Top Leaderboard, Site wide
Truthdig: Drilling Beneath the Headlines
May 24, 2017 Disclaimer: Please read.

Statements and opinions expressed in articles are those of the authors, not Truthdig. Truthdig takes no responsibility for such statements or opinions.

Truthdig Bazaar more items

Arts and Culture
Email this item Print this item

Jonathan Shapiro on ‘The Tyranny of Dead Ideas’

Posted on Mar 27, 2009

By Jonathan Shapiro

Matt Miller is a one-man economic stimulus package.

His ambitious new book, “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity,” has more intriguing proposals packed into it than might be found in a month of congressional debates. Whatever the book lacks in deep analysis, it more than makes up for in intellectual honesty and courage. Miller acknowledges that our problems are vast and systemic and, thus, the solutions will not come in half measures. Yet most refuse to admit it.

“America’s economy is about to face its most severe test in nearly a century … [yet] our business and political leaders are doing next to nothing to prepare us to cope with what lies ahead,” Miller writes.


book cover


The Tyranny of Dead Ideas


By Matt Miller


Times Books, 272 pages


Buy the book


The proof is in their actions. Bailing out banks or the auto industry and spending billions in federal funds to create jobs may stave off insolvency and curtail unemployment, but these are fundamentally short-term responses to long-term problems. Even more worrying, such actions prove that our leaders continue to rely on old economic models that are no longer viable or even relevant.

The first step, Miller argues, is to recognize that “our entire economic and political culture remains in thrall to a set of `Dead Ideas’ about how a modern economy should work.”

The problem is not in the stars, or even our institutions, but rather in our heads. Because we have failed to grasp how the world’s economy has changed in the last 20 years, our systems of education, resource allocation and public policy have failed to serve our needs.

Miller lists the dead ideas that cloud our thinking:

While current thinking about the American economy is hardly monolithic, the individuals who occupy its most influential positions subscribe to certain key premises:

  • our children will earn more than we do
  • free trade is “good” no matter how many people it hurts
  • employees 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

... And therein lies the dilemma: from the halls of government to the executive suite, from the corner store to the factory floor, Americans are in the grip of a set of ideas that are not only dubious or dead wrong—they’re on a collision course with social and economic developments that are now irreversible.

To see long excerpts from “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas,” click here.

In this allegedly bipartisan age, where good ideas are supposed to trump ideology and politics, Miller is precisely the type of thinker we need. Smart, independent and reformist, Miller plays center in KCRW’s “Left, Right & Center” with élan.

Radically centrist, Miller is a reformer in the tradition of Richard Hofstadter. Sworn to no party, his only allegiance is to smart, effective business and government. If only the nation hired philosopher-kings, Miller would never be out of a job. And we would all be better for it.

This is not to suggest Miller merely embraces change for its own sake. Miller’s hoped-for return to old-fashioned values, harkening to a time when America used the stocks instead of investing in them, makes good sense. Bringing Puritan principles to bear on Wall Street would have served us well. How much better it would have been for the directors of AIG, hedge funds or banks to be governed by notions of thrift, moderation and humility.

Nor does Miller pretend to have all the answers. His gift is to ask the big questions:

“Why are business leaders afraid or unwilling to say that we need government to play a bigger role in health care? How can top officials and their advisors call constantly for tax cuts when trillions in unpaid bills are coming due? Why do politicians pledge to ‘leave no child behind’ while overseeing public school systems that systematically assign the worst teachers and most rundown facilities to the poor children who need great schools the most? Why do free trade losers get only lip service from those elected representatives who say that workers are getting the shaft?” 

Such questions are well worth asking. They force us to consider mitigating the negative consequences of unchecked greed without compromising our capitalist system. They suggest why we should alter the role government plays in regulating business. They make us consider what responsibilities the private sector should assume in regard to health care and education. Miller admits such questions are daunting. But they must not scare us into denying the issues they represent. While others see only economic calamity, Millers sees a teachable moment.

