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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Matt Miller: The Tyranny of Dead Ideas

9780805087871.jpg[Please welcome Matt Miller, host of Left, Right and Center to FDL. As always with a guest, please stay on-topic, take off-topic discussions to the prior thread and be polite. Thanks! — CHS]

Anyone who has ever banged their head on the walls of corporate complacency, or governmental indifference, or even local school board intransigence or petty power payback will recognize the host of "dead ideas" chronicled in this book.

In rapid succession, Matt Miller’s The Tyranny of Dead Ideas makes a strong case for outside-the-box thinking on a host of this nation’s oldest and most entrenched sacred cows. Issues on which both the right and the left have long staked their political fortunes, while corporate and common America alike have looked the other way.

Change won’t come without a shift in all our thinking and actions.

According to Miller:

People basically like to leave things the way they are. Our fear of losing what we have often outweighs our desire to gain from changes we could rationally pursue. In an organizational context, this instinct leads us to spend time and effort cataloguing the risks of trying new things while remaining blind to the risks of staying the current course.

Sound familiar on issues like health care, taxation, education or a myriad of issues this nation consistently faces but never truly faces up to in the political arena?

If you are expecting a book which excoriates only the right and uplifts every tenet of the left, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Miller agitates on both sides of the aisle in a way that is sure to irritate entrenched power brokers on both sides, CEOs and policy wonks alike. The dead ideas that Miller attempts to tear down:

— 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

For me, the most illuminating points on these issues were the histories behind how we got stuck in these ruts. For example, corporate payment of health care for employees came about as a way to stave off loss of power by corporate officers as well as union officials, who both feared government take-over of such an important matter eroding their control and power base. And that the corporate mantra of the time rested on the US not copying the welfare state model of Europe. Funny how some pejoratives just keep getting recycled, isn’t it?

What Miller does best is synthesize corporate and working America issues — and the political power currents that run between them — blending the best from all sides together into a potentially workable whole.

Miller is avowedly pro-capitalist, and a believer in the best of American business rising to the fore ahead of the greedy headline-grabbing assault from which we are suffering at the moment. But, at the same time, he’s also a fan of regulation and reform, not just for corporations, but for a host of issues.

But it is the surprises he brings to the fore on political exigencies and the vast gulf between real knowledge and public kabuki that astonishes throughout: on page 182, there is an acknowledgement from Newt Gingrich that higher taxes are inevitable; or this from Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former econ guru for John McCain’s presidential bid on page 107, who replied when Miller asked why tax-cutting mania grips the GOP when it’s common knowledge that higher taxes are required for fiscal sanity:

It’s the brand. . . and you don’t dilute the brand.

At one point, Miller quotes extensively from a discussion between William Greider and Robert Rubin for an interview in The Nation, and manages to turn my thinking on Rubin on its head for a moment. Fascinating. Miller’s chapter on learning lessons from other nations ought to be required for everyone who jumped on the "freedom fries" bandwagon.

This book particularly shines in its open-ended questions. Miller quotes from John Rawls:

It’s this sense of luck that inspired the famous thought experiment described in the philosopher John Rawls’ 1972 book A Theory of Justice. The way to create rules for a just society, Rawls argued, is to first imagine everyone in an "original position" behind a prebirth "veil of ignorance," where no one knows what their own traits will be — whether they will be rich or poor, beautiful or plain, smart or less so, talented or not, healthy or unwell. Then you’d see what kind of social order people would agree in advance was fair if they couldn’t know the place they themselves were destined to occupy in it. From this vantage point, of course, qualities we often consider part of "merit" are really traceable to luck, since a person’s brains, and to some extent their character (at least when they are young), are shaped by factors over which they have no influence.

Suddenly that destiny of being born with a silver spoon or with nothing whatsoever washes away, and what you are left looking as it who we ought to be instead of simply who we are. What a gift, and a great starting place for discussion.

This book is thought-provoking and infuriating — for me, in discussing social security and quasi-private potential funding — but maybe that’s just my own preconceptions talking. With that, I welcome Matt Miller to FDL and open the floor for questions.

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Christy Hardin Smith

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children.

Email: reddhedd AT firedoglake DOT com