Ro Khanna, a Yale law school graduate and former Department of Commerce official, ran his successful campaign for the US House of Representatives against incumbent Mike Honda on a quixotic appeal: deliver more tech jobs in Ohio, and everywhere across middle America.
“I care about my district but we also have an obligation to the nation,” says Khanna, 39, a Democrat who will represent California’s 17th district south of San Francisco. “My job in Congress is going to be to connect the tech leaders with my colleagues across the Midwest, across the South. How can we work together to make sure that you can participate in the global economy, in the innovation economy.”
Khanna, boasting endorsements from Bay Area liberal leaders, as well as executives such as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, says he wants to rebuild the Democrats’ message that the party can deliver jobs, a message that Donald Trump used to gain the White House.
Stretching from San Jose to the middle of Silicon Valley and including the headquarters of Apple and Intel, the 17th district lies at the heart of the new economy. Khanna believes its economic survival depends on sharing its tech wealth with the rest of the US. “This country is divided by place,” says Khanna. “More than class, more than race, we’re divided by place.”
The author of the 2012 book, Entrepreneurial Nation, on the importance of manufacturing to the US, talked to Quartz in a phone interview on Dec 9.
Quartz: Automation and globalization were two major issues in this election, even if they weren’t always brought up explicitly. Did you campaign on these issues directly?
I explicitly campaigned on that. I said, look, we have two basic trends of automation and globalization that are depressing American wages and hurting jobs. We can’t just deal with that through rhetoric. We have to deal with that through thinking what it’s going to take to create the new jobs of 21st century.
Every tech job creates four [or five] other jobs. We have to figure out a way to bring those jobs in a way that’s not divided by geography. That requires the right type of skills and technical education.
It requires a commitment on the part of Silicon Valley and tech companies to care about making sure the entire country is included in this future. It requires the right type of tax incentives that encourages companies to stay in the US, and not go offshore, and requires discouraging jobs moving offshore.
This was my whole campaign and I think Silicon Valley has a big role to play in it.
Do you think Trump’s Carrier deal in Indiana, which used taxpayer incentives to prevent loss of jobs, is a model to be followed?
I don’t know the details….I don’t think there should be huge giveaways that are not economically sustainable.
What I do think companies in Silicon Valley can do is think about how to partner with community colleges and universities across the country to make sure they‘re developing the pipeline of jobs. And to look very hard with mayors and congress people across the county to see the opportunity to have a small campus, office or a presence.
Of course, some of these companies do that already. Google and Apple have offices in Michigan and Ohio, and other places. They need to expand that.
I think there are ways we can work to do that that are still consistent with the economic principles, not creating huge subsidies that will not be sustainable.
What are you saying that’s new about how the US should create jobs?
The single unique thing I’m saying is: How do we create the jobs of the future, not just on the coast but in middle America?
I care about my district, but we also have an obligation to the nation. My job in Congress is going to be to connect the tech leaders with my colleagues acoss the Midwest, across the South. How can we work together to make sure that you can participate in the global economy, in the innovation economy.
This country is divided by place. More than class, more than race, we’re divided by place. Enrico Moretti’s work, I think is brilliant on this. The whole book, The New Geography of Jobs, is about how you have innovation clusters in some metropolitan areas and not in others.
There are two laser focuses to my career: bringing tech jobs to the Midwest and South, and cleaning up Washington.
I’ll be one of the very few members of Congress who doesn’t take lobbyist money. I don’t take money from Google PAC, or any lobbyists, and I’m for term limits. I departed from my party on that issue.
What do Apple, Google and other tech companies think of your ideas?
They say it’s going to be difficult. They’re open to it. They want to do it. They say the challenge is finding the employees and making sure there are advantages to scaling. Are they just going to be located in a university town where they need computer science graduates? It’s not an easy solution.
What I sense is an openness to really think about how to do this. And it’s gotta be respectful. If Tesla is going to go in there and open things in Michigan, there has to be a sensitivity and respect for the Big Three auto companies that have been there for generations and the jobs they’re creating.
It has to be in partnership with the community and have the buy-in of local members of Congress and elected officials, not with a brashness or arrogance. But really with a humility and desire to help. That’s the tone I want to bring to Congress.
How do you reconcile the fact that new technology will take away many of the middle class jobs you’re describing? Many truckers, for instance, think automation won’t displace their jobs for 40 years or more, while Silicon Valley predicts commercial autonomous trucks will roll out in the next three years.
