The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity

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A?leading political and business thinker identifies the greatest threat to our economic future: the things we think we know¡ªbut don¡¯t

America is at a crossroads. In the face of global competition and rapid technological change, our economy is about to face its most severe test in nearly a century¡ªone that will make the recent turmoil in the financial system look like a modest setback by comparison. Yet our leaders have failed to prepare us for what lies ahead because they are in the grip of a set of "dead ideas" about how a modern economy should work. They wrongly believe that

  • Our kids will earn more than we do
  • Free trade is always good, no matter who gets hurt
  • Employers should be responsible for health coverage
  • Taxes hurt the economy
  • Schools are a local matter
  • Money follows merit

These ways of thinking¡ªdubious at best and often dead wrong¡ªare on a collision course with economic developments that are irre-versible.

In The Tyranny of Dead Ideas, Matt Miller offers a unique blend of insights from history, psychology, and economics to illuminate where today¡¯s destructive conventional wisdom came from and how it holds our country back. He also introduces us to a new way of thinking¡ªwhat he calls "tomorrow¡¯s destined ideas"¡ªthat can reinvigorate our economy, our politics, and our day-to-day lives. These destined ideas may seem counterintuitive now, but they will coalesce in the coming years in ways that will transform America.

A strikingly original assessment of our current dilemma and an indispensable guide to our future, Miller¡¯s provocative and path-breaking book reveals why it is urgent that we break the tyranny of dead ideas, for it is only by doing so that we can move beyond the limits of today¡¯s obsolete debates and reinvent American capitalism and democracy for the twenty-first century.

Customer Reviews:

  • Professor Miller Sounds The Alarm, But Cannot Kill the Zombies Alone!
    This book alerts us to a basic problem in a crisp and innovative way although, in my opinion, the solutions it offers are not so great. That's o.k.

    As Miller persuasively argues, much of our current policy debates center around ideas that are built deeply into our American worldview (e.g. employers should provide healthcare). Whether or not these ideas should have died is not the issue; they HAVE died, and the question is what to do next?

    Zombielike, the corpses of our old idea wander the land; instead of chanting "Brains!", they shout "Socialist!" or "Fascist!". They eat alive any attempt to solve our problems! Will we escape this horror, or fall prey to the dead ideas?

    Miller's description of these ideas seems straightforward and commonsensical. That in itself is remarkable and useful; clear writing makes itself look easy. We must face squarely the fact that our beloved economic Memes, still beautiful in memory, are now dead. It is our only hope of going beyond them.

    What to do with the corpses wandering the landscape is where the book falls down. The prognosis chapters are much slimmer than the diagnosis chapters, and reflect a faith in business leadership that seems ill-placed.

    However, this is not a fatal flaw. Once we villagers are made aware of the zombie infestation, and roused to action, then we ourselves can work out what to do. The first thing is to sound the warning persuasively, and that Miller has done.

    Read this book, then think and act. We must not let the zombies win!...more info
  • 3 out of 6 dead ideas still breathing
    Matt Miller would portray himself as an unapologetic centrist, non-partisan, unencumbered by the burdens of ideology. An eminently reasonable policy wonk, if you will. But he does adopt the ideology of the technocrat. The technocrat believes in the power of science and reason to mediate political compromise and find out "what works." Voters demand competence and this the technocrat promises. By now we should know this is the ultimate "dead idea."

    Mr. Miller numbers six Dead Ideas: 1) each generation can expect a rising standard of living; 2) free trade is always good; 3) employer-provided healthcare benefits; 4) tax rates are too high; 5) local school finance; and 6) free market outcomes are just and fair.

    Of these, his technocratic arguments can possibly affirm only two (local school finance and employer provided health care), with a fair philosophical argument for a third (free market outcomes are just and fair). On the other three he plays victim to his own dead ideas.

