Book Recommendation: The Tyranny of Dead Ideas

The only people surprised by the weather are the people who report it on TV. <Bill Engvall-Dorkfish-Weather and News.  Sorry, no free link on the internet!>

And my grandma.

For the roughly 99.82% of Americans unfamiliar with Wyoming weather patterns, every year goes like this.

June-September: Warm, low winds.  Rain concentrated around late July, which is also conveniently when we schedule Frontier Days, a giant 10-day outdoor event featuring rodeos, concerts, parades, fairs, carnivals, and other things that suck in the rain.

October: Winds pick up, temperatures cool down.  Dying leaves are blown off trees quickly and blow away to surrounding states.  There is no leaf watching; there is little need to rake leaves.

November-March: Cold.  Windy.  Dark.  Snow falls but doesn’t stick.  It blows to wherever the leaves went in October.

April-May: One or two giant snowstorms that stick.  Big snowdrifts form in the wind; the kind that allow horses to walk right out of pastures.

You might have noticed that this doesn’t seem to include Fall or Spring.  That’s because in Wyoming, those seasons don’t exist.  We have pre-winter and post-winter.

And I remember every spring when I’d call to visit with Grandma how she’d talk about how she just couldn’t believe the weather they were having back home, even after she’d lived in Wyoming and Colorado for decades! One day it occurred to me why.

She grew up “back East,” where they have the four seasons as Americans traditionally define them.  So she was used to them, and even when she moved across the country, she unconsciously expected them to exist everywhere in the continental United States.  And she wasn’t alone in this.  The very phrase “back East” reveals a pattern of thought in America: we originated on the east coast and spread westwards.  “Down South” and “Out West” are corollary phrases that reveal our culture’s temporal and geographical roots.

I remember being in Wyoming elementary school being taught about the four seasons, and nursery rhymes like “April showers bring May flowers,” even though neither of those things applied to my hometown.  The idea that there are four seasons called “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter” was a transplant from a place where it makes into places where it doesn’t make sense.  I am certain that no Native Americans sat around the Arizona deserts centuries ago wondering why they didn’t get snow that year!  And yet the average modern American living in Arizona will somehow feel like they are missing out on snow, and play “Dreaming of a White Christmas” around December anyway.

This is a small, relatable example of ideas that survive based on convention, sentiment, and routine, in spite of their obvious inapplicability to their environments.  In that vein, I want to introduce a book I finished recently: “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas” by Matt Miller.  The Amazon intro snippet reads:

America is at a crossroads. The global economic downturn that began in 2008 has laid bare the structural weakness of our economy, putting the country through its most severe test since the Great Depression. Yet our political and business leaders have failed to prepare us because they are in the grip of a set of “dead ideas” about how a modern economy should work. Even the proponents of “change” in the Obama administration remain tentative in pushing the boundaries of the conventional wisdom.

However, I think a passage from the author’s preface better describes the core theory of his book (rather than its applications) and, helpfully enough, echoes my point about our attitudes on seasons:

“Dead Ideas is a phrase I use to describe old ways of thinking that we hang on to even though circumstances have fundamentally changed; conventional wisdoms that retain their power long after they make any sense; or beliefs that, while comforting, are so at odds with reality that they amount to delusions that hold us back, and even doom us to fail.  Dead Ideas are eternal, universal phenomena that plague all of us, thanks to an essential vulnerability in human nature; our slowness in updating the way we think about the world even when the world itself changes radically.  When we talk about Dead Ideas, we’re talking about the trouble we get into when we cling to the things we think we know.”

The book is divided into two parts.  The Part One lists what Miller considers to be “Today’s Dead Ideas:”

  1. The Kids Will Earn More Than We Do
  2. Free Trade Is “Good” (No Matter How Many People Get Hurt)
  3. Your Company Should Take Care Of You
  4. Taxes Always Hurt The Economy (And They’re Always Too High)
  5. Schools Are a Local Matter
  6. Money Follows Merit

Part Two lists what Miller considers to be “Tomorrow’s Destined Ideas:”

  1. Only Government Can Save Business
  2. Only Business Can Save Liberalism
  3. Only Higher Taxes Can Save the Economy (and the Planet)
  4. Only the (Lower) Upper Class Can Save Us From Inequality
  5. Only Better Living Can Save Sagging Paychecks
  6. Only a Dose of “Nationalism” Can Save Local Schools
  7. Only Lessons from Abroad Can Save American Ideals

I don’t intend to do complete book reviews on my blog, but rather book recommendations tied to my own observations, hence the post title and the first half of this post.  So here are the highlights and why I recommend this book.

1) The present discourse on business, taxes, and the role of government is an area where the increasingly popular Libertarian movement goes completely off the rails in my opinion.  “The Tragedy of the Commons” is, in my mind, the seminal story for Libertarians; it discusses the government’s obligation to police public goods.  Therefore Libertarian stance towards deregulating businesses, especially with regards to environmental-related externalities, puzzles me.  Miller’s discussion of business, taxes, and government sheds some light on where this discussion originated and why it has gone the way it has in American political discourse.

2) Health Insurance is a very polarizing issue today, but for as divided as the two factions are, they really don’t cover the whole spectrum of the issue.  Namely, why do we take for granted that health insurance should be treated separately than any other type of insurance?  How did health insurance become tied to employment in a way unlike life, home, auto, liability, valuable personal property, etc, in the first place?  If we are going to reform health insurance so massively, why aren’t we discussing *all* of the assumptions on which the current system is founded?  Again, Miller excellently covers how we ended up with the convoluted system we have, and how the roots of this issue are preventing us from moving forward in a reasonable, orderly fashion.

3) The issue of the military meritocracy has risen to public view as a series of scandals has plagued our senior leadership.  Additionally, there is a rising voice of discontent about the squandering of human capital caused by the military personnel system. (Refer to Tim Kane’s popular articles in The Atlantic and his book, “Bleeding Talent,” in addition to many others including this article which has spawned a pretty wide-ranging discussion on the internet)  I found many of the points in Miller’s chapter on “the (Lower) Upper Class” to be relevant to this discussion even though Miller focuses on an entirely different demographic.  Reading his overview of the historical views on wealth and merit was one of those moments for me that went beyond merely teaching me something new and instead gave me a new lens through which to view a current situation and really did alter my worldview and my predictions on the future.

So, those are some reasons I think the book is worth checking out.  Add it to your reading list and feel free to revisit this post to comment on it!

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One thought on “Book Recommendation: The Tyranny of Dead Ideas

  1. Pingback: Comedy: Part 2. “Life is the Business of Pimps and Hoes” | iParallax

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