This is the central challenge of our time. Every president, our Congress ought to be grappling with this problem. What we saw in this election is just the surface of a displacement of jobs that, in my judgement, can only get worse.
We need to be honest with these communities where there is not a sufficient number of these new jobs, and say: How do we create them?
Somehow, as a nation, we need to figure out that the quality of life in these metropolitan areas is tied to the development in the rest of the country.
Government retraining programs have not been particularly successful. What program can Congress implement that can make a difference in the next five to eight years?
We need to listen to the companies first. I think we ought to spend time talking to these companies: What are the jobs going to look like?
Not all of them are going to need higher eduction. Some are going to be high school plus two years that gets you work-ready. Once we get some successful pilot programs, that are actually leading to employment, then the federal government ought to model this, expand and support it through public-private partnerships.
The problem with government retraining is that it’s done in a vacuum without sufficient engagement with tech and industry leaders who are best at seeing future trends.
Silicon Valley was pro-Hillary Clinton to degree that was almost unprecedented anywhere else outside New York City. How does Silicon Valley work with the Trump administration now?
There are areas where our values will require opposition. If there was anything like a Muslim registry, then we would need to oppose it very strongly. We’re always going to stand up for pluralism, civil rights, and humanity, LGBTQ rights, and a compassionate policy for immigrants. That’s something Silicon Valley will always lead on and oppose any administration that violates those basic principles.
But we also have to find a way to make sure that we’re creating jobs and preparing for jobs in 21st century….We can’t just write off the executive branch during these next four years. We’re going to have to resist when the new administration violates our fundamental values and find a way to move forward on issues that help create jobs.
Have you worked with Peter Thiel, the tech investor who’s on Trump’s transition team?
He was a supporter of my campaign. I was proud of that. I had a lot of pressure to renounce his support, which I didn’t. I always defended him as an innovator in Silicon Valley and I’m proud of his support. I reached out to him after Trump won.
Look, when there are common issues of job creation or competitiveness, I hope to work with him. He was very gracious in his reply.
There will be lot of areas where we disagree, his whole approach on Gawker for example. There are lot of idiosyncratic views he has which I totally disagree with. But if there are areas where he agrees on job creation and innovation, I’m excited to work on things that will move this country forward.
How will Thiel and the people who he’s bringing into the administration affect Silicon Valley?
I hope he’s successful in getting the [technology] leadership a voice in the administration. We are going to need it. We want to have the thoughts of innovation and tech leaders in all branches of government. My sense is he can play a constructive role.
I think the most important thing is jobs. How is Silicon Valley going to create jobs in middle America with the rapid productivity gains that automation and innovation are allowing? How will we be an inclusive economy?
I have no doubt that the Valley is going to continue to innovate, I have no doubt it will continue to produce extraordinary wealth, I have no doubt it will continue to solve some of the world’s greatest problems.
But the question is whether it will become a sort of island unto itself or whether we’re gonna have most people in this country feeling like they’re participating and they’re part of it.
Do your constituents care about jobs in the Midwest?
They want me to work on local issues and there are plenty of local issues in my district of homelessness, and issue of people who cannot afford the cost of living.
But I think people want a unified country. I think one of the biggest things people fear is the divisiveness of this past election. If there’s a way they can help bring this country together, and feel like we’re all in moving in the same direction, that will help the values of inclusion and openness.
I made all of these points in a town hall meeting in my district in front of 300 to 400 people. A couple of people stood up and said, “Don’t forget about homelessness, the cost of living, and people in need in our district.” I certainly won’t, and it’s my first priority. But a lot of them were open to saying, yes, Silicon Valley really needs to play a leadership role in the service of this country.
The Democrats failed to take either the House or the Senate this election. Does your campaign offer a model for how they can make gains in the next election?
It comes back to jobs. We gotta have a plan for convincing people in the middle of this country that we have their back. That we have a concrete plan on to how to give them jobs or, more importantly, how to get their kids the right opportunities.
Everything else should be secondary to that economic message. I don’t think that economic message was clear enough and loud enough in the last few cycles.
I think [Bill Clinton political strategist] James Carville was right, “It’s the economy, stupid.” And we’ve veered off from that.
Correction: A previous version of this post misspelled James Carville’s name.