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Laying Dead Ideas to Rest

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By Kathleen Parker
Friday, January 9, 2009; 12:00 AM

Matt Miller gives me a headache.

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If his name doesn't ring a bell, wait until his new book, "The Tyranny of Dead Ideas," gains traction in the national debate about how to fix The Current Mess.

Miller's diagnosis of what ails us is grim but optimistic. (You have to learn to think paradoxically.) And his prescription for a cure is painful because it requires something most humans resist: Change the way we think.

Before we can fix the economy, health care, Social Security, education and other problems, we have to rethink some of our most sacrosanct premises.

Here's a paradoxical thought to get you started: We have to increase taxes and federal programs to save the capitalist system.

I know, I know. But don't dismiss Miller without hearing him out. He has some compelling ideas that, though they seem at first counterintuitive, are ultimately reasonable. It is first necessary to suppress the instinct to remain comfortable in the familiar and to calm the knee that aches to jerk.

Miller -- a journalist (Fortune columnist and host of the radio show "Left, Right & Center,"), Democrat and former economic aide in the Office of Management and Budget under Bill Clinton -- has singled out six second-nature, but dead, ideas about how a modern economy ought to look.

If not corrected, he argues, our very economic model could be threatened as other nations lose faith in capitalism's ability to improve the lives of everyday people.

The dead ideas are that: 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.

Is this man insane? More government? More taxes?

With a few tweaks here and there, Miller's dead ideas sound an awful lot like core American principles. (Exceptions: Even some hardened free-marketers will acknowledge the X factor of "luck," a subject Miller explored in his previous book, "The Two-Percent Solution.")

But he's got a point. In fact, he's got several.

The world has changed in significant ways and our old formulas simply no longer work. We once thought, for instance, that financial markets can regulate themselves. Whup. The disasters of 2008 proved that assumption false. If only we had noticed it sooner. Did dead ideas block our vision?

Miller doesn't pretend to possess a magic formula. Instead, he poses questions that expose the folly of our certitude. For instance:

Top economists of all political persuasions insist that free trade is "good for the country" because the benefits to some Americans outweigh the losses suffered by others owing to foreign competition. But, asks Miller, "Who put economists in charge of weighing the interests of one set of Americans against another?"

On education: Miller supports serious parental involvement and local ownership of the direction of schools, but insists that school funding based on local taxation dooms poor communities to substandard education.

Without a greater federal role in financing and standards, how are 10 million poor children supposed to compete?

Miller dismisses criticism that he is advancing a "nanny state." He acknowledges that "big government" liberalism is dead and rejects European socialist models. He even notes that Clinton's "Third Way" fell short of reducing insecurity in the global age.

At the same time, rigid conservative approaches have left us mortgaged to China through massive trade deficits, while deregulation of our financial system literally has broken the bank.

If rethinking comfortable ideas is painful, even more painful is the prospect in coming decades that, for instance, as many as 40 million white-collar jobs could be lost to competitors in such places as China and India.

Free trade was controversial as lower-paying manufacturing jobs moved overseas. "How will business and politics be reshaped when hungry foreign rivals set wage levels (and trigger 'downward mobility') for better-educated and politically potent groups in ways not previously imaginable?"

Unimaginable is the word for this and other scenarios Miller outlines in the book, but his arguments eliminate denial as an option. Although there's ample room for dissent, Miller's limber mind informs a rational voice that is crucial to the conversation.

Keep the Advil handy.

kparker@kparker.com


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