Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is in Silicon Valley today talking about his American Solutions organization, which recently opened an office in Palo Alto. I spent about thirty minutes on the phone with him talking about a wide range of issues: the upcoming elections, tech issues in general and his own presidential aspirations.
The podcast and transcript is below. Last night I asked Twitter users what questions they’d like me to ask, and I added a few of the good ones to the interview.
I asked about his thoughts on the upcoming presidential elections. He clearly supports Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal as McCain’s running mate, and also says there’s a good chance that Hillary Clinton will end up teaming with Obama on the Democrat side of things. How will those two teams stack up? He gives the Democrats a 60% chance of winning.
I also asked Gingrich about his own presidential aspirations: “The other twitter question is, When are you going to run for president? Please run for president.” Gingrich responds that he’s looking at a 2012 or 2016 run: “All I can say is that if they look at American Solutions and they look for the senate transformation, they will see the early stages of how you would write a second contract with America. If you get to the point it is clear enough and powerful enough, and if that point there is a big enough demand whether it is in 2012 or 2016, I will get to the point where I would run. If my mission in life is to be the teacher for the next generation of politicians, then I am pretty happy doing that too. I am going to wait and let the American people sort that out.”
Michael Arrington: Hello this is Mike Arrington from TechCrunch. Today I’m talking with Newt Gingrich, the 58th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Welcome Mr. Speaker.
Newt Gingrich: It’s good to be with you.
MA: Where are you today?
NG: I’m in San Francisco and in San Jose.
MA: Are you here on official business with American Solutions or something else?
NG: No we’re talking with a variety of people about American Solutions and about how to use technology to solve a variety of problems and how to think about how to solve America’s problems in the context of what’s been working. Both in information technology and with entrepreneurial behavior between San Jose and San Francisco.
MA: You opened the Silicon Valley office of American Solutions, I believe in Palo Alto. Is that right? In February? Is that right?
MA: Why did you decide you needed to open an office out here? Was it specifically to engage directly with people on these tech issues that affect the American public? And how much time are you spending out here?
NG: Well David Crelic is running our office out here and we really looked at the questions, “How do you learn as fast as possible from the new startups, the new approaches, the things that are the next cycle of creativity. And how do you take the great capabilities of the current systems and how do you apply them to public problems? And in particular how do you apply them to help elected officials self-organize?” There are 513,000 elected officials and we really want to help school board members, county commissioners, city councilors, state legislatures, interact with each other and sort of develop best practices, and best approaches and grow a capability that we think will be very, very important for the future.
MA: Those 513,000 elected officials. What percentage of those are federal?
NG: Very few. There are only 537 elected federal officials out of 513,000.
MA: Interesting. Let’s talk about the presidential race and, just briefly, who do you think makes the best Vice Presidential candidate for Senator McCain.
NG: I am very optimistic about Bobby Jindal. I think he is the best governor in America today. He is an absolute reformer. He is brilliant. He was the head of Medicaid at 24 years of age. He was the head of the Breaux-Thomas commission in Louisiana at 26 or 27. He was an assistant secretary of health at 29. I think he was a candidate for governor at 31. He was on the congressional seat for 2 terms. He was the first man in Louisiana history to win the governorship as a non-incumbent without any run off. He beat 11 people and got the majority of the vote. He has had a terrific state legislative reform cycle this year. He passed the most stringent ethics law in the country, which in Louisiana is unheard of. And is now a busy bringing new business to Louisiana, cutting taxes, increasing transparency. This is a brilliant person who would be a great Vice Presidential candidate.
MA: Well it looks like he is going to be the guy based on the most recent news.
NG: He would be a terrific asset.
MA: Do you think Hillary will be the VP candidate on the democrat side?
NG: I would not be surprised. I think in part it is based on how serious Obama is about winning. I think the Obama/Clinton ticket is an extraordinarily formidable ticket.
MA: You know her and it is funny that you say it is how serious he is about winning. I would think it is a question of if that is a position she would consider.
NG: I think she is a party loyalist. She has done this her whole life. If the senior leaders of the party come to her and say, come to both of them frankly and say the only way to reunify this party is to have the two strongest candidates on the same ticket. It is what Lyndon Johnson did with John F Kennedy, I mean they got to a point. It is what Ford did not do with Reagan in 76. If Ford had picked Reagan in ‘76 and if Reagan had been accepted. And Reagan indicated later he would have accepted. He did not see how a citizen could turn it down. How could you look a president in the eye and say NO I am not going to help you. And if Ford had picked Reagan he would have won in ’76.