“It takes an extraordinary shock to expose the conventional wisdom as obsolete, and to open people’s minds to a new version of what is possible and what is necessary.” This, Miller writes, is such a time.

Always thought-provoking, never dull, Miller’s ideas are far-reaching and ambitious. They cover, among others things, the need to modify our tax policies, ways to reform our health care and educational policy, and what we could learn from other nations regarding how to revive our banking industry.

New and Improved Comments

If you have trouble leaving a comment, review this help page. Still having problems? Let us know. If you find yourself moderated, take a moment to review our comment policy.

Join the conversation

Load Comments

By Solomon, August 2, 2009 at 11:58 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The review aside I have one question, which I’m not sure is in the book:

The incredible danger of large scale religious organizations that influence politics. Why does every President of the country need to be “Christian” in order to be elected?

If religion is assumed to be always moral then how does one explain (among other war-like situations) the Inquisition? Religion is wholly based on anecdotal thinking without considering the observation of given facts. People are ‘told’ what to think based on religious ideology, and then are afraid to question religious authority based on fear of a wrathful God. For this reason, isn’t this supposed be a country that has separation of church and state? As a simple reminder as to why this is a problem: George Bush used the Christian Right to gain position in the oval office, solely based on his claim that God Anointed him to the presidency. Almost 50% of all votes in the United States at that time were from Right-wing Christian groups. Isn’t this kind of criminal?

This is also why abortion is too much on the forefront of political discussion. Pro-lifers are fighting for religious control over public policy and almost completely disregarding the social need for healthy family planning. This is of course absurd for a nation that bombs civilians in other countries. What about those children?

Report this

By felicity, March 30, 2009 at 10:40 am Link to this comment

It isn’t so much our aversion to the ‘new’ or our inability to think out-of-the-box, it’s our genetic aversion to letting go of the old.

Ptolemy’s earth-centered universe was accepted fact for 1200 years in spite of the fact that evidence showing otherwise was well known and even provable. 

Kepler was able to prove that orbiting heavenly bodies describe an elipse rather than a circle which people found unacceptable, and thus false, because the ‘circle’ was a perfect form and god made heaven and god lives in heaven and god doesn’t make ‘inferior’ products.

Hope to god our obviously screwed-up economic beliefs don’t survive for 1200 years because if they do, we won’t.

Report this

By writerman, March 28, 2009 at 3:15 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

For what it’s worth, I’ll try to answer one of the big questions. What is the American healthcare system really for? It isn’t primarily, as of today, designed to benefit the sick, as much as provide a massive subsidy or transfer of wealth, from oridinary Americans to the shareholders of insurance companies and pharmaceutical firms. After they get their cut, what’s left goes into patient care. This is the only logical, though deeply problematic, conclusion one can reasonably come to when one examines such a grotesquely unfair and wasteful system of public healthcare.

In a way it’s comparable to the massively bloated military budget, what’s that for? It’s not there to defend the United States, because, after all, the United States has no real enemies anymore; the military budget, all one and half thousand billion of it, is, once again, a hidden subsidy and transfer of wealth from the taxpayer, the state, to the private sector.

This is a way of seeing through the ‘paradox’ of why on earth do we waste so much money on these things; because the waste doesn’t matter, it’s built into the system, it’s the reason behind the apparent madness.