    The technocratic approach is based on the social sciences, principally economics, political science, and sociology, which in turn are based on rudimentary psychology. Unfortunately, the behavioral assumptions of these pseudo-sciences provide a foundation of quicksand. We have discovered this to our own dismay with our current worldwide economic and financial crisis. Does anybody get a queasy feeling these `experts' have no idea what they're doing? This is the world of the technocrat: hubris based on self-delusion. For a more sober assessment of the limits of economics and finance I suggest reading Nicholas Taleb or Benoit Mandelbrot.

    Whether future generations will experience a rising standard of living will depend on the policies we adopt and the way we define our standard of living. In other words, it's not a dead idea until and unless we kill it. Malthus claimed the same dead idea regarding population growth and look how wrong he was. Anyway, do we think this idea is dead for all classes across society? Does this mean poor youth have no hope of rising above their parents' station? I would hope not. If the poor of the world have better prospects for the future, why not the middle and upper classes? In fact, if we really think government is going to provide universal healthcare, we better hope the quality of care will be progressive rather than regressive. Advancing medical technologies almost assure it will be. The only question is will we be able to pay for it?

    On free trade, no Ricardian ever claimed the benefits of free trade are distributed evenly. The adjustment costs must be managed politically and this is how free trade blossomed in the 20th century. Ricardo's trade theory shows how comparative advantage makes trade a win-win proposition in terms of national welfare. But the winners still have to compensate the losers. This is not a dead idea, it's a misspecified one.

    On taxes, it seems disingenuous to make general statements about whether taxes must go up or down without specifying what taxes and how. Taxes are a favorite of the technocratic class because public revenues are needed to fund technocratic solutions. Mr. Miller is a fair-minded centrist here, shooting for the middle ground to define the pro-market, pro-government agenda, but it comes back again to how taxes affect incentives to create wealth and how well government spending fulfills the demands of voters that cannot be met by markets. From where we stand now I'd have to say markets could and do provide most of the public benefits that technocrats insist must be provided by government. Most retirement funding and healthcare has historically been provided by the private sector. And historically we have done very well until we decided to put macroeconomic management into the hands of the technocrats (re: The Fed, Treasury and Congress). Taking a wrong turn on entitlements now will not enhance our future quality of life, but detract from it.

    I would most agree in supporting Mr. Miller's argument on the fairness of market outcomes. Like Machiavelli claimed 500 years ago, at least half of man's fate in life is due to Fortune and the other half to Virtu. Especially with our current version of casino capitalism, many of the superrich owe their outsized wealth to pure luck and influence, not intelligence, talent or hard work. But this is a philosophical and moral argument as much as an empirical one. It won't be resolved by technocratic claims.

    Mr. Miller is a good writer and thinker, an honest, intelligent technocrat. Most readers will find his arguments reasonable and appealing. Unfortunately, that doesn't make them right. The school of technocrats should have been closed after Robert S. McNamara, the ultimate technocratic wunderkind who left behind a wake of destruction wherever he went. Technocrats are functionaries, they do not have the right tools to be designing the edifice for society.

    ...more info
  • A Good Think, but a Hard Sell
    I've just finished my second pass through Tyranny, a great read with a lot to think about. Clearly Miller's ideas are sound, but it's going to be a hard sell. He probably should have called it The Tyranny of Political Inertia.

    Still, a valuable book for positioning one's self for the future with a horizon of a decade or more. ...more info
  • We could all use this
    Not the best written book I have ever read but thought provoking and worthwhile all the same.

    ...more info
  • Don't Read This Book if You Fear Change
    Don't read The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity if you're seriously entrenched or otherwise fully invested in the "way things work". You won't like what Matt Miller has to say. It's revolutionary.

    The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity proposes that not only does this set of ideas way past their prime hold us back from experiencing prosperity and indeed, happiness - but by holding on to them, giving them endless mouth-to-mouth in a vain attempt at resuscitating them, we are creating an extremely dangerous financial, social and psychological situation for America.

    On the other hand, if you're tired of "staying the course" as our mothership, the U.S.A., sinks deeper and deeper beneath the waves of conventional wisdom, than this book is a MUST read for you.

