By Ink Alone: The Tyranny of Dead Ideas
by Matt Stevens
Matt Miller‘s latest book, The Tyranny of Dead Ideas is an interesting and enveloping read. I finished it in just two short days. Miller, who writes for Forbes occasionally and has consulted for various companies lays out his ideas on why America is in trouble, and then, the opposite (or corresponding idea) that would solve the problems that these ideas have led us into.
TIMES BOOKS, New York: 2009
While Miller’s tale is eminently interesting, he sadly fails to convince me on the face that the ideas he claims are dead, are truly dead. I come away from the book more often remembering him simply repeating the same mantra over and over again, and not necessarily arguing that it was dead. The first of these “Dead Ideas” is that our children will earn more than we do, or that rephrased, incomes will continue to go up. Miller cites evidence that since the 1970s, the median income in America has actually gone down or stayed falt while the wealthy have grown at ridiculous and preposterous rates thus making the ‘average’ income in America increase. But that’s the whole extent of his evidence. Sadly, it left me unconvinced. I’m not sure I could argue the other way, that I see a path to ensure that I make more than my parents, that my kids will start off better than I did right out of college, but I sure as hell don’t buy his argument. I come away going “mehh” which really isn’t a good way to start your opening chapter.
Miller’s other Dead Ideas are:
“Free trade is ‘good’ (no matter how many people get hurt)”
“Your company should take care of you”
“Taxes hurt the economy (and they’re always too high)”
“Schools are a local matter”
“Money follows merit”
I come away after reading this book that I don’t really buy on face much of Miller’s
arguments. I understand his criticism of free trade, and it is a good criticism, but I don’t know of any economist who defends free trade absolutely, but that those who endorse as a general rule. Miller’s next straw man is ridiculous to anyone of my generation, and should be to anyone with any understanding of business.
In his chapter detailing how businesses are getting out of managing health care and pensions and how government will be forced to step in. I don’t know anyone who holds true to this idea besides ideologues who’s arguments we should be discounting. He acknowledges that its ideology mainly driving the debate, not reality based views. Conservatives on Capitol Hill are resistant to a national health care solutions because politically they must be, but they don’t offer other solutions, they can’t because they are stuck in this Dead Idea. (Okay, so i give in, this Dead Idea is still valued by a rapidly decreasing amount of the population.)
Miller’s focus on schools is particularly interesting. He discusses how the creation of independent school districts and how the recent government actions in education have created 50 state standards and even more ways to define who is meeting those standards. Miller’s final endorsement to solve the education crisis which he claims to be embroiling America is to create national standards but then give schools, teachers, and superintendents the ability and resources to meet them. He advises increasing federal dollars in school to make the education moneys equal across the nation, and perhaps even more money to the poorer more distressed districts (often inner-city) than the suburbs and rural districts. I don’t have issues with this at all. He also advises curtailing the power of teachers unions. I know I’m quite biased, as my father has long been the president or negotiator for his teacher’s union, but I see teacher’s unions as quite valuable. However, we must remember that teacher’s unions don’t always look out for the best of the students; they look out for the best of their members, often fighting to keep jobs for teachers who don’t deserve them.
If teachers (and their unions) really want to help their cause and stop being black-guarded by moderates and conservatives, they need to do more to turn bad teachers into good teachers, or simply get rid of them-and not defend them to the nth degree.
The weirdest part of Miller’s book is his section on meritocracy and his classification of the Upper Middle Class (bankers, doctors, well-paid lawyers) and their hatred and envy at the Ultras (the super rich, investment bankers, hedge funds, oil barons). Miller’s dead idea is that “that market capitalism is a meritocracy-that is, a system in which people basically end up, in economic terms, where they deserve to.” Another ridiculous straw-man. People have known for centuries that the railroad barons, or the oil barons, or other super rich weren’t significantly smarter, or faster, or better than the other very well off but not super rich. The super rich are lucky. They have been throughout history. Miller at times seems to be worried about some sort of super-rich vs. upper-middle-class class war. And its kind of weird.
Where Miller stridently excels is when he talks about the conservative (REAGAN!) argument that taxes are always bad and that they must always go down. Miller argues strongly and fluently that the middle class is demanded more services and that they will (and are) willing to tax themselves for those services. Miller calmly explains that right now, the US is spending about 20% to 21% of GDP, is bringing in revenues of about 19%, but to make future entitlements (Medicare, Social Security) sure, we need to bring in revenues of about 24%. He displays numerous reality-based conservatives (sadly few and far between in the tax debate) who endorse this view and have publicly argued for it.
Miller in the end argues for business leaders, who he sees as inherently practical, to change their viewpoint, advocate higher taxes, social spending by the state and thus move America back to a leader in the world. I think I agree with Miller, though I don’t know if he argues his point as well as he should have.
One area that I think Miller sadly misses is that how bigger government can actually create a more robust capitalist state. In this country, as millions of jobs are being lost the economy collapses, we have a major problem. Our government policy is actually discouraging people from attempting to start a new business, or leave failing companies to start out on their own. Because so many individuals depend on their employer for health care, they need to keep their jobs to keep their medicines, to keep their children healthy. They can’t leave and attempt to start a new business because they can’t get health care. At the same time, numerous companies are cutting health care to compete with rivals and with other countries that have health care managed by the state. Our capitalism would be more vibrant and would allow more people to pursue their dream to open a pizza parlor, to start a bicycle repair shop, to start up their own company if the government was there to help them with health care costs.
Miller doesn’t make the above argument, at least, if he does, it is quite subsumed in his text.
Overall, this book simply doesn’t delivery on its premise to demolish these dead ideas. As I said above, I read it quickly, and found some points interesting, but sadly, this book isn’t really worth the time. Read something more interesting.
Two out of Five Melons!