With Newt Gingrich in Dallas
Last week at the ALEC Conference in Dallas I was delighted to be able to meet New York Times best-selling author (and prominent politician) Newt Gingrich, and to attend the plenary breakfast event at which he spoke, and the subsequent seminar where we discussed some of his ideas. I Tweeted the photograph (above), and needless to say took some criticism from my favourite internet trolls. Of those comments suitable for family reading around the fireside, the one that struck me was the description of Newt as “an elderly reactionary”.
We could debate the “elderly” — Newt is a few months older than me — and in any case I don’t accept it as axiomatic that the views of an older person are necessarily inferior to those of a younger person. Nick Clegg is a younger person (at least from where I’m sitting), and I’m not at all impressed by his views.
But it’s the “reactionary” with which I’d like to take issue. I wonder if my pet trolls know quite what it means, or if they use it as a general term of abuse for those whom they’ve taken against — those they perceive as “right wing”. So let me help them. The Oxford dictionary offers “Opposing political or social progress or reform”.
So is Newt Gingrich a reactionary, on that definition? No. On the contrary, he has just written a new book “Breakout”, which is a sustained attack on the forces of reaction, and a ringing call to embrace the future. He roundly castigates those genuine reactionaries that we find in many walks of life. In colourful language he designates them “The Prison Guards of the Past”, and calls on his readers to reject that attitude, and instead to become “Pioneers of the Future”.
So who are these “Prison Guards of the Past”, these reactionaries, these warriors of the status quo? Many readers will think instinctively of the labour unions, which have a long and sad history of opposition to modernisation, to new technology, to increased efficiency. That history goes all the way back to the Luddites in the early 19th century. These, you recall, were textile workers opposed to the introduction of new machinery which they feared would cost jobs. They found that sledgehammers were an effective tool against the new machines.
Imagine for a moment that they had succeeded. In the short term, they would have saved their jobs. But very soon other countries, exploiting the new technology, would have been producing textiles more cheaply, exporting them to the UK, and eating the Luddites’ lunch. Their logic only worked on a static economic model. But in a dynamic, globalised economy, it would have doomed them to extinction. The UK might have lost its textile business a century and more earlier than it actually did.
That is the story of protectionism, whether protection of jobs against new technology, or of international trade and foreign imports. It’s like taking illicit drugs. The first hit (they tell me) is euphoric. Then you need larger and larger doses for the same effect. Then you die.
But it’s not just labour unions. It’s entrenched establishments of all sorts. Professional bodies in health, and in education. Regulatory authorities whose rules and procedures were designed for yesterday not for tomorrow, and create massive barriers to new ideas. And of course in local and national government.
Gingrich sees the internet as holding out huge opportunities in many areas of public life where so far we are hardly scratching the surface. Take education. High-quality university education in America is eye-wateringly expensive. A four year course can cost $200,000, putting it out of reach for all but the wealthy. Yet the same material can be delivered on-line for less than a tenth of that price. Such courses are in their infancy, but economic necessity means they are sure to grow, making quality higher education available to those previously unable to afford it. That should have a dramatically positive effect on the US economy.
In the US, health costs can be even more alarming than university fees. Yet Gingrich points to emerging technologies which include personalised medicine, treatments based on genomics, regenerative therapies. These offer the potential both for lower costs and a better quality of life. It’s conceivable that within ten years we will be able to construct replacement kidneys (and other organs) based on the patient’s own stem cells. A re-grown kidney will not be cheap, but it could well be a lot less expensive than five years of dialysis. And in terms of quality of life, a new, functioning kidney is hugely preferable to dialysis.
What stands in the way? Too often, the regulatory system designed for yesterday. Gingrich faults the FDA for its vastly expensive and risk-averse approvals régimes. Drugs that should be approved in a few short years are taking fifteen, while patients are dying for the lack of them. And the huge scale of the trials demanded by the FDA pushes the costs so high that fewer and fewer new drugs are being submitted and approved.
In the case of regenerated organs, it seems that the FDA may treat these as both a medicine and as a medical device — requiring approval to two separate sets of standards which were never designed to work in tandem.
Gingrich goes on to deal with energy, transportation, space technology, governance and so on. This is a book fizzing with new ideas, and passionately committed to exploiting technology for the benefit of citizens, and of the wider economy. You can call Newt Gingrich many things — and lots of people have. But please don’t call him reactionary. He’s the exact opposite.
“Breakout” — pioneers of the Future, Prison Guards of the Past. By Newt Gingrich and Ross Worthington, published by Regnery Publishing Inc at US$27:95. ISBN 978-1-62157-021-9.