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The Good Life and Its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement Paperback – September 30, 1997

4.2 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Why is it that Americans, who by most objective standards have never had it so good, (longer lives, easier jobs, more money, more personal fulfillment, less discrimination) think the nation is going to hell in a handbasket? Wealthier and freer than ever before, Americans focus on crime, family breakdown, and the depressed economy. Newsweek and Washington Post writer Robert J. Samuelson looks at history, sociology, the media, and political promises as he studies this strange paradox. Americans, he theorizes, became overconfident following World War victories and strong economic growth periods. An "Age of Entitlement" developed in which Americans believe the government, big business, the world, owes them...jobs, money, health care, security. A fascinating analysis of the modern American psyche, The Good Life and Its Discontents offers some ideas for change. Read it and decide if the "American Dream" has become the "American Fantasy."

From Publishers Weekly

Samuelson, a syndicated columnist for Newsweek and the Washington Post, offers here a thoughtful exposition of a paradox: Americans feel pessimistic even as the country overall has prospered by most measures. His explanation is the concept of "entitlement," the American sensibility that "almost everyone deserves to succeed." And just as Americans have enjoyed the fruits of prosperity (consumer goods, etc.), they have accordingly demanded more of government. However, he warns, our economy cannot be managed as easily as some theorists say. Thus, "the politics of overpromise"?in which budget deficits, broadened "rights" such as equality and lobbyist gridlock?have led to bloated government. Samuelson's solution is a culture of greater responsibility. He suggests we raise the retirement age to crimp the costs of an aging America, and that all government benefits be "means tested" (limited by income). Otherwise, he cautions, we may not band together to fight pressing social problems involving race and poverty. Hearkening back to the early-20th-century progressive movement, Samuelson suggests that an interregnum, such as our era, is part of the cycle of history. Author tour.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (September 30, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679781528
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679781523
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,221,849 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This was one of the most intelligent, original, and colorful books that I have read this year. Most of the author's points are right on the mark. The great mystery of our time for political analysts is the large gap between peoples' evident satisfaction with their own life and their overwhelming disappointment with public life. Mr. Samuelson not only is perceptive enough to point out this overlooked paradox but diagnoses it well. This will be certainly a bold challenge for the next generation of public leaders.
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Format: Paperback
It is quite easy to enjoy this book. By presenting relevant statistics Samuelson provides logical, however preliminary, conclusions as to why we are disillusioned as a nation. His ideas in regards to the promise of prosperity are particularly interesting. Finally the border of the puzzle has begun to form from the implications inherent in Samuelson's contentions. Most importantly, this book provides a framework full of hypotheses and statistical starting points for future social psychological research.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is excellent! It is a well written book about how even though we have more than any other culture in the history of civilization we are beating ourselves up because we haven't solved every problem. It also has an interesting discussion of the impact of technology on our society and our expectations of what technology will give to us. If you are interested in politics, technology, or the psychology of the nation as a whole this is an awesome buy.
It has a ton of tables and figures in the back that back up the (sometimes controversial) ideas. For example, most people are relatively happy with their life today, yet think that the majority is unhappy.
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Format: Paperback
My review is based on the first edition of this book.

I found out about this book when I happened upon an old issue of Newsweek I had kept around, from 1996. Its cover story was an article made up of excerpts from it, and was titled "Great Expectations". I read the article and found Samuelson's analysis just as prescient today as when he wrote it. I wanted to see more of what he had to say, and so I got this book.

I was not disappointed, at least in the analysis department. The book is part economic history, and part sociological/political analysis. He starts with the Great Depression, describing what happened. I'm in my 30s, and I had not heard a detailed history of the Depression in school. Just that the economy was in the dumps for about 10 years, and that tons of people were poor, hungry, and unemployed, and it inspired FDR's New Deal agenda. He fleshes this out some, giving quotes from sources of the time, describing what conditions were like, and how people felt about their predicament and their future. He tries to give a psychological picture of what the Depression did to the people who lived through it. He also provides analysis about what caused the Depression, how the institutions of power groped for a solution to the problem, and that some of what they did worked, and some of it didn't. Interestingly, what he says worked was not necessarily what a lot of people thought fixed the problem.

Then he moves into the post-WW II boom, the world that the Baby Boomer generation grew up in, and the psychological change this caused in people's minds about what was possible. His main thesis is that this period of time, the economic expansion from the end of WW II to the early 1970s, produced an exaggerated, somewhat distorted view of economic expectations.
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Format: Paperback
As someone who has to deal with many of the issues that Samuleson addresses, I can vouch for his central thesis that people have come to take progress for granted and have forgotten that there's "no such thing as a free lunch."
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Format: Paperback
On January 11th, 1944 -- about fifteen months before his death -- American president Franklin Roosevelt gave an address to Congress outlining what became known as his "economic bill of rights." Cleverly interwoven into Roosevelt's harangues about more sacrifice for the (still ongoing) war effort was a startling list of new guarantees for the American people that he hoped would avoid future conflicts: the *right* to a job, to decent housing, to adequate health care, extending to protection for businessmen from "unfair competition," and the right of farmers to sell products "at a decent return." Roosevelt outlined his program very clearly and effectively: "The one supreme objective for the future ... can be summed up in one word: security."

I mention the highlights from this underappreciated speech because it serves as a perfect introduction to Robert Samuelson's thesis: that lavish and unrealistic promises from large American institutions (primarily government) have created a public -- not to mention a body politic -- weaned on entitlement. Roosevelt didn't exactly say who was going to provide all this employment, housing, health care and "protection", but I doubt his listeners had many doubts. I'm rather surprised Samuelson doesn't mention Roosevelt's address since the author places huge emphases on the Great Depression and World War II as the defining historical events of his "age of entitlement."

Samuelson begins this (1997) work by trying to address an odd -- and certainly still-relevant -- paradox: pollsters consistently show Americans fairly happy with their *individual* lot but witheringly cynical about the state of the country. How could this be? How did it come about? (Clues above.) And what does it mean for our future politics, culture, and industry?
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