Ro Khanna: Tech-funding bill is ‘not just about jobs — it’s about a new patriotism’


Rep. Ro Khanna, a congressman from Silicon Valley, wrote the Endless Frontier Act as part of a wide-ranging tech innovation bill that seemed to be on a fast track before reaching a stalemate in Congress.

Before the 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 Democrats’ budget reconciliation bill — MarketWatch talked with Khanna, a California Democrat, about the bill, including about how it is meant to help create well-paying jobs and expand the definition of what a tech job is.

In a follow-up, Khanna said Thursday he still hoped that Congress would pass the multibillion-dollar USICA, though it is possible that Congress will pass the narrower, $52 billion CHIPS Act instead.

Don’t miss the update: Three possible outcomes for stalled tech-funding bill, according to its co-author

The bulk of the USICA’s goals is aligned 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 wrought, including rising inequality and the concentration of high-paying jobs in just a few places in the nation.

Khanna wrote: “There is no reason why any region that’s fallen behind should be left behind.”

This interview was conducted in spring, and has been edited for length and clarity.

MarketWatch: What is the significance of this legislation being a bipartisan effort?

Khanna: It’s been bipartisan since the beginning when Chuck Schumer, Todd Young, Mike Gallagher and myself crafted the bill. Its purpose was to make sure advanced manufacturing and production is being done in America, not offshored.

This is not just about jobs. It’s about a new patriotism, a spirit of revival, of becoming productive and glorious. It’s a message that transcends party, race, geography. It can help stitch this country back together.

It’s 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 good-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 situations as some of the workers who now work for tech companies and are seeking to unionize partly because of their poor working conditions?

Khanna: The tech jobs of the future are not just coding jobs. We need to de-mysticize what a “tech” job is. They will be in agriculture, manufacturing, retail, building things, fixing things. These jobs will be high-paying jobs, making $30 to $40 an hour. They will be middle-class jobs.

There are two different issues.

How do we create good, high-paying jobs? We need tax incentives for companies, investment in HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities), and more.

Separate from that, we need a living wage. There are a lot of service jobs, like warehouse jobs, where people are not being paid properly. You might be looking at Amazon
workers, where the worse thing than a human boss is having an algorithm as a boss.

With people’s cost of living rising, we need to make it easier for people to unionize and to be classified as employees, not contractors, so they can bargain for better wages and so they can have a dignified place in the middle class. That means passing the PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act.

MarketWatch: What else can Congress do to ensure those things, besides what this legislation addresses?

Khanna: We also need to do things like pass paid family leave and child care, so workers are able to balance their commitments to their families.

There is $11 trillion of market cap of companies in my district. This is more wealth than in any region in human history.

We can afford in the digital age to pay workers properly. They should be able to afford a house and healthcare, have a livable wage. Those are not out-of-reach goals.

We have two imperatives. One is to make sure every community has access to high-paying jobs, like what is happening with Intel
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 groundbreaking ceremony for Ohio plant

MarketWatch: How will tech hubs help that vision? You’ve said tech hubs and this legislation will help lower costs for working families and help ensure communities of color are not left behind.

Khanna: Some of the causes of inflation are shortage of supply and increased shipping costs, so production costs are higher. Increasing production over the long term will help. It’s not a magic fix and won’t solve it all immediately, but over the next few years it could help.

Semiconductor manufacturing is one of the critical pieces in the supply chain. Tech hubs can help and will meet the needs of the country.

Black and brown communities need to participate in these tech jobs. The 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’d like to see one tech hub in every state in every country. I would like to have massive investment to bring back other electronics manufacturing, not just chips. This has to be the core 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, Alex Hughes’s story 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 making things. He said “generations of Hughes have been making things, I can do that.”

We need to talk about these jobs as helpful. Communities recognize the change in the economy and they want to participate. This is the key to what’s happening in our country.

It’s analogous to what happened in the early 1900s, in the transition from agrarian society to industrialization. It led to anti-immigration sentiment, the rejection of Reconstruction and back to a real embrace of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. A lot of that stemmed from economic anxiety, like W.E.B. Du Bois wrote.

We have a sense of job loss, polarization and deindustrialization. We have creeping strands of xenophobia and hate. One way of addressing it is to bring the opportunities of this economy to you and your kids. You can do it in jobs that don’t require a college degree. That’s a bipartisan message that could help America now.

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