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Originally published Friday, January 23, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

Book review | A guide to loosening the grip of "dead ideas"

In "The Tyranny of Dead Ideas," author and commentator Matt Miller says that America must discard some of its most cherished notions of the way things ought to work, because they no longer reflect the socioeconomic realities of the 21st century. Miller appears Tuesday at Town Hall Seattle, and Wednesday at the Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearances

Matt Miller will discuss "The Tyranny of Dead Ideas" at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Tickets are $5; (www.brownpapertickets.com, 800-838-3006 and at the door).

Miller also will speak at noon Wednesday at the Seattle Chamber of Commerce meeting at Rainier Square. Tickets are $20-$25 (seattlechamber.com; 206-389-7215).

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble," Mark Twain is supposed to have said. "It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."

Twain's quip neatly sums up the basic premise of Matt Miller's latest book, "The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity" (Times Books, 258 pp., $26). That premise: Americans, both policymakers and their constituents, are in thrall to outmoded ideas about everything from taxes to schools. Those ideas, while they may once have made sense, no longer reflect the socioeconomic realities of the 21st century, Miller says; unless we discard them, not only will the United States never resolve thorny issues such as health-care reform and trade policy, but it inevitably will fall behind other countries more willing to face up to hard realities.

Miller's "dead ideas" include some cherished beliefs of both the political left and right, but he also lays into ideals that go to the very heart of what many Americans believe sets their country apart: that the United States is a meritocracy, where success comes to those who have worked hard and deserve it. That each generation will do better than the last. That locally governed schools are a bastion of democracy.

The problem, Miller writes, is that many of our core beliefs about how things ought to work jelled in the post-World War II years — when the United States was practically the only major economy left standing. During those heady few decades, it seemed to make sense that, for example, companies should bear most of the burden for our health care and retirement security. The U.S. economy was so dominant, and good blue-collar jobs so plentiful, that we could afford to promote unfettered free trade without worrying too much about domestic dislocations.

That world, suffice to say, is long gone. But, Miller argues, too many critical public debates are still conducted as if it were 1959 instead of 2009.

Among Miller's many hats — he's a former Clinton aide, a columnist for Fortune, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and host of public radio's "Left, Right and Center" — is that of management consultant, and at times his book reads like a transcript of one of his conference presentations. But Miller's concise accounts of how each "dead idea" came to dominate Americans' consciousness are fascinating. His account of how and why business insisted on shouldering the responsibility for providing workers with health insurance and pensions, rather than government as in most other Western industrialized countries, is most illuminating (short answer: Business wanted to short-circuit any further New Deal-ish moves to the left and keep private control over health- and welfare-spending decisions).

In the last part of the book, Miller offers up a set of "destined ideas," those he claims are certain to supplant the dead ones he's just spent 150 pages trying to stake. Here, unfortunately, Miller falls into a bit of wishful thinking. Though he contends the pressure of events — of which the current economic slump isn't even the most important — will force us to change our ways of thinking, there's no guarantee those changes will be for the better. America could turn inward, erecting protectionist walls and pouring money into dying industries (oops, that one may already have happened). Or we could collectively decide that rising inequality and declining opportunity are OK so long as taxes stay low.

Miller's policy proposals will be familiar to anyone who's read his first book, "The Two Percent Solution," or heard his radio show: Generally, he supports the government enforcing broad goals but letting market forces figure out how to achieve them. Many readers no doubt will argue with his suggestions, but almost everyone will find themselves struggling to defend at least one of Miller's "dead ideas." His breezy, engaging yet substantive book should prompt a national re-examination that's long overdue.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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