The Tyranny of Dead Ideas Revolutionary Thinking for a New Age of Prosperity

Matt Miller

St. Martin's Griffin



Trade Paperback

288 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy

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—one 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—dubious at best and often dead wrong—are on a collision course with economic developments that are irreversible.

In The Tyranny of Dead Ideas, Matt Miller, a leading political and business thinker, identifies the greatest threat to our economic future: the things we think we know—but don’t. 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—what he calls "tomorrow’s destined ideas"—that 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.


Praise for The Tyranny of Dead Ideas

"Matt Miller writes and thinks with amazing clarity about some of the most difficult problems this country is facing. The Tyranny of Dead Ideas offers the most plausible way to renovate our political and policy thinking to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century—if we have the guts to go forward. This is must reading for the next president and for anyone who wants to be a creative citizen in a difficult time."—Joe Klein, political columnist, Time

"Whenever an administration gets ready to take office for the first time, new ideas are back in vogue. 'Not so fast,' warns Matt Miller: We need to get rid of the old ideas first. In The Tyranny of Dead Ideas he argues that stale thinking about government, business and public policy is holding America back and suffocating our national discourse . . . When it comes to offering change, however, Mr. Miller preaches neither guillotines nor social upheaval but fresh policy . . . These ideas are certainly worthy of debate.—Daniel Casse, The Wall Street Journal

"Matt Miller gives me a headache. If his name doesn't ring a bell, wait until his new book, The Tyranny of Dead Ideas, gains traction in the national debate about how to fix The Current Mess. Before we can fix the economy, health care, Social Security, education and other problems, we have to rethink some of our most sacrosanct premises. Here's a paradoxical thought to get you started: We have to increase taxes and federal programs to save the capitalist system. I know, I know. But don't dismiss Miller without hearing him out. He has some compelling ideas that, though they seem at first counterintuitive, are ultimately reasonable. It is first necessary to suppress the instinct to remain comfortable in the familiar and to calm the knee that aches to jerk. Miller—a journalist (Fortune columnist and host of the radio show Left, Right & Center), Democrat and former economic aide in the Office of Management and Budget under Bill Clinton—has singled out six second-nature, but dead, ideas about how a modern economy ought to look. If not corrected, he argues, our very economic model could be threatened as other nations lose faith in capitalism's ability to improve the lives of everyday people. The dead ideas are that: our children will earn more than we do; free trade is 'good' no matter how many people it hurts; employers should play a central role in the provision of health coverage; taxes hurt the economy; 'local control' of schools is essential; people tend to end up, in economic terms, where they deserve to. Is this man insane? More government? More taxes? With a few tweaks here and there, Miller's dead ideas sound an awful lot like core American principles. (Exceptions: Even some hardened free-marketers will acknowledge the X factor of 'luck,' a subject Miller explored in his previous book, The Two-Percent Solution.) But he's got a point. In fact, he's got several . . . Miller doesn't pretend to possess a magic formula. Instead, he poses questions that expose the folly of our certitude . . . Miller dismisses criticism that he is advancing a 'nanny state.' He acknowledges that 'big government' liberalism is dead and rejects European socialist models. He even notes that Clinton's 'Third Way' fell short of reducing insecurity in the global age. At the same time, rigid conservative approaches have left us mortgaged to China through massive trade deficits, while deregulation of our financial system literally has broken the bank. If rethinking comfortable ideas is painful, even more painful is the prospect in coming decades that, for instance, as many as 40 million white-collar jobs could be lost to competitors in such places as China and India. Free trade was controversial as lower-paying manufacturing jobs moved overseas. 'How will business and politics be reshaped when hungry foreign rivals set wage levels (and trigger "downward mobility") for better-educated and politically potent groups in ways not previously imaginable?' Unimaginable is the word for this and other scenarios Miller outlines in the book, but his arguments eliminate denial as an option. Although there's ample room for dissent, Miller's limber mind informs a rational voice that is crucial to the conversation."—Kathleen Parker, San Francisco Chronicle

"Myth: Raising taxes will hurt our economy. Truth: Prominent Republicans (such as Newt Gingrich, John McCain's campaign economic guru) say taxes must go up, and the ride can be benign if we manage it prudently. Europe's high unemployment comes not from its high taxes but from dopey laws making it hard for companies to fire people, making executives skittish to hire except when it's unavoidable. Myth: Businesses should provide health insurance; any government intervention will lead to socialism. Truth: Businesses are bailing out of insuring workers because the cost is crippling their competitiveness. Meanwhile, the Netherlands and Switzerland have top-flight, market-based care with generous government subsidies. If any of the foregoing makes you do a double-take, read The Tyranny of Dead Ideas. Matt Miller, a business consultant, journalist, and onetime aide in the Clinton administration, has written a fact-based, provocative, and persuasive critique of the clichéd notions imprisoning our politics. And he gives us the truths that can set us free . . . Miller's on target when he says business is essential to the country's welfare and to the new policies that must overthrow dead ideas. That doesn't mean we shouldn't take it to task when appropriate . . . Near the end of the book, there's one more dead idea that's spiritual rather than political. That cliché holds that money buys happiness. Miller stakes it with common sense as well as scholarship. While well-off people are happier than the poor, it's worth remembering that even struggling, middle-class Americans live longer and more comfortably than most people on the planet. Miller also cites research showing that, regardless of income, people with full lives—friends, good family relations, and fulfilling activities, be they fishing or church-going—are happier than those without. As a New Republic magazine writer noted years ago, the hippies of the 1960s had it right when they preached that money isn't everything."—Rich Barlow, The Boston Globe

