Book review: “Breakout” by Newt Gingrich
The new book by Newt Gingrich makes its premise clear in the lengthy subtitle. “Breakout: Pioneers of the Future, Prison Guards of the Past, and the Epic Battle That Will Decide America’s Fate” is an extended meditation on how the old guard uses government power (and a bit of volunteer non-government muscle) to retard technological innovation, because they profit from the old order. As the old chestnut has it, the makers of buggy whips are not trilled by the advent of motor cars, and they’ve got every reason to use their political clout to keep everyone on horseback. Or, to use a similar analogy Gingrich deploys in the book, candlemakers have reason to fear and suppress the coming of the light bulb.
As he explores the electric light and its utter transformation of society, Gingrich says there are similar “breakouts” on the horizon – moments when technological advances completely upend the old economic and social arrangements. Actually, the breakout has been trying to get cooking for some years already, in areas such as education. Gingrich finds it notably absurd that the power of modern information technology has done little to change the teaching method beyond replacing blackboards with high-tech electronic whiteboards, and making it easier for students to perform research using the Internet. It might be said that virtually all of the computer revolution’s effects on education have changed the way students handle certain tasks. The educators haven’t changed much at all, because they’re very fond of their hugely expensive, labor-intensive methods.
Unlike the light bulb revolution, today’s breakouts are beaten into the dirt by powerful interests that have enough political influence to hold innovation at bay. The book begins with a sobering anecdote about a young woman who was literally killed by bureaucracy, dying of cancer while she waited for the completion of an FDA drug approval process that had already been in progress since she was a baby. Not even a dying girl with nothing left to lose is permitted to escape the regulatory maze.
Gingrich takes inspiration from a quote by Machiavelli, who warned that reformers have “enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order.” The victims of the regulatory state are invisible, or quickly forgotten. People don’t usually know what they’re missing. Gingrich, a fan of Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” concept, may find it ironic that society is still dazed from the astonishing pace of development over the past few decades, so they don’t hunger for the new innovations that could be theirs today, or tomorrow.
Not all of these innovations are entirely dependent on new technology. In his chapter on education reform, Gingrich makes an interesting observation about how existing information technology is quite capable of breaking up intellectual logjams and personalizing the education experience. Students who get “stuck” in a course are often stuck on just one or two key concepts, which make the remainder of the class frustrating if they are never mastered – imagine an otherwise capable math student who just can’t get the hang of long division. Information technology is well able to swiftly detect such sticking points and help individual students get past them. But such an approach reduces the manpower involved in running a school, as the students spend more time working with software and videotaped lectures (which, as Gingrich notes while describing an example, can easily be paused and rewound by students who miss something important, unlike a live classroom lecturer.) A very powerful and well-funded cadre of “prison guards” has no intention of allowing that.
“Breakout” comes at a particularly opportune time to discuss the strangling effect of hyper-regulation, as Americans current feels the hands of ObamaCare tight on their throats. Personalized treatment is a big part of the medical revolution, as it is with education, and there’s nothing personal about a crazy one-size-fits-nobody scheme that forces people to buy all sorts of coverage they don’t want.
“ObamaCare’s hyper-bureaucratized and depersonalized approach to healthcare and the new technologies of personalized medicine are headed for a painful collision in the near future,” Gingrich writes. “As medicine moves toward treatments that are exactly right for your problems with your body, our system for regulating and paying for healthcare is moving in the opposite direction – taking decisions away from you and your doctor and giving them to ‘experts’ you have never met.”
This crushing blindness is also evident in the realm of transportation, which subsumes energy policy in Gingrich’s book. It might be the best example of his “prison guards keeping America locked away from the future” model, with the added twist that the “green” prison guards love to posture as advocates of science and high technology. Gingrich stands in awe of the fracking revolution, which bids to make America a dominant global exporter of energy… provided the solar-panel reactionaries and global-warming hysterics don’t kill it. He makes much of how fracking completely wipes out one of the most durable and effective talking points of the environmental Luddites: the belief that we’re just a few years away from running out of fossil fuels. On the contrary, citing a revised inventory that takes advantage of the latest recovery technologies, he writes of half a millennium’s worth of American oil and gas, which “should be enough to put even the most alarmist mind at ease, but even these figures are likely too conservative.”
Our transportation model is still being shoved by government regulation and environmentalist ideology in the exact opposite direction, as though none of these fresh resources exist. That’s a hallmark of “prison guard” thinking, and it comes from people who love to portray themselves as “progressives” who think about nothing but the future. Gingrich is keenly interested in the previously science-fiction concept of the self-driving car, which is now only a decade or two away… and, as he pointedly notes, the pioneering work is coming from an Internet search company (Google) rather than auto manufacturers. Breakout-level leaps forward result from out-of-the-box thinking, which is not easy to come by when vested interests are busy nailing all the boxes shut.
Progress is most easily frustrated with government power. Not only are politicians rewarded for collusion with powerful special interests, but Big Government is the most special interest of all, and its acolytes know the kind of technological and economic revolution Gingrich envisions would transform it, too. He depicts government as a machine suffering a decades-long breakdown, resulting in everything from crime and fiscal irresponsibility to the death of competence and the rule of law. A properly functioning government can exist without routinely breaking its own laws, as the modern super-State does,
Gingrich cites the liberal lieutenant governor of California, Gavin Newsom, as a pioneer in the field of using information technology to increase civic participation. The advent of modern information technology hasn’t exactly made government more responsive to citizens, but Gingrich sees that as a failure of government, and perhaps citizen expectations. He has tough words for the “prison guards,” but this is a mostly upbeat book; a bright future lies on the other side of those formidable regulatory mountains. He loves wearing his futurist hat and talking about nanotechnology. And really, isn’t one of the most profound implications of the Information Age the way it can unlock further wonders by making it easier than ever for great minds to collaborate and challenge one another?
That’s where the call to action in “Breakout” comes in. Gingrich wants citizens to become “breakout champions,” raising their standards and networking through social media to demand an end to the use of regulatory and tax powers as barriers against innovation. He even includes a little handbook for aspiring champions, with advice such as “focus on outcomes, not input” and “look for solutions in unusual areas.” He’s essentially calling for the unleashed power of distributed national intelligence, a network in which millions of independent minds free to pursue their own solutions would far outperform the creaky solutions proffered by last-century central planning. We won’t get more until we make it clear, in a deafening popular voice, that we will no longer be satisfied with less.
This is a perfect moment to make such an argument, as we watch the largest, most powerful, biggest-spending Administration in history try to explain why it couldn’t launch a website successfully. One of the ideas referenced in “Breakout,” and mentioned often during Gingrich’s 2012 presidential run, is the idea of offering prizes for competitive solutions to social problems, instead of the usual corrupt process of handing bags of taxpayer cash to well-connected cronies in return for garbage like bankrupt solar-panel companies and… well, like websites that don’t work. That’s the kind of policy sea change the old guard would fight tooth and nail. Huge amounts of money change hands as power is bought and sold in Washington. Nobody involved in that shadowy trillion-dollar market wants the power to become less valuable.
The core message relayed in just about every passage of “Breakout” is that innovation flourishes in inverse proportion to centralized power. Machiavelli’s old recipe for stasis still holds up well, five hundred years later. Real progress – not the ersatz kind peddled by political “progressives” – increases the independence and standard of living for citizens. That’s one reason Obama-style statists are so hung up on the idea of taking cars away and bundling people into a system of railroads and glorified golf carts. It doesn’t seem as if there’s any way to escape from the “prison guards of the past” Gingrich describes, without disarming them and knocking down the walls they have erected.