America is on the verge of a major economic and political crisis. Accordingly, it is a time for a transformative vision of society, a vision bursting forth with bold, new ideas. That’s the common theme of these two books.
Unfortunately, this is also apparently a time for arguments that are not well thought out, a time for disguising old ideas in new packaging, and a time for authors to advise beyond the limits of their knowledge. Shattering Orthodoxies, by A. Haag Sherman, and Matt Miller’s The Tyranny of Dead Ideas fit that bill.
Both books suffer from the way the authors define their terms—or, in the case of Sherman, the way he fails to define them. Sherman never directly states what he understands orthodoxy to mean in a book numbering over 340 pages. Indeed, the word never appears in his introduction. The only definition is provided by the author of the foreword, Mark W. Yusko. Referring to the meanings of the Greek roots of the word, ortho and doxa, Yusko defines orthodoxy as “having the right opinion.” He goes on to note that it can be defined as “a belief or orientation that agrees with conventional standards” and that the word often carries religious connotations. Yusko then reveals Sherman’s definition: “widely held beliefs” that are wrong, or “conventional wisdom that is not justifiable, but rather is imposed on the general population by an authority such as a church or government.” But if that’s the definition Sherman is using, then which orthodoxy is he shattering? Sherman contends, among other things, that Social Security and Medicare are unsustainable, the dollar is growing weaker, and Islamic extremists are the biggest threat to our national security. Why isn’t the title of the book Reinforcing Orthodoxies?
At least Miller provides a definition of “dead ideas.” Too bad it’s inconsistent. On the one hand, dead ideas are “the tacit assumptions and ingrained instincts broadly shared by business executives, professionals, policy makers, media observers, and other opinion leaders regarding the way a wealthy, advanced company like the United States should work.” Thus, dead ideas are largely the purview of the elite, except when they aren’t. “[F]rom the halls of government to the executive suite, from the corner store to the factory floor, Americans are in the grip of a set of ideas that are not only dubious or dead wrong—they are on a collision course with social and economic developments that are now irreversible,” Miller states, expanding the definition to include the general public.
At times Miller seems positively tangled in such contradictions. For example, he blasts “top economists” who “assure us that free trade is ‘good for the economy,’ because the benefit to some Americans outweigh the losses suffered by others due to foreign competition.” Miller restricts the support of free trade to elites.
But the American public is enthralled with the “dead idea” that “our children will earn more than we do.” The chapter exploring that dead idea mentions no elites at all. Rather, that “dead idea” “has been at the core of American experience for so long that it seems to us the natural order of things, a brand of progress to which we are entitled,” Miller writes. Barely a page later Miller states that “People sense what’s unfolding,” and then cites an opinion survey showing that 60 percent of Americans expect the next generation to be worse off.
In contrast to “dead ideas” are “destined ideas” that are “off-limits today but which are certain to reshape business and political life in the coming years.” One such destined idea is that “only a dose of ‘nationalization’ can save our local schools.” To improve our often dismal public schools, Miller advocates that the federal government set national standards in math, reading, and science, and take steps toward equalizing per-pupil funding. That argument comes after he pans previous federal efforts. In his chapter attacking the dead idea “schools are a local matter,” Miller attacks the federal program, Title I (which is intended to increase funding for poor schools) “because it distributes money largely based on how much states are already spending. The result is that Uncle Sam perversely makes rich states richer.” He also complains about “the charade the standards regime has become” under the federal attempt at national standards known as No Child Left Behind. It seems odd to call for near-full nationalization of education policy when more tentative moves in that direction have proven counterproductive.
A Voucher in Every Pot
Miller advances the “destined idea” that “only higher taxes can save the economy (and the planet).” A national value-added-tax (VAT) is needed because there is no other way to pay for our entitlement commitments like Social Security and Medicare in the years ahead. Miller concedes “we need to slow the growth of our health care and pension programs, but enormous success might mean these programs push [government] spending only to 25 percent of GDP instead of 30 percent, still vastly higher than today.” In other areas, though, we need to speed up spending. While promoting the destined idea “only government can save business,” Miller says “America could achieve universal [health insurance] coverage by in effect giving every American—regardless of preexisting condition—a voucher with which to buy an adequate group health plan from among competing private insurers.” It’s not clear if Miller considered that expanding government spending on health insurance would make it harder to control such spending and might exceed the new revenue from a VAT tax. “Intellectuals shall be consistent” clearly isn’t one of Miller’s destined ideas.
