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The Tyranny of Dead Ideas

Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity

Matt Miller releases a new book on letting go of the old ways of thinking to unleash a new prosperity.

SOURCE: book cover

About the book

Table of contents


Reviews and press coverage

About the author

Buy the book

About the book

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.

In The Tyranny of Dead Ideas, Matt Miller offers a unique blend of insights from history, psychology, and economics to illuminate where today’s destructive conventional wisdom came from and how it holds our country back. He also introduces us to a new way of thinking—what he calls "tomorrow’s destined ideas"—that can reinvigorate our economy, our politics, and our day-to-day lives. These destined ideas may seem counterintuitive now, but they will coalesce in the coming years in ways that will transform America.

A strikingly original assessment of our current dilemma and an indispensable guide to our future, Miller’s provocative and path-breaking book reveals why it is urgent that we break the tyranny of dead ideas, for it is only by doing so that we can move beyond the limits of today’s obsolete debates and reinvent American capitalism and democracy for the twenty-first century.

Table of contents

Introduction: Trapped

Part One: Today’s Dead Ideas

1. The Kids Will Earn More Than We Do
2. Free Trade Is "Good" (No Matter How Many People Get Hurt)
3. Your Company Should Take Care of You
4. Taxes Hurt the Economy (and They’re Always Too High)
5. Schools Are a Local Matter
6. Money Follows Merit
7. The Tyranny of Dead Ideas

Part Two: Tomorrow’s Destined Ideas

8. Only Government Can Save Business
9. Only Business Can Save Liberalism
10. Only Higher Taxes Can Save the Economy (and the Planet)
11. Only the (Lower) Upper Class Can Save Us from Inequality
12. Only Better Living Can Save Sagging Paychecks
13. Only a Dose of "Nationalization" Can Save Local Schools
14. Only Lessons from Abroad Can Save American Ideals
15. From Dead to Destined Ideas

Afterword: Burying Dead Ideas in Business and Beyond


Three facts are now poised to shape our economic life for a generation. First, thanks to global competition and rapid technological change, America’s economy is about to face its most severe test in nearly a century. Second, our political and business leaders are doing next to nothing to prepare us to cope with what lies ahead. And third, the reason for this inaction is that our entire economic and political culture remains in thrall to a set of “Dead Ideas” about how a modern economy should work. This book is about the threat that individuals, companies, and the country face from the things we think we know,and about the new (and surprising) ways of thinking destined to replace these Dead Ideas so that America will continue to prosper.

The next decade will bring a collision offorces that threaten to disrupt U.S. society, sink the middle class, and call into question the political and business arrangements on which our prosperity and stability have rested for decades. These perils have little to do with the housing-related financial crisis that gripped America in the fall of 2008; in fact, the need to steer our way through this near-term credit crunch now masks longer-term economic challenges that are far more consequential. The stakes couldn’t be higher: if America doesn’t decisively manage these tides of change, we’ll face a backlash against our economic model—which, for all its flaws, has produced more betterment for more people than any other system in human history. If this backlash proves contagious, and other advanced nations lose faith in capitalism’s ability to improve the lives of ordinary people, the rich world’s efforts to protect its citizens from economic change will doom the developing world to dollar-a-day poverty.

The good news is that there are ways to avert this dark scenario and to flourish. The trouble is we’re not doing what we need to because of the Tyranny of Dead Ideas. By this I mean the tacit assumptions and ingrained instincts broadly shared by business executives, professionals, policy makers, media observers, and other opinion leaders regarding the way a wealthy, advanced economy like the United States should work. 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
  • employers 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

These axioms have percolated through the culture for decades, becoming second nature to many of us. They determine which paths we consider, which large questions we view as settled, which possibilities we allow ourselves to imagine. 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.

Download the complete introduction (pdf)

Reviews and press coverage

"Matt Miller writes and thinks with amazing clarity about some of the most difficult problems this country is facing. The Tyranny of Dead Ideas offers the most plausible way to renovate our political and policy thinking to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century —if we have the guts to go forward. This is must reading for President-elect Obama and for anyone who wants to be a creative citizen in a difficult time."
—Joe Klein, political columnist, Time

"This book will make you the most valuable contributor to your next workplace discussion of politics or the economy. Matt Miller explains the history of ideas in a way that forces fresh insights about the future. I feel smarter already."
—Chip Heath, author of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

"To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, our times are piled high with difficulty, and just as we must act anew we must think anew. Matt Miller is one of those few, invaluable voices who is able to reach beyond the truisms of yesterday to help us think anew about tomorrow. I warmly recommend his pathbreaking new book The Tyranny of Dead Ideas."
—David Gergen, Director, Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School; Senior Political Analyst, CNN

"In The Tyranny of Dead Ideas, Matt Miller drives a bulldozer into the complacent conventional wisdoms of our society, including the desirability of free trade, of paternalistic corporations, and even of low taxes. You need not agree with every idea to be invigorated by Miller’s bold and original vision."
—Philip K. Howard, author of The Death of Common Sense and Life Without Lawyers

"With crisp prose and compelling arguments, Matt Miller overturns orthodoxies left and right. Whatever your political persuasion, you will agree that The Tyranny of Dead Ideas is a tour de force—the rare book that can reshape the national agenda."
—Daniel H. Pink, author of A Whole New Mind

"If Fortune columnist Miller’s eerily prophetic book had come out earlier, it could have served as a wakeup call for Wall Street leaders and Washington, D.C. lawmakers before the failure of several venerable financial institutions required government bailouts. The author’s prescient observations make a persuasive case for how an American attitude of entitlement and outdated beliefs about government, education, taxes, business, corporate excess and health care threaten our national well-being and our position as a world leader."
Publishers Weekly

About the author

Matt Miller is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress; a contributing editor at Fortune; and an award-winning contributor to The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, and other national magazines. Miller is also the host of "Left, Right & Center," public radio’s popular political week-in-review program (named by iTunes as one of its best podcasts of 2007). Miller’s first book, The Two Percent Solution: Fixing America’s Problems In Ways Liberals And Conservatives Can Love, was published by Public Affairs in 2003, and was a Los Angeles Times bestseller. In its cover review, the Washington Post Sunday Book World called Two Percent "a welcome return to political thinking on a big canvas agenda;" the Wall Street Journal called it a "small marvel of a book." His next book, The Tyranny Of Dead Ideas, will be published by Henry Holt/Times Books in January 2009. Miller previously wrote a nationally syndicated column for Tribune Media Services; he served as a guest columnist for the New York Times op-ed page in May/June 2005.

Miller served as senior advisor to the director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1993 to 1995, where his duties including managing the staff work for presidential decision making on the budget and leading management studies both for OMB and the White House, which led to the most sweeping changes at OMB in two decades. From 1991 to 1992 he was a White House Fellow, serving as special assistant to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Prior to his government service, Miller was a management consultant with McKinsey & Company, and also served as an executive for a national chain of women’s clothing stores.

Miller, 46, was born in New York City and raised in Rye Town, New York, and Greenwich, Connecticut. He received his B.A. in economics, magna cum laude, from Brown University in 1983. (His junior year was spent at the London School of Economics.) He received his law degree from Columbia Law School in 1986, where he was a James Kent Scholar and book reviews editor of the Columbia Law Review.

Miller is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Screen Actors Guild (thanks to a cameo appearance in the thriller, “The Siege”). His wife, Jody Miller, is the founder and CEO of The Business Talent Group. They live with their 11-year-old daughter in Los Angeles. You can visit his website at http://www.mattmilleronline.com.

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Matt Miller

Senior Fellow