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Is America Weighed Down By 'Dead Ideas'?
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Is America Weighed Down By 'Dead Ideas'?

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Is America Weighed Down By 'Dead Ideas'?
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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. If an entire culture can be said to be stuck in an old way of thinking, then author Matt Miller would be the nation's therapist. His message to America: Just let go.

Miller has written a book called "The Tyranny of Dead Ideas." He's a columnist for Fortune magazine, host of the radio program "Left, Right and Center." Matt Miller joins us now to talk about dead ideas and how to give them up to find happiness, or perhaps prosperity.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. MATT MILLER (Author, "The Tyranny of Dead Ideas"): Thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now here are a few of the so-called dead ideas that you write about. Our children will earn more than we do. Free trade is good. Taxes are bad, and also too high. The company we work for will take care of us with health care and pensions. These do seem to be words we live by. And you think we should give them up?

Mr. MILLER: Well, if we step back for a second, I think the problem that we're in now as an economy is that we're trapped in old ways of thinking that may have made sense 50 years ago when a lot of these ideas first got traction, but that don't make sense anymore today.

So, for example, the idea that financial markets can regulate themselves, we've just seen the implosion of that in the last six months. Similarly, I think that unless we explode the dead ideas I'm talking about in the book, we won't find our way back to a durable prosperity. And we can if we just change the way we think knowing that the world has changed as well.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, let's start with the one about kids doing better than the parents. I mean, this is really part of the whole American way of thinking about everything. Why do we have to give that one up?

Mr. MILLER: Well, I'm not saying that we can't have a better life for our children. But what I'm saying is we're in a moment in our economic history where our faith in the ever-rising tide, that is part of the American story. And yet new research shows that 100 million Americans are living in families that are doing less well than their parents did at a similar age.

So what I'm saying is we're going to need to revisit the role of government versus the role of private corporations in assuring the kind of prosperity we want. Health care's a great example, where I talk about the dead idea that your company should take care of you. Most of us get our health care from our employers. We're the only country that does things this way. And now with soaring heath costs killing businesses and employer-based health care leaving 50 million uninsured and 30 million more underinsured, it doesn't make sense.

WERTHEIMER: But if the employer and the employee, as is the case in most cases, are not sharing that cost, who is?

Mr. MILLER: Government will have to share more of the cost. The way we've put so many of the costs on business today is actually hurting their competitiveness. People famously talk about General Motors spending more on health care than on steel, or Starbucks more on health care than on coffee. In a global economy, it no longer makes sense to burden our companies this way.

WERTHEIMER: That sort of screams taxes will have to go up.

Mr. MILLER: Well, in the recession, obviously, we're going to cut taxes to try and muscle through this tough time. But there's no question once we're past this recession - and we will get past this. This is not going to be another Great Depression. As we retire the baby-boom generation in the years ahead, taxes will rise no matter who's in power. That's an undiscussable fact in our political life today. The opportunity it presents - look, no one wants higher taxes, but if they're going to go up to fund the boomers, we can use that as a chance to tax ourselves more smartly, which means cutting taxes on things like payrolls, which hurt lower-income people and kill jobs, and raising taxes on things like dirty energy, which we want to cut back because of our environmental goals.

WERTHEIMER: What are the chances of that happening, really? I mean, how many years have we heard politicians campaigning on cutting taxes rather than raising taxes?

Mr. MILLER: There's been a lot of phony rhetoric on both sides. And I think we're in a moment - and I think President Obama realizes this - where the childish things that he talked about in his inaugural address are something we're finally going to have to move past as a nation. People are ready for a more honest conversation on this because they know now how serious the stakes are. And the true measure of a society or a person or an organization isn't the dead ideas we fall prey to, because we all fall prey to them. It's whether we can summon the perspective and imagination to see the dead ideas in our midst and to move beyond them, bury them before real damage or, in our case, more damage gets done.

WERTHEIMER: Matt Miller is the author of the book "The Tyranny of Dead Ideas." Thank you very much.

Mr. MILLER: Thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: You want to read an excerpt about Miller's book, go to our Web site: npr.org.

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