Report this
prole's avatar

By prole, March 28, 2009 at 12:49 am Link to this comment

If Matt Miller “is a one-man economic stimulus package” then he needs a literary bailour and here to give him one is J.Shapiro. “Whatever the book lacks in deep analysis”.... can be easily glossed over by Miller’s buddy Shapiro who deserves a cut of any royalties from this flimsy tome for his laudatory puff piece that is also lacking in any deep analysis; and reads more like advertising copy than a critical book review. Miller’s bombastic “new book, ‘The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity’ has more intriguing proposals packed into” the grandiose title than it does in the rest of its retread contents. But despite its admonitory title it doesn’t stop the fawning Shapiro from praising “Miller’s hoped-for return to old-fashioned values.” Old Ways of Thinking are not to be confused with old-fashioned values, apparently. But Shapiro really goes over the top when he gushes, “If only the nation hired philosopher-kings, Miller would never be out of a job. And we would all be better for it.” Maybe Miller wouldn’t be out of a job - at least as long as he had Shapiro to schmooze over him - but most of the rest of us would probably be out of one with Miller’s “collision course.” This is the same Miller who in 2003 wrote a lovely little piece extolling America’s invasion of Irag, titled ‘Clinton Military Triumphs In Iraq!’ In it Miller enthused, “With that indelible image of Saddam’s toppling statue forever banishing the doubts of the armchair generals, and with the amazing achievements of the United States armed forces coming into sharper relief…[and Miller and Shapiro’s worldview coming into sharper relief, as well] and “...We’ve been told repeatedly how much more lethal and accurate our forces are in 2003 than they were in 1991…how today’s military is smarter, faster and better than it was back during Desert Storm is a credit to U.S. ingenuity and a source of national pride” [what bloodthirsty pride] and “none of the impressive leaps in our military capability have taken place suddenly in the last 18 months ....we are liberating Iraq [!!!} with Bill Clinton’s military. The same Bill Clinton, of course, who, as conservative myth has it, ‘gutted’ and ‘hollowed out’ our fighting forces” [doesn’t that make you proud to be a Democrat?! and a ‘progressive’?!] And to top it off the “radically centrist” [the ultimate oxymoron]Miller declaims, “Yes, Tommy Franks and Donald Rumsfeld and their teams deserve enormous credit, and President Bush’s steely resolve may give even Jacques Chirac a secret shiver of apres-war doubt” [and don’t all you other misguided anti-war Leftists like Chirac, even today get a secret shiver of apres war doubt?!]. But Miller’s “teachable moments” aren’t limited to imperialist aggression and corporate econonmics, he also has a plan to increase voter turnout in elections that he got from his rabbi’s wife. In an article titled, ‘Depressed About Voter Turnout? Listen to the Rabbi’s Wife’, Miller suggested, “Turn the election into a lottery. The stub that’s proof you voted would be your ticket. Prizes could range from $10 million for the winner to $1 million for dozens of runners-up Does anyone doubt this would lift turnout” and he concluded, “this is America, after all. If everything else pays, why shouldn’t voting?” Just the sort of mercenary policy you’d expect from a Fortune magazine columnist like Miller. But is this the sort of capitalist-imperialist cretin Plato had in mind when he envisioned philosopher-kings? 



Report this

By Wilberforce, March 27, 2009 at 8:07 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

More irrelevant trivia from commercial media. Shapiro’s dead ideas are known to be outdated. And they’re nothing compared to the media’s ongoing bull session. Commercial interests long ago filled liberal space with dingbats. And no one with brains and integrity is allowed anywhere near the mike.
That’s ok, though, because Americans despise smart people. They treated the Clintons like dirt, barely noticed their successes, and didn’t bother with the details. Now, when we desperately need Clinton economic policy, the public are happy with an old world hog fest of tax cuts and pork. Meanwhile, Shapiro ignores serious policy and recites a list of shibboleths. Please.
Please see Stimulus Redux at

Report this

By everynobody, March 27, 2009 at 7:10 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is not a book that will change anything. This new administration is doing everything it can to repair the old system and keep it going; it’s a junker that is beyond repair. Without a paradigm shift, that must start with the people; we’ll get rhetoric and little else. Until the dead (zombie, because they never die) ideas are killed once and for all, it will be business as usual, no matter what you call it.

Report this

By tetractys44, March 27, 2009 at 2:48 pm Link to this comment

Does anyone know the history behind precedents and where they came from?...