"'It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble,' Mark Twain is supposed to have said. 'It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.' Twain's quip neatly sums up the basic premise of Matt Miller's latest book, The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity. That premise: Americans, both policymakers and their constituents, are in thrall to outmoded ideas about everything from taxes to schools. Those ideas, while they may once have made sense, no longer reflect the socioeconomic realities of the 21st century, Miller says; unless we discard them, not only will the United States never resolve thorny issues such as health-care reform and trade policy, but it inevitably will fall behind other countries more willing to face up to hard realities. Miller's 'dead ideas' include some cherished beliefs of both the political left and right, but he also lays into ideals that go to the very heart of what many Americans believe sets their country apart: that the United States is a meritocracy, where success comes to those who have worked hard and deserve it. That each generation will do better than the last. That locally governed schools are a bastion of democracy. The problem, Miller writes, is that many of our core beliefs about how things ought to work jelled in the post-World War II years—when the United States was practically the only major economy left standing. During those heady few decades, it seemed to make sense that, for example, companies should bear most of the burden for our health care and retirement security. The U.S. economy was so dominant, and good blue-collar jobs so plentiful, that we could afford to promote unfettered free trade without worrying too much about domestic dislocations. That world, suffice to say, is long gone. But, Miller argues, too many critical public debates are still conducted as if it were 1959 instead of 2009 . . . Miller's concise accounts of how each 'dead idea' came to dominate Americans' consciousness are fascinating. His account of how and why business insisted on shouldering the responsibility for providing workers with health insurance and pensions, rather than government as in most other Western industrialized countries, is most illuminating (short answer: Business wanted to short-circuit any further New Deal-ish moves to the left and keep private control over health- and welfare-spending decisions) . . . His breezy, engaging yet substantive book should prompt a national re-examination that's long overdue."—Drew DeSilver, The Seattle Times

"The Tyranny of Dead Ideas made this reviewer angry, depressed, and ready to entertain unconventional ideas to survive enormous changes coming our way due to globalization . . . Miller is an intelligent guy with opinions on these topics that political junkies should read if they want to expand their knowledge of the issues beyond shallow talking points . . . This reviewer hopes Miller is an inaccurate prognosticator, but something tells me he's got plenty of it right."—Grady Jones, Sacramento Book Review

"This book will make you the most valuable contributor to your next workplace discussion of politics or the economy. Matt Miller explains the history of ideas in a way that forces fresh insights about the future. I feel smarter already."—Chip Heath, author of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

"With crisp prose and compelling arguments, Matt Miller overturns orthodoxies left and right. Whatever your political persuasion, you will agree that The Tyranny of Dead Ideas is a tour de force—the rare book that can reshape the national agenda."—Daniel H. Pink, author of A Whole New Mind

"To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, our times are piled high with difficulty, and just as we must act anew we must think anew. Matt Miller is one of those few, invaluable voices who is able to reach beyond the truisms of yesterday to help us think anew about tomorrow. I warmly recommend his pathbreaking new book The Tyranny of Dead Ideas."—David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership, Harvard University, and senior political analyst, CNN

"In The Tyranny of Dead Ideas, Matt Miller drives a bulldozer into the complacent conventional wisdoms of our society, including the desirability of free trade, of paternalistic corporations, and even of low taxes. You need not agree with every idea to be invigorated by Miller’s bold and original vision."—Philip K. Howard, author of The Death of Common Sense and Life Without Lawyers

"Miller has written an energetic polemic. A political progressive, he highlights what he terms "dead ideas" that hamper American life through our failure to let go of them. He isolates six such examples of enduring conventional wisdom in America. In the first part of his book, he deconstructs these ideas, explaining their detrimental effects upon American economic progress. Not surprisingly, given his academic background, he writes well and authoritatively on economic issues. In the second part of his book, he identifies and explores what he terms "destined ideas." According to the author, embracing these ideas will make America economically and emotionally healthy as well as internationally competitive. The problem here is the assumption that all Americans hold these old ideas, let alone agree that they are dead; readers who don't follow the author's line of thinking will feel disconnected from the text. The writing style and layout are extremely informal; there are no endnotes, bibliography, or suggested further readings. Ultimately, this is an optional purchase for public libraries catering to readers interested in current economic and political topics."—Melissa Johnson, Library Journal

"If Fortune columnist Miller's eerily prophetic book had come out earlier, it could have served as a wakeup call for Wall Street leaders and Washington, D.C. lawmakers before the failure of several venerable financial institutions required government bailouts. The author's prescient observations make a persuasive case for how an American attitude of entitlement and outdated beliefs about government, education, taxes, business, corporate excess and health care threaten our national well-being and our position as a world leader. The author denounces such cherished and longstanding beliefs as Your Company Should Take Care of You, and The Kids Will Earn More than We Do, and examines their historical provenances—for example, he traces the adoption of pensions to the early 20th century, when employers like Proctor and Gamble and G.E. acted as feudal lords offering benefits to recruit and retain employees—strategies that are now strangling these same corporations at the expense of global competitiveness. Rather than a petulant indictment of our political and economic myopia, this book offers a fair-handed critique."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Matt Miller is the author of The Two Percent Solution: Fixing America’s Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love, which was a Los Angeles Times bestseller. He is a contributing editor at Fortune; a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress; the host of public radio’s popular week-in-review program Left, Right & Center; and a consultant to corporations, governments, and nonprofits. He lives in Los Angeles.

Read the full excerpt


  • Matt Miller

  • Matt Miller is a contributing editor for Fortune, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and the host of public radio’s popular week-in-review program Left, Right & Center. He is a consultant to corporations, governments, and nonprofits, and his first book, The Two Percent Solution: Fixing America’s Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love, was a Los Angeles Times bestseller. He lives in Los Angeles.

  • Matt Miller
    Matt Miller