Matt Miller’s “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas”

This past Thursday, February 26th, I had the opportunity to hear Matt Miller, a former Clinton staffer, political commentator and the host of NPR’s “Left, Right, and Center” speak about his new book, “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity” at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, California. I was certainly impressed by Mr. Miller’s approach, which is a great example of the Zentropist philosophy in action (and I doubt that Mr. Miller is yet aware of this!).  I have not yet had the chance to read the book, so I must refrain from rendering an opinion on the conclusions that Mr. Miller has drawn, although I do feel it instructive to comment on the 6 ideas that Mr. Miller opines are “dead,” as well as the 7 ideas he offers as “destined” for the paradigm shift which we are apparently undergoing.

So to be perfectly clear, the brief thoughts and comments below, aside from the quotation of the idea in question, are my own interpretation of the “dead” idea advanced by Mr. Miller.

The ideas which the book suggests are “dead” and must be discarded include:

“The Kids Will Earn More Than We Do” – Sadly, Mr. Miller is probably right about this one. The notion that upward mobility in America as all but guaranteed if you work hard is a phantasm at this point. A lot of folks will probably struggle, or work harder than their parents, to maintain some semblance of the material trappings that were assumed to be a “birthright.”

“Free Trade is ‘Good’ (No Matter How Many People Get Hurt)” – For all of the buzz about the “world being flat,” it is very apparent that now more than ever, most of us are in competition with peers internationally, rather than locally, regionally or even nationally, since in a “service based” or “knowledge” economy, a lot of work can be performed from virtually anywhere. And clearly there are both winners and losers in this global balancing act; I cannot begrudge those in other countries seeking to find a better standard of living for themselves and their families, but when this is used to justify downward pressure on wages, it has very real ramifications.  It ought to be interesting as more white collar service jobs such as law (after all, the vast majority of American lawyers practice transactional law which in theory, could be performed by anyone that is qualified to pass the bar in a particular state, no matter where they reside unless residency requirements were imposed to prevent this) get this treatment, rather than those engaged in “blue collar” occupations or less regulated service jobs.

“Your Company Should Take Care of You” – Without question this is DOA, although the manner in which the implied “social contract” has been broken is pretty damn egregious. Loyalty is a two-way street, and it’s ironic how many corporations seem to view employees as “depreciating assets” which can be discarded regardless of their utility in order to produce short-term results for shareholders or boost executive compensation. I realize that many employees simply “punch in, go through the motions, and punch out” without becoming invested in the company’s success, but many more do not. Sadly, I think one of the future financial storms on the horizon is when it is revealed that many of the pension plans (mostly applicable to Baby Boomers) have been under-funded, which will cause further pain to those seeking a secure retirement and the rest of us in the working world that will end up being expected to bail them out through government initiatives.

“Taxes Hurt the Economy (and They’re Always Too High)” – For me, this one is a bit of a red flag, as Mr. Miller clearly feels that many Americans need to pay more in taxes. The problem is, where do we draw the line? It’s easy to say that we should “tax the rich more,” but how do we define rich? What about our overly complex tax system which apparently gets gamed anyway, as we see from a slew of  President Obama’s Cabinet Nominees that conveniently made “tax errors” that most shockingly, were not in the government’s favor but rather their own. According to 2006 IRS data, the top 1 percent of wage earners, with an adjusted gross income (AGI) of $388,806 or greater, paid just shy of 39.9 percent of all federal income taxes. When you include the top 10 percent (with an AGI of at least $108,904), that figure increases to nearly 71 percent, and if you include the top 25 percent (AGI of $64,702, which is still considered a respectable income in most parts of the U.S.), you are accounting for more than 86 percent of all federal income taxes collected.  It seems to me, that if we want to talk about new ways of doing things, that we need to transition our tax system to one that perhaps penalizes consumption of all but necessities, rewards savings, and perhaps applies some form of tiered flat tax which does not unduly punish those who work hard and generate income every year (rather than living off of capital gains from inherited wealth, for example, and thus “stimulating the economy” through their consistent productivity).

“Schools are a Local Matter” – Since Mr. Miller talked about this at some length during his presentation, I feel more comfortable stating that I’m largely in agreement with his position, namely that for too long we’ve left testing standards and fund-raising for public primary and secondary schools to the local level, which has resulted in wildly divergent budgets and standards, and that the more recent “No Child Left Behind” program is not necessarily improving educational standards, but rather forcing schools to teach just enough to get kids to pass the test. Although this may make me unpopular in some quarters, teacher unions must bear some culpability for making it difficult to dismiss teachers that are dismal failures in the classroom or simply biding their time until retirement, while criticizing the notion of merit or performance based pay. Yes, we understand that teachers in economically under-privileged areas face an additional obstacle to get kids to perform in the classroom, which is why we need to create incentives to get “the best and brightest” to be willing to tackle such difficult assignments. Most importantly, we must present education which is relevant and provides the capability for life-long learning; too many people in this country are functionally illiterate or incapable of critical thought and analysis, and at best can simply regurgitate whatever has stuck in their short-term memory. As Americans fail to learn the skills necessary to compete in our “flat world,” we are going to continue our “downward glide slope” or worse, enter into an unrecoverable spiral.

“Money Follows Merit” – True enough that this was a wonderful fantasy to maintain, especially when it may have been true. Working hard or pursuing higher education simply does not guarantee a certain standard of living, no matter what you’ve been told. But that being said, not continuing to pursue both formal and experiential education, expanding one’s skill set or making an effort to stand out from the crowd are surefire recipes for eventual disaster.

That concludes the “dead ideas” that Mr. Miller has highlighted in his book. In the next day or two, I’ll address Mr. Miller’s proposed “destined ideas” and weigh in on those…

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