(not being a prick, I really want to know. My keyboard didn’t come with a “Non- Condescending” button on it)

Report this

By NYCartist, March 27, 2009 at 12:11 pm Link to this comment

Great comments. Americans, in poll after poll, are more progressive/liberal than politicians, says Howard Zinn.  I think the list of ideas kind of misses the mark.  “Good old values”?  What were they?  Same as now: rich rip off as much as possible, particularly from the workers and the poor.  “Caveat emptor” let the buyer beware is one old idea still around.

“Local education as the problem” is an old idea.  Take NYC as an example of really bad education:mayoral control, “business model” for schools, privatization…

Greg Palast did some good writing about Mr. Bloomberg’s chancellor of Educ. (who knows nothing about education) when Pres. Obama was picking his nominee, Arne Duncan, another guy who is for privatization, “merit pay” (takes us back to pre-union teachers getting closer to decent pay)...

Ideas is the abstract, such as this review/book suggest aren’t as useful as taking a couple of ideas and working them out.  Does this book tackle the flaws of capitalism “as we know it”?

PS Noticed the time, turned on WBAI to hear Earl Caldwell’s opening monologue on his Friday show “The Caldwell Chronicle” for a longtime journalist who puts present and past side by side in wonderful word ways. Show archived free for 90 days.

Report this

By Shift, March 27, 2009 at 11:14 am Link to this comment

This is a rehash of old ideas that have been written about and spoken about among futurists for the last quarter century.  Futurists take it further by providing effective methodologies of change, creativity, invention, and leadership. 

The idea that we must go back to Puritan ideals is nuts.  Euro-centric thinking got us into this problem.  Decentralization is the key to change.  Lowering the barriers to communication in a top down model and allowing communication in all directions allows the maximum efficient use of talent.  Understanding that visions are fluid and change as the organization changes collectively is important.  The nature of leadership becomes one of encouraging differing ideas that lead to breakthroughs.  The toleration of differing methods of learning and contributing is a fundamental leadership principle.  Making order out of chaos requires the best contributions of the entire organization. Learning to suppress one’s ego and entertain new ideas is paramount to success.  Utilizing creative techniques, fractionation, reversal, etc., requires time for reflection. 

Congress cannot function because it’s architecture is eighteenth century. Not only were congressmen bought and sold but its process architecture is designed to fail in an environment of hyper-change.  Problems solved by half measures and window dressing pile up, one upon another until the whole thing derails, as in financial collapse. Congress cannot rescue us because they lack the individual thought process and external decentralized architecture to succeed. 

Collapses are occurring individually and collectively as families lose their homes and businesses lose their profitability.  Few people or companies are set up to succeed in today’s environment.  Clarity is lost on most and chaos is winning. 

Obama’s attempt to rescue the old system is doomed because it is still run by the old thinkers, and if it functions at all will only function in the short term.  Obama’s concept of change is so limited that it better represents conventionalism. 

The tide of change will not be held back by conventionalism, wealth, power, conservatism, or reactionaries.  Change will happen for the better only if we understand it and challenge it.  The old dead men walking have managed to block the change agents among us.  I believe that only with collapse will American’s turn to the modern change agents.  Trust me when I tell you that the Puritan model is not among their methodologies. 

It may be worthwhile going back and reading Alvin Tofflers book Future Shock.  It describes it as a psycho-biological condition that renders people into fear and uncertainty that forces a breakdown and a breakthrough.  Buckminster Fuller wrote a book entitled I Seem To Be A Verb.  The transformation, breakdown and breakthrough, is what we are experiencing now.  Washington and Wall Street have nice smiles, but those smiles will steal your morning cup of coffee.  It’s time to get real and change, now!

Report this
Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, March 27, 2009 at 7:08 am Link to this comment

‘I expected more content from the review ...’

The review makes the book appear senseless, but that may be an accurate representation.  One can start with the title, “the tyranny of dead ideas”.  An idea isn’t dead until no one believes in it any more, like the Ptolmaic system or phlogiston.  If it’s dead it can’t tyrannize anybody.  Only as long as people believe in it does it have power, and that power will exist no matter how stupid or evil or unproductive the idea is.