MA: Who do you think will win if we have those 4 people running that we talked about?
NG: I would say 60 40 that the democrats could win this year. You have got the president in a very, very weak position in terms of public approval; you have the economy in a mess. You have oil at prices that are driving people crazy. The problem for the left is that almost all of the problems are from the left. The great advantage they have right now is that they can blame George W Bush for it. If you look at the price of oil. We just launched a project that says “American Solutions” and a bumper sticker that says, “Drill here, drill now and pay less”. The Brazilians just discovered two huge oil fields in the Atlantic Ocean. They are going to be independent of the Middle East. They will become the 3rd largest exporter in the world. It is illegal to look for oil in the Atlantic Ocean off the United States coast. As it is illegal to look in the Pacific, as it is illegal to look in the Eastern Caribbean as it is illegal in Alaska. The democrats have made it illegal to use shale oil for the next 18 months. The government, for reasons that defy imagination, canceled a clean coal plant that would be built in Illinois. They promised in 2003 they would finish it in 2008. They have now canceled and promised a new design in 2016. We have 27% of the worlds’ coal. And if we could get to 100% carbon sequestration so there was no environmental damage, coal would be clearly the least expensive product method to produce electricity.
MA: We are there, by the way, but it is very expensive to do.
NG: And this next generation plant is going to bring the cost down radically. If you look at the number of coal plants that India and China are building, the most important single technology in the near future, if you care about carbon, is a clean coal technology that could be retrofitted to existing plants. There is a thing in the paper today that the city council in San Francisco wants to adopt very stringent green house building codes and it is reckoned that it would cost the economy $700 million, and you compare that to one new Chinese coal plant and if you are thinking globally and the same number of dollars invested in helping get to a clean coal plant, is going to do radically more for the environment than piddling around with apartment building restriction. What you have now is the right has no answers and the left actually is creating the problems. And you have no candidate prepared to stand up and say Bush was wrong but these guys were wrong too.
NG: And how do you move forward? That is why I think McCain carries a very heavy burden in this campaign.
MA: You are not going to answer this but the other twitter question is “When are you going to run for president? Please run for president.” Now, I have seen you answer that question hundreds of times…
NG: All I can say is that if they look at American Solutions and they look for the Senate transformation, they will see the early stages of how you would write a second contract with America. If you get to the point it is clear enough and powerful enough, and if that point there is a big enough demand whether it is in 2012 or 2016, I will get to the point where I would run. If my mission in life is to be the teacher for the next generation of politicians, then I am pretty happy doing that too. I am going to wait and let the American people sort that out.
MA: The platform for American Solutions, I know it’s much more complicated, but you have 10, sort of easy things to digest just to see if we’re all on the same page. I’d love to chat with you a little bit about those. They range from “English should be the official language of government” at #1 to #10, which is “we should give a financial prize to the first company or individual who invents a better way to dispose of nuclear waste products.” Are you finding, and obviously there’s more in-between, are you finding there’s broad tri-partisan support for the core platform?
NG: Well, we started of course by developing the platform on a tri-partisan basis, so the only items which are in the platform are the American people, are items that have support from the absolute majority of democrats, republicans and independents. Nothing which failed to get a majority one of the three is in the level. So it becomes sort of a one level, self-fulfilling deal. The elites may not favor it, but it’s clear when you have 87% and 84% and 79% approval and you have absolute majorities of all three groups, it indicates English should be the official language of government. You have 59% among Latinos, so it’s clear we’re striking a nerve of common agreement in a way that I think is surprising to some people. Having said that, we have Princella Smith, who is the Chief Advocate of the platform, and she’s been having a terrifically effective period. We have a number of democrats who we hope in the very near future will endorse the platform. It’s been endorsed by republican state conventions in Wisconsin and Georgia, in California and Nevada. I think it’s going to be endorsed in the near future in Michigan. We see real progress in people saying, “you know, these are the king of bi-partisan, tri-partisan ideas that could bring us together as a country instead of keeping us mired down in partisan negativity.
MA: I want to chat with you for a few minutes about some of the tech issues we think are important in the upcoming election and more than a couple of them touch on the 10 key points in the platform, but I’ll jump into that a little bit later. Congrats on the support you’re seeing for that and I’d say there isn’t much in there that Americans could disagree with.