    The most frightening messages The Tyranny of Dead Ideas imparts are the simple truths - you know the ones our political and business leaders shield us po' citizens from, on the basis that little old us "can't handle the truth". In actuality it is our "leaders" who can't handle the truth, heck the rest of us are primed for a healthy dose of CHANGE aren't we? The truths are basically this - the world is a vastly different place than it was in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. And its about time we stop trying to live in the past, touting Miller's dead ideas and praying for a miracle - it ain't coming.

    Miller deftly explains the origins of each dead idea - how it came to be written in stone, why it is no longer viable, and also how it needs to change in order to ensure the future of this country and its citizens. He also proposes a series of "Tomorrow's Destined Ideas" which reads like a useful, do-able instruction manual that every elected politician ought to have a copy of.

    But its not just the politicos that have to start to rearrange their thinking - it is all of us. This just isn't the post WWII boom time anymore. We have to look at the world differently. Technology, globalization, the world is shrinking fast and our - at times - overfed American egos are running out of room.

    I recommend reading The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity - in fact, I recommend everyone over 20 years old read this book. It will help to understand why as a nation we are suffocating under our own weight, what we can - all of us - do about it, and why we have to start doing things differently right now. Read it to know why this set of dead ideas - some of which define us as Americans - must be put to rest in order to save our country. You may not like what you read, but it will arguably be the cold, hard truth....more info
  • Right Answers, Lots of Wrong Reasoning
    Miller tells us that America's economy is about to face its most severe test in nearly a century, thanks to global competition and rapid technology change. Our leaders, however, are doing next to nothing to prepare us, thanks to a set of "Dead Ideas" about how a modern economy should work. These include: 1)free trade is "good" no matter how many people it hurts, 2)employers should pay a central role in the provision of health coverage, 3)taxes hurt the economy, 4)"local control" of schools is essential, and 5)people tend to end up, in economic terms, where they deserve to be.

    Miller disagrees that taxes hurt the economy, pointing out that we have almost $60 trillion of unfunded promises for Social Security, Medicare, and other programs, plus a need to rescue the banking system, insure the uninsured, develop clean energy, and rebuild our infrastructure. All good points.

    As for free trade being good, Miller tells us that economists in both parties tell us that free trade is "good for the country" because the benefits to some Americans outweigh the losses suffered by others. Miller's objection is having economists being in charge of weighing the interests of one set of Americans vs. another.

    A much more REAL problem with free trade, however, is that it's a serious net loss for the U.S. - $677 billion in 2008. Thus, ceasing trade would would restore a large portion (possibly all) of the NET job losses. In addition, we would no longer need to contend with financing large trade deficits or worry about where they're held, retain our self-sufficiency in the event of hostile foreign developments, and also continue to develop manufacturing skills and resources.

    As for education, Miller claims everyone agrees education is key to improving future living standards, yet our financing of schools through local control is shockingly inequitable. Two problems: 1)The main cause of declining real incomes in the U.S. is our inability to compete with other nations paying eg. $100-150/month for 60+ hour work-weeks. 2)Miller is implicitly assuming more money benefits educational outcomes. Not true - decades of steadily increasing real-dollar/pupil funding, international comparisons, and reams of education research on the impact of reducing class size, more preschool, increasing teacher education, etc. show that there is essentially no sustained benefit. The real problem with local control is that it creates enormous administrative waste and dilute accountability for outcomes.

    Finally, I agree with Miller that people do not end up where they deserve, in economic terms - too much income today is acquired through abuse of power (eg. CEOs now earning 400X+ the income of the average worker - even when the firm loses money or goes bankrupt. Lobbying and "knowing the right people" is another major determinant. And as for businesses funding health care, the problem with that is that it makes exports less competitive vs. other nations where health care is nationalized (eg. Britain, France, Germany) or a personal responsibility (eg. China, Japan)....more info
  • The Tyranny of Unleashed Bureaucrats
    Matt Miller is right, ideas are the problem.

    His idea is that freedom produces undesirable outcomes, and central planning by the best-and-brightest will work a lot better.

    Doesn't anybody in publishing have a fact-checker on staff anymore?

    ...more info


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