Book Review: The Tyranny of Dead Ideas

Guest Post by Washington Grantmakers President Tamara Copeland

For the last year now, many have been talking about the “new normal” as we all adjust to what portends to be a new economic reality. But, if we sat down to define the new normal, it’s likely that we would all define it differently.

In The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Revolutionary Thinking for a New Age of Prosperity, Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a contributing editor to Fortune, suggests that just as we share language with differing meaning, we also share broad concepts that we define similarly, but that they simply are not true. They may have been true at one time, but now they are more mythic than real.

Miller focuses on six dead ideas:

  • The kids will earn more than we do;
  • Free trade is “good” (no matter how many people get hurt);
  • Your company should take care of you;
  • Taxes hurt the economy (and they’re always too high);
  • Schools are a local matter; and,
  • Money follows merit.

The book deconstructs how we arrived at these societal truisms. Miller begins by citing noted economist John Maynard Keynes who stated that back two thousand years up to the eighteenth century, there was little change in the standard of living of the average man. This changed with the convergence of the founding of the United States and the Industrial Revolution and continued through the prosperity following World War II. Opportunity was abundant and hard work was seen as the road to upward mobility. Even up until the 1970s, according to Miller, “real incomes doubled in a generation.” The reality now, however, is that the citizens of many European countries have a much better chance of rising above the economic status they held at birth than do citizens of the United States. Given that fact, Miller suggests that we can’t allow our national image to rest on what is now a dead idea. He contents that this should not be the primary measure of American progress. We have to change how we think.

He explores each of these dead ideas in depth, concluding with the ubiquitous notion that money follows merit. He suggests that around the 18th century, the concept of having a hereditary economic level began to unravel. Thomas Jefferson described “an aristocracy of talent” whereby individuals were rewarded on the basis of knowledge and ability, not on the basis of the capriciousness of birth. To some degree, that thinking continued until very recently when we began to witness corporate CEOs being rewarded at a significant rate as their companies floundered economically. Miller contends that high pay for ordinary work will soon become more common and that well-educated “Lower Uppers” will come to understand that they can never attain “Ultrarich” status. Miller asks if this reality might impact how the Lower Uppers view classes below them who are struggling with structural disadvantages. Will the Lower Uppers lead a movement to change societal imbalance as they realize that people do not necessarily end up where they economically should?

As we let go of the “dead ideas,” Miller suggests that we must embrace what he calls “destined ideas”:

  • 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; and
  • Only lessons from abroad can save American ideals.

While you might find some of these ideas absurd, Miller reminds the reader that throughout the history of America many sacred cows have died, including an economy based on whites owning blacks as being moral and sustainable and the belief that women should not vote. He reminds the reader that in the 1920s era of rugged individualism, no one would have thought that the government had a role to play in helping senior citizens avoid poverty or to help the jobless until they could find employment, but twenty years later Social Security and unemployment relief were accepted notions. Miller believes that his “destined ideas” while possibly viewed scurrilously now will be seen as completely mainstream by 2020.

The Tyranny of Dead Ideas is a provocative book that jolts us into questioning why we do what we do, why we believe what we believe. Miller urges us to consider why we have status quo bias and how we can move powerful people from the grips of flawed, dead ideas.

I believe that the ideas in this book could spark some useful conversations about the future of philanthropy. I’ve recently heard the lament that “Much has changed in the last 100 years, but our philanthropy really hasn’t.” Are there dead, societal ideas shaping your work or that which you support? Is the premise of your approach to philanthropy born from a status quo bias? While Miller is focused on economic realities for the country, his message should resonate across many sectors.


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