NG: Let me point out from a tech economy standpoint – of the items that surprises people, that is clearly in the platform of the American people, is H-1B Visas. It turns out the average American is smarter than the politicians. And 63% of the American people believe it is to our advantage to have substantially more visas for high technology, well educated, smart people to come to America to create jobs. And even though we have relatives talk about illegal immigration, etc, people do feel strongly about enforcing the law. They would like the law to actually encourage high technology immigration.
MA: Last month a group of House Republicans wrote a letter to Nancy Pelosi requesting that they move a bill along that proposes to increase the number of H-1Bs from the current 65,000 level up to over 115,000. This is HR1930. Do you know where that stands currently? Not just where it stands in Congress, but just sort of taking the temperate of congress and where you think…
NG: Yeah, there’s a tremendous power struggle underway between the labor unions, who for ideological reasons are opposed to this even though it does not represent any kind of a threat to unions, and the people who understand the importance of technology and competing in the world market. And I think Speaker Pelosi finds it very hard to take on the labor unions and to do something that they bitterly oppose. This is a throwback to the 1930s. The labor union attitude on technology and growth and competition is literally 70 years out of sync with reality.
MA: Yeah, obviously it’s a very emotional issue. When I spoke with Senator McCain late last year he didn’t want to touch the issue, because he’d been burned on immigration in general…
NG: See I think that’s a mistake on Senator McCain’s part. He had a negative reaction to a bill which ignored the issue of illegality. People favor legal immigration. You’re not hurting yourself if you’re in favor of legal immigration by smart people. You’re actually helping yourself. As I said earlier, in our surveys a majority of democrats, republicans and independents all agree that America would be better off to have more high technology immigrants to come over here legally, which is why they prefer to expand the H-1B visas.
MA: Sure, I think anybody that knows history knows that immigration at least played a part in WWII and how we did there. And it’s certainly a core part of the American culture, because most of us are immigrants. So I don’t think that’s a difficult issue, but the H-1Bs is a really, really important issue in Silicon Valley.
NG: I’m surprised that Silicon Valley has not made it, if you look at how much money they’ve given and how much involvement they’ve had, and Senator McCain was just back out here again yesterday, I’m surprised Silicon Valley has not made this a fundamental issue before they would even talk to a candidate. I mean if they would hit all three presidential candidates actively in favor of H-1B visas, we could get them through Congress.
MA: That letter that was written struck me, because it talked about Microsoft has actually opened up a new office in Vancouver, Canada and the only reason for that office is to put foreign born workers, who can’t get into the United States legally, and it’s just crazy that those people aren’t in the United States making money, paying taxes, etc.
NG: You know, if you look at the history at the India Institute of Technology, 20% of the successful CEOs in Silicon Valley are alumni of the India Institute of Technology.
MA: I didn’t know that.
NG: 40% of them are Indian, but half of them are graduates of the India Institute of Technology. The India Institute of Technology is going to graduate another wave of people this year. The only question is going to be are they forced to create jobs in India, because they have no choice, or that they have the opportunity to come to America to create jobs, but they’re going to create jobs somewhere.
MA: Remember that they’re already in the United States, well in your case no, but so many young people come here for their education and then they’re shown the door as soon as they get their degree.
NG: Which is also irrational. I mean we ought to have ground rules as if you do really well in a technical, engineering or scientific field, you’re automatically eligible for a green card.
MA: Yes, I agree.
NG: And by the way, I think you can sell that to the American people and that would be an example of an American Solutions approach. It would be pro economic growth, pro science and technology, pro being smart, and it would be pro enforcing the law.
MA: One of the things we talk about here in Silicon Valley is our desire for the Federal and State government to just get out of our way. We don’t look to government for help a whole lot here. We just wish things like caps on H-1B visas and lots of other issues they would just sort of stand aside and let us continue to disrupt the economy in a good way, create jobs and move everything forward. So there’s a little bit of a libertarian bent in that regard here.
NG: Yeah, I think you actually want a proactive and intelligent government in a variety of ways. You want schools that produce kids who can actually do math and science. You want a government strong enough to protect your intellectual property rights in China and India. You want to have a tax code that is shaped to maximize investment and maximize the development of capital. One of the interesting things we found in our polling last year, not strongly enough supported to be on the platform for the American people, but by 49% to 41% the American people last year were in favor of abolishing the capital gains tax. Now that is dramatically different from what Washington is and I think it’s because people instinctively are beginning to figure out, if you want America to compete in the world market, and you want my grandchildren to be capable of having high value jobs in the most prosperous country in the world, you had better expand the amount of capital we have and the way we invest it. And that’s why I favor, for example, 100% expensing where any investment you make in new equipment could be written off in one year.
