ASPEN, Colo.—Newt Gingrich has seen the future, and it is on his—and your—smartphone.
The former speaker of the House and Republican presidential candidate was at the Aspen Ideas Festival Tuesday to talk about his new book, which bears the impeccably Gingrichian title Breakout: Pioneers of the Future, Prison Guards of the Past, and the Epic Battle That Will Decide America's Fate. (The festival is hosted by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute.) Newt being Newt, his comments ranged from the penetratingly interesting to the digressive to the frankly confusing. Here are a few highlights of his wit and wisdom.
1. Gingrich opened with a rousing attack on lobbying and special interests, saying they are stifling innovation. He used a historical analogy: "Today, a carriage manufacturer would hire a lobbyist to make it illegal for a train to go faster than a horse!"
2. Congress has to be overhauled—and it's going to be a nightmare. About 80 percent of Americans believe government is corrupt, Gingrich noted. "I’m terrified by the numbers in the Gallup poll," he said. It's relatively easy to fix even a badly broken agency like the Veterans Affairs Department, but Congress? Not so much: “It’s going to be a huge fight. It’s much harder because it’s a sovereign power. It’s one thing to tell Congress to overhaul the VA. This is different.”
3. “Dallas Buyers Club is a fascinating public-policy movie,” Gingrich said. He is particularly upset about the process for approving drugs, repeatedly criticizing the FDA and later calling for a "21st century FDA," though he didn't offer much detail about what that would entail, other than faster approval. As Noah Gittell pointed out last fall, the tale of one man fighting for his life against an overweening bureaucracy makes the film "an AIDS drama the Tea Party can enjoy." Gingrich concurred: "It’s worth seeing the movie, because it vividly demonstrates what’s wrong with bureaucracy today."
4. Gingrich sees the smartphone as by far the most potent factor in American life today, more revolutionary even than the Internet. It has the potential to render current, "manual-typewriter, paper-based" governmental structures obsolete: "No one on the planet has a model to explain how you organize public behaviors in the era of the smartphone." It has the potential to revolutionize school; Gingrich notes that many American high-schoolers have smartphones they're not allowed to use in class that could be a great educational tool with apps like Duolingo. "In order to avoid anything bad, we avoid anything good. We trap [students] into boredom so what do they do? They drop out." The gadgets have improved his own life, too: “I regularly watch Nat Geo Wild on my smartphone because I like animals and nature.”
5. Some Republicans may be wary of talking about it, but Gingrich says he's concerned about income inequality. There are two things to watch, he said: First, what's keeping people from rising? There's nothing wrong with wealth, but there needs to be a chance for mobility. The second is keeping the wealthy from accumulating too much power. "I have no problem with billionaires having strong opinions," said Gingrich, who notably benefited from Sheldon Adelson's largesse during his presidential run. "I have every problem with Mayor Bloomberg being able to buy the election in New York." He went on to praise President Theodore Roosevelt for seizing coal mines at the turn of the century and preventing "plutocracy," a point that sat uneasily with his wrath at government intervention elsewhere.
6. Bring on the end of tenure! Gingrich has little use for the Ivory Tower's self-preservation systems. He has a personal stake in this: His rise in politics coincided with his denial of tenure at West Georgia College in the 1970s. But he waved off concerns about such a change chilling academic freedom. “Aquinas thought critically without tenure,” he quipped.