Ro Khanna: Tech funding bill is ‘not just about jobs, it’s about a new patriotism’
By Levi Sumagaysay
In the MarketWatch interview, a Silicon Valley congressman talks about his desire to fund a new “digital economy”
Representative Ro Khanna, a congressman from Silicon Valley, drafted the Endless Frontier Act as part of a sweeping tech innovation bill that appeared to be on a fast track before reaching an impasse in Congress. .
Ahead of recent political developments that have endangered the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act – Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is threatening to block it because he is against the United States Budget Reconciliation Bill Democrats – MarketWatch spoke with Khanna, a Democrat from California, about the bill, including how it’s supposed to help create high-paying jobs and expand the definition of what a tech job is.
In a follow-up, Khanna said Thursday that he still hopes Congress will pass the multi-billion dollar USICA, though it’s possible Congress will pass the narrower, $52 billion CHIPS Act instead.
Don’t miss the update: Three possible outcomes for stalled tech funding bill, says co-author
Much of USICA’s goals align with the ideas the congressman lays out in his book, “Dignity in a Digital Age.” In the book, he wrote about what technology, automation, and the “digital economy” have done, including rising inequality and the concentration of high-paying jobs in a few places across the country.
Khanna wrote, “There is no reason for a region that has fallen behind to be left behind.”
This interview was conducted in the spring and has been edited for length and clarity.
MarketWatch: How significant is this legislation being a bipartisan effort?
Khanna: It’s been bipartisan from the beginning when Chuck Schumer, Todd Young, Mike Gallagher and myself drafted the bill. His goal was to ensure that advanced manufacturing and production was done in America, not outsourced.
It’s not just about jobs. It is about a new patriotism, a spirit of renewal, of becoming productive and glorious. It is a message that transcends parties, races, geography. It can help bring this country back together.
It is a powerful message that got 69 votes in the Senate and a lot of votes in the House. I give the Republicans who voted for this as much credit as the Democrats.
MarketWatch: This bill touts high-paying jobs. What kind? And what can be done so that the jobs that come out of this legislation don’t end up putting workers in the same situation as some of the workers now working for tech companies who are looking to unionize in part because of their poor conditions of work?
Khanna: Tech jobs of the future aren’t just coding jobs. We need to demystify what a “tech” job is. They will work in agriculture, manufacturing, retail, construction, repair. These jobs will be well paid and will pay between $30 and $40 per hour. These will be middle-class jobs.
There are two different issues.
How to create good, well-paying jobs? We need corporate tax incentives, investments in HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities), and more.
Regardless of that, we need a living wage. There are a lot of service jobs, like warehouse jobs, where people aren’t paid properly. You might be looking at Amazon (AMZN) workers, where the worst thing a human boss is having is an algorithm as a boss.
With the rising cost of living, we need to make it easier for people to unionize and be classified as employees, not contractors, so they can negotiate better wages and they can have a place dignified in the middle class. This means adopting the PRO law (protection of the right to organize).
MarketWatch: What else can Congress do to ensure these things, in addition to what this legislation addresses?
Khanna: We also need to do things like pass paid family leave and childcare, so that workers can balance their commitments to their families.
There’s $11 trillion in market capitalization of companies in my district. That’s more wealth than any region in human history.
In the digital age, we can afford to pay workers properly. They should be able to afford a house and health care, have a living wage. These are not out of reach goals.
We have two imperatives. The first is to ensure that every community has access to well-paying jobs, like what is happening with Intel (INTC) in Ohio. The second part is to make sure workers have high wages. We need a vision for the middle class in the 21st century.
See: Intel delays Ohio factory groundbreaking ceremony
MarketWatch: How will tech hubs contribute to this vision? You said tech hubs and this legislation will help reduce costs for working families and ensure communities of color aren’t left behind.
Khanna: Some of the causes of inflation are shortage of supply and increase in shipping costs, so production costs are higher. Increasing production in the long run will help. It’s not a magic bullet and won’t fix everything immediately, but over the next few years it might help.
Semiconductor manufacturing is one of the critical parts of the supply chain. Tech hubs can and will help the country’s needs.
Both black and brown communities need to participate in these tech jobs. Jobs can come from tech hubs in places where there are HBCUs, or [a high concentration of Black and Latino residents]. We can create one or two of these tech hubs in South Carolina, Atlanta, or St. Louis.
Eventually, I would like to see a tech hub in every state of every country. I wish I had massive investment to bring back other electronic manufacturing, not just chips. This must be at the heart of a new bipartisan vision for the country.
MarketWatch: What message do you want people to take away from this bill and this effort?
Khanna: In my book, the story of Alex Hughes struck me. [Hughes lost his business because of the decline of the coal industry in Kentucky. He got some tech training, became a coder and now is a software developer.]
Hughes is still doing things. He said “generations of Hughes have done things I can do.”
We need to talk about these jobs as useful. Communities recognize the change in the economy and they want to participate in it. This is the key to what is happening in our country.
This is analogous to what happened in the early 1900s, during the transition from agrarian society to industrialization. This led to anti-immigration sentiment, rejection of Reconstruction, and genuine adherence to Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. Much of this stemmed from economic anxiety, as WEB Du Bois has written.
We have a sense of job loss, polarization and deindustrialization. We have creeping undercurrents of xenophobia and hatred. One way to remedy this is to provide yourself and your children with the opportunities of this economy. You can do this in jobs that don’t require a college degree. It’s a bipartisan message that could help America now.
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