MA: That would make things easier, let me tell you that. Advertising access is a pain in the butt as an owner of a small business…
NG: Well if you think about it, if you start building systems the size of a new chip factory and you are investing huge quantities of money and the question is, do you want them invested here, or in Korea, or in Thailand, or in China, or in India and I’d like to figure out a tax code that would make it very desirable to invest them here.
MA: Oh great. I love #7 on the platform and you touched on this, which is “we should increase our investment in math and science education”. To me this touches on so many different issues, but having young people in the US, who are obviously already internet savvy, because they’re on the internet all day, but just turning out more engineers. Too many people want to be in that space, but just don’t have the access to the technology is really important and I do think it’s something the government should get involved in. How hard is that issue given the break between federal and state on the issue of education that largely falls on the state?
NG: Well I think that’s a hard issue because the education decision process is overwhelmingly dominated by a combination of union bureaucracy, departments of education that are bureaucratic, and schools of education that are just wrong about how people learn and the combination has just been devastating. In Detroit only 26% of the entering freshman graduate on time. I devote a section of my new book, Real Change, to this question of analyzing why Detroit has failed genuinely disastrously. It’s one of the understudied catastrophes of modern America. I mean they’ve dropped in population from 1,800,000 in 1950 to under 900,000 today. Over half of their housing stock is unoccupied. Which of course collapses the price of the value of the rest of their housing. They have dropped from #1 in per capita income to #62. Their schools are not only a disaster, but an arrogant unrelenting disaster and they’re among the 3 or 4 highest school systems in the country. When you take that as a case study you have to go to very, very bold solutions. I’ll give you three quick examples. We’re working with Nicholas Negroponte on his laptop computer for every child. He’s gotten the price down to $187 dollars…
MA: And they put Windows on it. That’s the big news in Silicon Valley, that they’re putting Windows on it.
NG: Yeah, and it’s a tremendous breakthrough. This is a great example of social entrepreneurship because he set out…I was actually in a debate on time. Gate and Grove actually repudiated the idea of this very inexpensive computer, because it didn’t fit their model and Negroponte just kept pounding away and pounding away and look what he’s beginning to accomplish. You have to say to yourself, given the price of textbooks, why aren’t we giving every child in America a basic computer in kindergarten and getting them rolling with absolute equality of opportunity, from poor to wealthy, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? This is not putting a computer in the classroom, but letting the kid take it home, letting them have it 24 hours a day, letting them really aggressively enter the world of the information age. Second, my daughter Jackie Cushman in Atlanta has been running a project this year with the help of a local foundation. We’ve been paying poor children, in the poorest school districts in Atlanta, to stay after school and do homework. We’re paying them the same as if they’re working at McDonalds and the impact has been startling, because suddenly we make learning pay. And for poor kids there’s a pretty direct nexus here in the American system and certainly in Silicon Valley, where people don’t mind getting rich. They ought to be prepared to let poor children have a shot at it and have a chance to learn through economics. The third point I’m making, this summer I hope to work with a number of famous scientists on a bold new way of rethinking science education. If you look at music and athletics, kids get engaged at a very early age. You don’t spend 12 years in theory of studying the music before you pick up a French horn and you don’t spend 12 years studying the theory of football, or soccer, or baseball, or basketball before you go out and try it out. I think we need to fundamentally revisit how we think about doing science at the earliest possible age. I have a friend named Lynn Rothschild who’s at the Ames NASA facility. At one point she had 8,000 elementary school students gathering water samples for microbial studies. And they were doing real science and they were looking at in the microscope. They were miniature scientists being grown into scientists. They weren’t students of science having to master all sorts of written material for purposes they didn’t understand.
MA: You mentioned your book, Real Change, you didn’t mention Days of Infamy, which hit the New York Times Fiction Best Seller list I think last week. It’s just a handful of authors who have been on the fiction and nonfiction bestseller lists in the same year. Congratulations on that.
