Book Review: Tyranny of Dead Ideas

By Maggie Wells on 14 January 2009 (Updated 22 February 2010) 11 comments
Photo: Amazon

Trying to start off the new year in a forwardly thinking direction (isn’t that what we are supposed to do as citizens of ObamaLand?), I picked up a copy of Fortune columnist Matt Miller’s The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity and began fulfilling my new year’s resolution of reading things that are ‘good for me.’

I love Matt Miller’s radio program Left , Right, and Center which I listen to faithfully on Santa Monica College’s KCRW (more accurately, on my iTunes). He holds up the center of discussions on economics, politics and culture at large. Yesterday as is usually what happens when I begin to read a book that came out recently, I heard Matt Miller interviewed on KCRW for the new book. He’s also the author of  The Two Percent Solution: Fixing America's Problems In Ways Liberals And Conservatives Can Love.

The radio interview focused on six dead ideas that Americans need to give up in order to move forward (and these were all in the book as well as additional dead ideas). Chief among the ones discussed were uniquely American ways of doing things that don’t quite work anymore: healthcare tied to employment, local control over education getting in the way of unified standards, wanting tax cuts as baby boomers retire, the idea that a child will prosper more than the parent, that education, knowledge and skills will automatically produce a certain level of income, and many others. Miller argues eloquently both in print and in radio interview about all these dead ideas and more.

I've sat with some of these ideas a good deal--especially over localized control of education and realizing that at age 40, I do make less than my parents with a much higher mortgage. And perhaps I should be telling my kids hey, don't become a doctor you'll be sued for malpractice--become a banker who gets slapped on the wrist with a big fat severance check instead. The book is a great snack food for thought.

What makes the book a good read is his ability to put each of these ideas in their historical context of how we arrived at them and why we’ve steadfast held on to them. He seems uniquely rational and doesn’t come across as being in love with his own voice or discoveries in the way say Thomas L. Friedman seems to in The World is Flat (never listen to the audio of that book unless you really like the Disney approach to the adult world--his voice literally hurt my ears).

A few online reviews of the book have bashed the book as socialism but it didn’t come across that way to me at all (full disclosure: I have more than enough left wing subscriptions for decades to know the difference). I am finding his chapters and discussions of these dead ideas to be a bit of what the doctor ordered---giving voice to things I’ve already thought about but hadn’t researched myself. As the new Administration of “Change” gets underway, it might make informative reading.

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Guest's picture
Courtney

"And perhaps I should be telling my kids hey, don't become a doctor you'll be sued for malpractice--become a banker who gets slapped on the wrist with a big fat severance check instead."

I hope this book isn't as ignorant as you.

Guest's picture

Courtney, take a deep breath and learn to recognize a joke when you read one before calling people names, please.

Margaret, thanks for the review. I now have a copy reserved at my local library so I can check it out.

Julie Rains's picture

This sounds like a great book and a perfect choice for my book club. I love the idea of challenging underlying assumptions or at least understanding what the givens are and when those change making sure your policies, decisions, actions, etc. are adjusted or, again, at least, reconsidering them. And, I was just having the physician vs. banker discussion with my sister a few weeks ago based on the economic climate in Charlotte (home of former First Union turned Wachovia soon to become Wells Fargo and home of Bank of America, where, foreclosure rates are greater than the national average now that it's not as easy to hold on to the $300K per year bank  job).  

Guest's picture
Ian Erickson

What you say about Friedman is both funny and true. He's trying to be Malcolm Gladwell or Nicholas Taleb, writing books whose titles stand for a new idea, and then repeated that title ad naseum to promote both the idea and his latest book. He's a good guy though, and I'm glad to see his speaking engagement carreer is taking wing.

About socialism – classic Socialism really was about overthrowing the "Tyranny of Old Ideas" and the Russians, Chinese, Kmer Rouge, the North Koreans, and the Burmese Junta killed more people and destroyed more buildings and artifacts than Hitler and all other wars in the 20th century. Communism = Mass Murder by revolutionaries in red berets. Double Plus Ungood.

Strange how people nowadays who hang on Richard Dawkins' every word conveniently forget how many people died in the 20th century at the hands of "atheist" communist states. But you're right, that doesn't mean much about this book, which might say something else. Good article.

Guest's picture
Guest

Ian,
Like 99.99% of the rest of Americans,you are confusing an economic system with a political one.Communism is about economics,not politics,whatever everyone else has led you to believe.The regimes you mentioned were totalitarian oligarchies,which was the root of the problem,not the perverted form of communism espoused by thier dogma.I'm not being an apologist for Marx/Engels,but their idea of global workers revolution should not be confused with the Russian Revolution and subsequent 'revolutions' of so called 'Marxists',like the Nazis,merely an armed group of thugs at the right place and time.

Guest's picture
Guest

Ian,
Like 99.99% of the rest of Americans,you are confusing an economic system with a political one.Communism is about economics,not politics,whatever everyone else has led you to believe.The regimes you mentioned were totalitarian oligarchies,which was the root of the problem,not the perverted form of communism espoused by thier dogma.I'm not being an apologist for Marx/Engels,but their idea of global workers revolution should not be confused with the Russian Revolution and subsequent 'revolutions' of so called 'Marxists',like the Nazis,merely an armed group of thugs at the right place and time.

Guest's picture

A dose of reality as opposed to whatever pipedream is being sold by whomever for their own reasons is never unwarranted. in other words, check out any kneejerk assumptions you may have - so that reality doesn't smack you right up against the WALL.

In England they used to have a saying "Shirtsleeves to Shirtsleeves in 3 generations" meaning that there was an inevitable rise and fall of (at least) the self-made man. Shall I say those who are ignorant of history are bound to repeat it?

Especially in this time of unprecedented social change, one needs to keep an eye on the reality ball to make sure that you can more or less do well at the game of life. I peruse the business section of the L.A. Times - because here and there I find revelatory comments - ditto the back pages of my daily paper!

Keep a lookout for the anomaly - that "black swan" which could floor you! Not every swan is white, you know.

for my blog see www.myfrugallife.com/blog_pamphyila.html

Guest's picture
poor boomer

The Two Percent Solution is an interesting book; I read it about ten years ago as I recall.

He has definitely shed a number of dead ideas.

Embrace the new downward mobility!

Guest's picture
poor boomer

Based on what I recall of Two Percent Solution (which I mostly agreed with but I think there was one part I strongly disagreed with, although I can't remember what that was), I'm guessing that Miller has a streak in common with communitarians, who have at times been bashed as socialist.

I had a passing interest in communitarianism in the early 1990s but I have heard little by or about them since.

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vegetarian

Wow, Ian, that's a huge leap. What does Richard Dawkins have to do with mass murder and Communism? Sounds like your agenda is showing.

Guest's picture
Guest

"A few online reviews of the book have bashed the book as socialism but it didn’t come across that way to me at all"

A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, and government influence over industry, any industry - including education, is still socialism.