Continuing on from this week’s earlier posting regarding Matt Miller’s new book, “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas,” I thought that I would comment upon the seven ideas that Mr. Miller advances to be “tomorrow’s destined ideas.” Again, I need to make it clear that I have not as of yet read the book in full, but have heard Mr. Miller present his thoughts to a business audience, so the opinions expressed below need to be understood to be my own musings on the validity of his thesis and may not reflect nor agree with his actual views.
Without further adieu then:
“Only Government Can Save Business” – Given the global financial crisis which has paralyzed credit markets and is continuing to cause a lot of pain and suffering in both developed and less fortunate nations, Mr. Miller seems to fall into the camp that argues that a lot of our current problems can be traced back to de-regulation and lack of oversight. In other words, if left unsupervised, capitalism behaves in a similar fashion to a teenager given a case of beer and the keys to a sports car; there’s a lot of initial enthusiasm and a good time is had by all until the car is wrapped around a tree or slams into a concrete abutment. If the government doesn’t step in and bail out business (especially those “too big to fail”), then our financial system essentially collapses as the man on the street realizes that a staggeringly large amount of financial activity is little more than phantom transactions and the appearance of building wealth, rather than the creation of something with tangible value. My problem with this approach is that I see little accountability being assigned to this capital infusion, far too little punishment of the guilty parties that knowingly engaged in fraudulent and/or unethical behaviors, and we’re still entrusting the very parties that failed in their fiduciary and oversight responsibilities to begin with to now get on the straight and narrow and perform their duties. If I’m not mistaken, Einstein once remarked something to the effect that the definition of insanity is performing the same action over and over and expecting different results each time. Why is it that government can’t seem to get this basic premise right?
“Only Business Can Save Liberalism” - Mr. Miller did make it clear in his discussion at the Milken Institute last week that “liberalism” in this context refers to the social welfare programs, often now referred to as “entitlements” due to the mentality that is bred in many recipients of this largesse, that exist in our system. Let me be perfectly clear that I believe that any society that is just and remotely “compassionate” needs to have in place systems to help those that cannot do for themselves, or that have fallen on hard times. However, government is not always the best provider of such services for a variety of reasons, and I strongly feel we must distinguish between those that need / deserve some form of temporary help, and those that need lifetime or long-term continuing assistance. I do not think that it can be disputed that a subset of our population, again for a variety of reasons too lengthy to explore now, simply refuses to work because it is easier to reach into the public trough then to develop marketable skills or perform even unskilled manual labor as a stepping stone to other work. Nobody is owed a living. Perhaps you shouldn’t starve to death, but you should not be able to enjoy a standard of living commensurate with or above those that do get up and go through a daily grind, perhaps performing menial or underappreciated tasks for minimal compensation, if you aren’t willing to put forth any effort yourself.
“Only Higher Taxes Can Save the Economy (and the Planet)” - This is definitely a statement that makes me personally cringe. You see, I for one am of the viewpoint that in the U.S., most of us pay a fairly significant amount of taxes as it is, and if government was held more accountable for how the existing tax revenues are spent, we’d reduce a lot of waste (including some which directly impacts the environment) and unnecessary budgetary pork. So before we penalize even more those who work hard to be productive members of society, how about we utilize technology and transparency to account for how money is spent, eliminate the corrupting influence of lobbyists in America, and stop allowing politicians to grossly misappropriate funds for projects with little or no redeeming value or that clearly go beyond the scope of what the government ought to be concerning itself with?
“Only the (Lower) Upper Class Can Save Us from Inequality” - I’m in full agreement with Mr. Miller on this one. In short, because the notion of the “middle class” is so amorphous, we’re talking about those that are reasonably educated and skilled that have grown accustomed to, or expect, a certain standard of living, to have a very real stake in fixing a system that has abruptly pulled the rug from underneath them. You see, if you reduce things to those who have and those that do not, the aspirational class with a taste of the good life (even if it has been secured to date on credit and phantom wealth) that believes in even the possibility of upward economic mobility serve as a buffer. Eliminate that buffer, and you have all of the necessary tinder for revolution, peaceful or not. The would be oligarchs and feudal lords of America need to understand that eventually, if there’s only a tiny fraction of “super-rich” that are insulated from cash flow concerns and everyone else is struggling to one degree or another, that the resentment will likely boil over into rage. This is not about re-distribution of wealth, but ensuring a level playing field in which opportunity for advancement is real and not completely illusory.
“Only Better Living Can Save Sagging Paychecks” – True. At least for the next few years, most people will need to make do with less. Rather than focus purely on material rewards, this is a time to pursue personal growth and development, to build upon our relationships with friends and family, and to seek to do what we can to the best of our ability to leave this world a better place than when we found it. And while we’re at it, we can collectively get out and exercise more, spend time in nature, and not look for quick-fix solutions to problems that in part are caused by our own poor choices or behavior. You don’t need to belong to a gym or health club to get in shape, or even to invest in expensive equipment. In virtually every environment, with a little clever thought, you can challenge yourself to improve your physical condition, which can improve your spirits, mood and even sharpen thinking.
“Only a Dose of ‘Nationalization’ Can Save Local Schools” – As discussed in this week’s earlier posting, our primary and secondary educational systems in the U.S. leave a lot to be desired, and are in dire need of improvement if we are to remain competitive in the “flat world” that Thomas Friedman has so famously described. While efforts like “No Child Left Behind” may have started with good intentions, in practice many kids are still woefully lacking the critical reasoning and fundamental thinking skills that will give them any chance of securing a future that is not dependent upon “mule work” or can be readily done by machine. Clearly we need to implement some meaningful standards that reflect the skills necessary to compete in the world of not only today, but tomorrow, and we need to ensure that kids are learning during the 12 to 15 years they typically spend in school before going to college or entering the workforce.
“Only Lessons From Abroad Can Save American Ideals” – I agree with Mr. Miller’s contention that it is rather myopic and short-sighted of us as Americans to not look to the world at large to find examples of other cultures and countries implementing solutions that are compatible with our values, and where appropriate, seek to model our own initiatives on successful efforts. Why reinvent the wheel if we don’t have to?
In closing, I again am encouraged by Mr. Miller’s willingness to engage in what I term “Zentropist” thinking, even if he and I might draw different conclusions from the process at times, or disagree on specifics in some instances. America, and the world, needs more people to embrace such a challenge, and to seek to find solutions to the most pressing problems which left unchecked, will likely lead to unnecessary human suffering, misery, and perhaps even the demise of our species, not to mention many others…