. The Democrats who may lose control of Congress know this, and the Republicans who may soon gain control of Congress know it as well. If you doubt this, consider what a Republican president and Republican Congress would now be saying on the eve of the 2010 election.

Like so many of our problems, addressing the downsides of American impatience will require both structural change and human courage. The latter may have to precede the former. There is no rule written in heaven that requires politicians to cynically criticize others for what they know they could not accomplish if they were in charge. There is no requirement that pollsters ask questions - almost weekly - that they know the public lacks the information and wisdom to answer and that suggest in their phrasing that things should already be better than they are. Pundits do not have to fill the airwaves with instant analysis - they could choose to inform the public instead of feeding its impatience by drawing quick conclusions and suggesting a timeline for change that is unrealistic. The American public can withhold its judgment, step back from the call-in talk radio shows that generate more heat than light, and seek to find common ground instead of battleground.

We have not always been the impatient society. When the Marshall Plan was proposed in June 1947, it took nearly a year before legislative specifics and budget requirements were clear. Congress took its time, had a healthy debate, and in the end found consensus and on a bipartisan basis approved Marshall aid to Europe. It took another four years for the Plan to work sufficiently to put European recovery on a sound basis. In the 1950s, we began building an interstate highway system, infrastructure that continues to be built and to benefit the economy sixty years later. In the 1960s, we waited a decade for the NASA lunar landing program to succeed, and we accepted a number of setbacks - including a tragic accident - along the way.

We are not destined to be the impatient society. But until we lend more patience to the understanding of our most complex problems and to the nurturing of the civil relationships that allow us to act with consensus on them, we may stay the captives of our current frustration.