NG: First off, thank you very much. We’re really honored that we write what we call active history. And we have been working very hard to develop the concept. It’s active in two ways. First is, we want you to think about it, not memorize it, because what kills history as a discipline is that kids are told memorize these 20 names and these 20 dates, there will be a test on Thursday. It’s boring as all get out, they don’t know why they’re doing it, they do it to get a grade and then immediately forget it. We want it to be active and go “Wow, what happened next? And what are they doing? And why did they do it that way?” Second, we want it to be active in a sense that we take a particular event, we wrote a 3 volume series on the Civil War called Gettysburg: Grant Comes East and which we had Lee win at Gettysburg by working with the army war college to develop a campaign which was totally technically correct and showed what might have happened had he won at Gettysburg. Then we came to Pearl Harbor and we’ve written two volumes now, Pearl Harbor and Days of Infamy, and we really see extraordinary opportunities, because what we do is we take real history and then we ask is there one specific thing that could’ve changed that is totally realistic, but that would’ve had a big impact and in the case of Pearl Harbor we bring Admiral Yamamoto forward, he is the head of the Japanese fleet, he is very aggressive, he knows a great deal about air power and we asked a question if the Japanese had surprised us decisively Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, and Yamamoto had been in charge, how aggressive would the Japanese campaign have been? And we think it would have been dramatically more aggressive that it was in actual history.
MA: Yeah I forgot the name of the book. I just read it. It isn’t 1945 is it?
NG: Yeah 1945 is our very first novel and I have to confess it is a potboiler. We want to reissue it. We hated the way the publisher edited it. It has a cult following and if I do a booking signing someone will come up and say when is the next volume coming out? We wrote that in 1993. The later novels are dramatically much better. We may some day produce the authors’ edition of 1945.
MA: My grandfather fought in the Pacific in World War 2 and hearing all his stories… He was injured twice. And just hearing all his stories, how bad it was as a Marine there. It was a fascinating book for me. I love those kinds of books. Congratulations. I know you have written 20 books.
NG: 16 so far.
MA: And 10 have been on the New York seller best list. Apparently you can write.
NG: I think people like stories and I think people like ideas and we try to weave together stories and ideas that people would find interesting. That is our job.
MA: I want to do a time check with you. It is 8:30pm.
NG: Lets go for 5 more minutes
MA: I do not know if you are familiar with the service Twitter. It is a micro-blogging platform. I asked my readers for some questions. I picked a really good one and I want to go in and ask you that one right now. I know you have some strong opinions on electronic health records. I know on the news that McCain has released his health records so this is somewhat pertinent. What do you think about Google health, Microsoft Health Vault and other products that are allowing consumers to put their health records online?
NG: I think it is a really important first step. This is literally a matter of life and death. We had a case of a man whose father was in his 80s. He was traveling in New Orleans before Katrina and ended up having a clot in his leg. The doctors there did not realize that he was already on blood thinner so they put him on additional blood thinner, he went and had a stroke, he was paralyzed so he could not talk. He had a living will that said do not take heroic measure; they then took heroic measure because they did not know that he had a living will. His son finally showed up 3 or 4 days later as they tracked him down. He flew in as soon as he could. It was a tragedy. The man died, having spent $86,000. Recently I was visiting with a man whose father was with him in Washington. Had a heart attack on a Saturday morning. Went to Johns Hopkins, which is a great hospital. They stabilized him and took no measures till Monday when they could track down his doctor because they did not want exactly that to occur. If you have your electronic records on something like the Microsoft Health Vault you are in a position where they can instantaneously pull it up. We have a case where somebody in Australia was checking somebody’s medication in Baltimore electronically in order to take care of them because they were on vacation in Sydney and it was instantaneous because it is 24/7. Very important next step. We produced a book at the center for Health Transformation last year, which is called “Paper Kills”. That is exactly how people should think of it. You get a paper prescription. You could get killed. You get a paper instruction. You could get killed. If your paper records you could be killed in a variety of ways starting with emergency rooms.
MA: Where do you find that? Is it downloadable on-line?
MA: Ok I will link to that. The most important question I am going to ask is “Are you a Mac guy or a PC guy?”
MA: Switch to Mac if you start spending a lot of time in Silicon Valley. You have to get your press people on that.
NG: My wife does lots of photography. Everyone tells her a Mac is dramatically better.
MA: It is and I would be happy to show you. It takes about 2 seconds.
NG: I may have her call you. She would like that.
MA: Thank you for your time. Enjoy the rest of your trip in California.