Miller seems to have spent the bulk of his energy putting his not-so-new ideas in shiny new packaging. A list of the “destined ideas”—higher taxes, more federal involvement in schools, government-provided health insurance, government saving business, progressive efforts against the ultra-wealthy—looks like just a garden-variety list of liberal ideas. Calling them liberal ideas, though, would make Miller’s task much tougher, because he would have to argue for ideas that have been tried and found wanting. Calling them “destined ideas” makes Miller’s task easier. In fact, he seems to believe that he barely needs to make any argument:
It’s also important to note that I’m not trying to persuade you that these approaches represent the course we should take. I’m arguing that this is basically what’s in the cards, that these new habits of mind are going to come to prevail as our Dead Ideas give way under the pressure of events. Our task is to get ready for the world that is being born…When we look back around the year 2020, we’ll wonder why it didn’t seem obvious that this was they way history was headed.
Shattering Orthodoxies doesn’t suffer much from those problems. Rather, its main weakness stems from what appears to be overconfidence on the part of the author. Sherman is co-founder and chief investment officer of Salient Partners, an investment firm with over $8 billion in assets, according to the jacket cover. One gets the sense that he thinks his expertise in investment easily translates into expertise on matters of domestic and foreign policy.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the nine pages Sherman spends trying to fix the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. To “broker a peace agreement in the Middle East, the United States will have to understand long-standing Arab grievances and claims, as well as those of Israel,” Sherman writes. Sherman’s explanation of the roots of the conflict takes up less than four pages. To solve the conflict, Sherman argues the U.S. should commit to a “New Marshall Plan” in which the U.S. gives $1.5 billion in foreign aid to Palestine, money that would be matched by other countries.
Is Sherman unaware that the U.S. has already given $3 billion in aid to the Palestinians since 1993 and billions more have come from other countries? It appears to have done little for economic development as unemployment and poverty are still sky-high in the Palestinian territories. (The aid has certainly benefited some Palestinians, such as Yasser Arafat’s heirs). Nor is it clear how such aid will do anything to resolve the main causes of the conflict.
Sherman’s overconfidence in his expertise also shows in how he boils down policy problems to mere accounting problems. For example, he argues that the “Medicare system should be revamped to be a catastrophic health-care insurance program for the poor.” Wealthier seniors would have to purchase their own insurance. This is not necessarily a bad idea. It would surely reduce much of Medicare’s long-term funding shortfall.
It’s a pretty safe bet, though, that wealthier senior citizens would have an objection or two to having their Medicare taken away. Given that seniors vote more than any other demographic group and that politicians like to get reelected, chances are rather slim that Sherman’s proposal will get much traction in Congress anytime soon. In that sense, fixing Medicare, like most policy problems, requires solving not just an accounting problem but also a political problem.
It is unfortunate that Sherman decided to take on so much in one book. His writing is clear and concise. The chapter on monetary policy is an excellent primer on the subject and some of his ideas on reforming the Federal Reserve are worth considering. Had he focused on this area, where he seems to have genuine expertise, the book likely would have been far more impressive.
Rational Debate—Who Needs It?
Sherman only over-extends his expertise. He doesn’t present himself as qualified to make decisions for other people. Miller, on the other hand, shows no such restraint According to Miller, average citizens—individuals—can’t be counted on to lead us to the brighter future. “The journey from Dead to Destined Ideas almost certainly won’t come through rational public debate and consideration,” he writes. That’s because elections are the time for candidates to show how their “values and ideas fit with those ideas that voters already hold.” The political elites must “square the charades they must resort to in order to win power with the integrity to do what’s right once they have it.” I suppose that means we need leaders in the mold of President George H.W. Bush who promised not raise taxes and then raised them after being elected.
“We need wiser governance,” Miller writes and some of that will come from business leaders who need step forward and demand change. They are best suited for this role because they are “clear-eyed and unsentimental,” “the first to see the threats that rising economies pose” to the U.S., and have a “cosmopolitan outlook [that] means they’re among the first to grasp how much we can learn from developments elsewhere.” Those rubes in Nebraska should be thankful.
Underlying Miller’s argument is a belief that has plagued our society for decades, and one that is responsible for much of the economic mess we are currently in. It’s the belief that elites know best how to make decisions for the rest of us. And that’s an idea should be considered “dead on arrival.”