The Tyranny of Dead Ideas

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

Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Matt Miller spoke yesterday about his new book, The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity in a discussion moderated by New York Times columnist David Brooks. Miller warned at the event that growing distrust of the government among middle- and working-class Americans could upend the basis of both the American capitalist economy and its vibrant democracy.

Miller emphasized the “overestimated power of the individual to shape his own economic destiny” in these uncertain economic times, predicting that although over 80 percent of Americans firmly believe that upward mobility is a necessary vestige of the American capitalist economy, opinion will decidedly shift away from that belief in the next five years as the economy worsens. Ultimately, Miller asserts that the United States must make both a moral and progressive commitment to protecting its citizens in the face of a changing global economy.

America needs progressive change to reinvent—and reinvigorate—capitalism. Miller outlines six myths in The Tyranny of Dead Ideas that have guided the country for the past 50 years, but are holding back America’s economic development: 1) our kids will earn more than we do; 2) free trade is always good, no matter who gets hurt; 3) employers should be responsible for health coverage; 4) taxes hurt the economy; 5) schools are a local matter; and 6) money follows merit. During the event, he provided many ideas that could be used to reinvent American capitalism.

Miller argued at the event that one of the first steps to a more sustainable economic system will be dispelling the myth among middle-class Americans that market capitalism is a meritocracy. “Demoralizing capitalism and democracy,” Miller notes, “only adds to white-collar anxiety.” The responsibility of providing health care and effectively managing the American welfare system has placed a large weight on professionals and business owners in the United States. With the cost of health care spiraling, the burden of employer-based insurance is only a deterrent in the pursuit of universal heath coverage. Miller noted that eventually professionals could become the progressive force necessary to shift the financial responsibility of providing health care from employers to the federal government.

Miller offered two narratives that can be used to further progressive action and distance ourselves from the dead ideas of the past. First, the United States must effectively restructure its labor market in order to maintain its edge in the global economy. Second, Miller argues that the federal government should increase regulation in an effort to curb mistrust in the financial system. It must also take the lead in technological innovation by increasing its funding in science and health education. These narratives serve to strengthen the argument for increased national spending on social programs, including health care and education.

Discussion at the end of the event focused primarily on the importance of education reform. Local control of schools has created a discrepancy that threatens to destroy the foundation of equal opportunity, Miller argues in The Tyranny of Ideas. He believes that the federal government can strengthen the public education system by increasing the federal contribution toward education to 20 to 30 percent of total education funding in the next 10 years from the current level of 9 percent. This would allow the federal government to directly influence not only content and curriculum standards, but incentive programs to raise the bottom level of teaching standards throughout the nation.

It is important to be aware of the “growing protectionism in the wings of progressive professional liberals,” warns Miller. Building job security for American industry can be accomplished without rejecting foreign labor and ideas. Protecting the interests of the American worker will be critical to maintaining the United States’ competitive advantage in the global economy, particularly in the face of the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Copies of The Tyranny of Dead Ideas will be available for purchase at the event.

Featured Author:
Matt Miller, senior fellow, Center for American Progress; author, The Tyranny of Dead Ideas

Moderated by:
David Brooks, columnist, New York Times


Center for American Progress, 1333 H St. NW, 10th Floor, Washington, DC , 20005

Additional information

A light lunch will be served at 11:30 a.m.