Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Tyranny of Dead Ideas

Author, radio talk show host, and progressive thinker Matt Miller has been particularly busy this week, hawking his latest book, The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go Of The Old Ways Of Thinking To Unleash A New Prosperity. I saw him being interviewed by Stephen Colbert and discussing his ideas with David Brooks at the Center for American Progress. While Colbert was lap-slapping-tumble-out-of-a-treadmill hilarious, Brooks was effectively tongue in cheek and far more informative. Under Colbert's onslaught, Miller barely got half of the dead ideas out.

The overview of the book reads:
America is at a crossroads. In the face of global competition and rapid technological change, our economy is about to face its most severe test in nearly a century—one that will make the recent turmoil in the financial system look like a modest setback by comparison. Yet our leaders have failed to prepare us for what lies ahead because they are in the grip of a set of "dead ideas" about how a modern economy should work. They wrongly believe that
  • Our kids will earn more than we do
  • Free trade is always good, no matter who gets hurt
  • Employers should be responsible for health coverage
  • Taxes hurt the economy
  • Schools are a local matter
  • Money follows merit
These ways of thinking—dubious at best and often dead wrong—are on a collision course with economic developments that are irreversible.
Miller invariably offers his own set of new and improved ideas that "can
reinvigorate our economy, our politics, and our day-to-day lives." By embracing what he calls "Tomorrow's Destined Ideas," we can secure a better fate.
  • Only Government Can Save Business
  • Only Business Can Save Liberalism
  • Only Higher Taxes Can Save the Economy (and the Planet)
  • Only the (Lower) Upper Class Can Save Us from Inequality
  • Only Better Living Can Save Sagging Paychecks
  • Only a Dose of "Nationalization" Can Save Local Schools
  • Only Lessons from Abroad Can Save American Ideals
  • From Dead to Destined Ideas
Miller wants to update capitalism since it no longer works. As he points out, it no longer leads to success. As individuals, we can no longer determine our economic destiny and count on hard work being repaid with comfort and stability. The current global economic crisis confirms that we are neck deep in quick sand. While the next president - his "holiness" as Brooks referred to him tongue firmly in cheek - might stave imminent catastrophe, real long term systemic change can only be accomplished through a paradigm shift as Miller suggests.

Although Brooks started by asking whether Miller is moving left from his centrist perch, Miller is quick to protest that his ideas are not based on ideology. At both the Colbert Report and Center for American Progress, Miller declared himself an "economically rational liberal" or "radical centrist." Whatever he is, he is a pragmatist, an appellation shared by Barack Obama. That seems to be the thing nowadays. Whatever it takes to make things work.

Perhaps that is what we need right now. Policies based on pragmatism not raw ideology. Ideas that come out of sound reasoning, not out of prescription and proscription. However, we should keep the baby while throwing out the water. Ideologies and ideals still have merit. They provide signposts and benchmarks toward an ideal state, a utopia (or dystopia). Liberalism emphasizes individual rights and equality of opportunity. Conservatism believes in god and country, small government and laissez faire capitalism.

The pragmatism of Obama is already costing. Tax cuts amounting to $300 billion or about 40% of his proposed stimulation package to appease and entice Republicans even though the amount is guaranteed not to trickle down. Elevation of a religious bigot as the most honored clergyman in America to coax fundamentalists into the big warm fuzzy tent. With nothing in writing that they will pay up when Obama cashes in his chips.

Miller's ideas appear sound and pragmatism may very well be our only way out of this really deep hole we're in. But as we claw our way out may we at least hold on to some ideals. And when we do get out, survive with a mindset that puts people first.

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