But in any case, the ideas bullet-listed in the review are hardly tyrants.  Every one of them is actively debated every day and government and private policies and actions see-saw between them and their competitors.

Could dead ideas actually rule us?  Maybe, but to show that would require the analysis which the reviewer says the book lacks.  One would have to exhume the ideas from the grave and show that, although no one believes in them, they still order our lives.  Apparently that sort of thing is well beyond the scope of the book.

In short, the review presents the book as hokum, and what we are able to see of it, like the title and the bullet list, confirm this impression.

Report this
Purple Girl's avatar

By Purple Girl, March 27, 2009 at 6:59 am Link to this comment

Repugs shouldn’t be hanging on by their toenails- they should be hanging by their necks.
Trickle Down was innately UnAmerican- it was the economic system of the Crown which our ancestors not only rejected to fought a war to rid US of.
Even more treasonous is their war on labor- thus assuring the average citizen not only did not have access to the free market,but was indentured to those who had seized it.
The mere few phrases in our founding documents attest to the philosophical backlash to feudalism (trickle down), ‘We the People’ ‘For & By the people’ essentially Socialistic ideas.Not for and By the Crown, nor the Corps- family crest or logo makes no difference. Not the misconceived idea of socialism manipualted by Russia- when the Gov’t owns and controls everything that is not socialism. More in the spirit of Thoreau. But Scoialism does not negate a free market system- nor even capitalism. Infact the only thing it assures is that all citizens are guaranteed the access to the essential resources to provide a real opportunity to acheive their potential. It doesn’t necessary mean no one can improve their situation. It only assures EVERYONE ahs that chance. Thus Socialism is very compatible with a Free market ideology.What the Group pools it resources for is to assure it survives and thrives- so all have access to the bear essentials- food, shelter,education, healthcare and defense.Those things we developed th eTool of Government to address for the collective.
Interesting the REpugs reject ‘Survival of the Fittest’ as an explanation of human evolution- but love it as a political doctrine- able to justify hoarding resources and barring access to them.
When in reality Darwins theory not only explained the biological mechanisms but also the social mechanisms of adaptabilty-aka Community living as an advantageous way to assure survival of the species. If acting as a community was not beneficial- we would not be a ‘civilized’ species.
So failing to recognize the requirements of group dynamics (sharing of essential resources and burdens) not only flies in the face of ‘We the People’ but also defies the laws of nature for our species.I don’ know who the Fuck the Repugs think they are - but hey are not True blue (or red blooded) Americans, nor indidviduals worthy of group membership. I’ll skip the long dissertation on how they also defy Gods Rules too. Suffice to say show little regard or reverence to boot.

Report this

By tetractys44, March 27, 2009 at 4:46 am Link to this comment

Referring to the beginning part of this review, I can’t help but think our system’s inability to look past “Old ways of thinking” has much to do with the way “Precedents” there were determined in past cases are employed in court decisions, law-making, and above all, the considered to be a primary resource for implementing change and solving institutional problems.

I’m somewhat new to this field, but interact with it everyday and don’t need the perspective from so-called “Experts” with their own separate agendas that only confuse issues and cloud judgment to see that most of these precedents we use in modern practice were constructed under a different foundation than the one’s they’re applied to for forming new ones today.

Based entirely on common sense, how relevant can decisions made in court cases decades ago be considered relevant in examining information received at 2nd hand by decision-makers? Granted, precendents might offer some perspective, but using them as a basis to determine outcomes seem to be only one of the many contributing factors stunting the growth towards a higher conscious.

Report this
Gulam's avatar

By Gulam, March 27, 2009 at 2:05 am Link to this comment

I expected more content from the review and less gushing over the book. It was very stingy on giving me a bit of what the book actually says.

Report this
Right Top, Site wide - Care2
Right Skyscraper, Site Wide
Right Internal Skyscraper, Site wide

Like Truthdig on Facebook