In his new book, “Dignity in a Digital Age,” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., tackles the question of how the prosperity generated by technology can be more broadly shared. In the foreword, Indian economist Amartya Sen writes that “just as people can move to technology, technology can move to people. People need not be compelled to move from one place to another to reap the benefits offered by technological progress.” Khanna, who represents Silicon Valley, joins Ryan Grim to discuss the book and more.
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Ryan Grim: Over the past few weeks, relations between the White House and Joe Manchin and relations between most congressional Democrats and Joe Manchin hit rock bottom, with Manchin accusing the White House of putting his family in physical danger in announcing his opposition to the Build Back Better Act.
At least one House Democrat has kept an open line of communication with him, though, and that’s Ro Khanna who represents Silicon Valley and serves as the deputy whip of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Khanna has carved out a place for himself in the House as one of the few progressives who’s been able to maintain working relationships with not just conservative Democrats, but also Republicans who aren’t afraid to be seen in public with a Democrat.
This week, he’s out with a new book, “Dignity in a Digital Age: Making Tech Work for All of Us” which tries to rethink progressive politics, warning that the current drift is alienating working class voters and entrenching a social divide that is not just undesirable in general, but also catastrophic for democratic political prospects. And that’s democratic with both a big “D” and a little “d.”
Congressman Khanna, welcome back to Deconstructed.
Rep. Ro Khanna: Thank you. Always good to be on.
RG: And so we’re here to talk about your new book “Dignity in a Digital Age,” which I can say it’s a really readable and interesting book, which I wouldn’t say about almost any book written by a member of Congress.
RK: Well, that’s a low bar. But I’m glad I’ve cleared it.
RG: No, it’s a genuinely good book. And I do want to get to that in a minute. Actually, first, how did you get Amartya Sen to write a foreword for it?
RK: I didn’t know Amartya Sen personally, but I had reached out to him on the idea. And he liked the point about sort of the blend of globalization and local community, and thought it was interesting, and then we struck up — a friendship is probably too strong a word, but we have now become acquaintances and share a commitment also to pluralism on the South Asian subcontinent. But it was a great honor. I mean, he’s obviously someone who’s one of the greatest thinkers in the world.
RG: And a lot of the questions you grapple with in this book are going to be impacted one way or another by whether or not Democrats actually end up passing, and what Democrats end up passing, relative to what had been the original Build Back Better Act. So I wanted to start with a little bit of that.
You’ve been one of the few Democrats in the House, who’s been able to maintain an open line with Sen. Manchin. And so what’s, what’s your sense of how alive on a scale of you know, completely dead to totally alive the Build Back Better Act is? What are we looking at? Are we looking at pieces of it going through? Are we looking at this potentially being revived in the next few weeks? And how does it interact, then, with the confirmation of a new Supreme Court Justice? Does that crowd everything out?
RK: We have a good chance of a new version emerging that has a few of the key priorities.
Now, here’s the reality: No one knows how the 2022 election is going to turn out. If we don’t pass climate legislation now, it could be years before we do anything on climate. This is the most substantial climate proposal we’ve ever had in our history. We need these billions of dollars — hundreds of billions of dollars — to develop the new innovation, the new energy sources, and Sen. Manchin is largely on board with the climate provisions. He, also, and other senators, I think we could get consensus on kids, three and four year-olds getting preschool, we could get consensus on some of the expansion of Medicaid.
But, beyond that, it will be challenging to see what else gets in the package. There may be a couple other things. My view is we ought to give Sen. Manchin the space of a few weeks. Right now it’s going to be voting rights and the omnibus bill, see if we can come to a consensus particularly rooted in climate, pass it, and then have votes on all the rest separately.
RG: And I’ve also heard that — that Manchin is actually mostly OK with significant pieces of the climate portion of Build Back Better and that it was in the offer that he delivered to President Biden, right before everything completely blew up. So I’ve heard that; I don’t think that people are lying about it. How do we square that with what we understand about Manchin, just from a pop-culture perspective?
RK: He has always been for innovation on new sources of energy and technology. And a lot of that $400-$500 billion is: How do we invest to make more solar, wind? How do we invest in energy efficiency?
Where he has had issues is on the punitive side, or on the regulatory side, where we are actually penalizing utilities for not adopting renewable energy or penalizing them for polluting. Now I, of course, supported some of those penalties as well. And I supported the clean electricity energy program, which would have had those penalties. I support stronger methane fee penalties; I support the idea that we should take away tax credits for a CCS, if it’s used for enhanced oil recovery.
I’m not going to sugarcoat that there are differences there between my view of what needs to be done and Sen. Manchin and others in the Senate. But if we can’t come to a consensus there, we can still get $500 billion in massive investment in renewable energy, that’s still moving the ball considerably, and it would be malpractice not to do that.
RG: What do you think went wrong before that can be done differently this time?
RK: I believe there was some wishful thinking. I think Sen. Manchin has been pretty clear about where he has been probably for the last year, and there was some wishful thinking that if we just continued to build momentum, he would come along at the end. And I think that wishful thinking was based on a view that he came along on the American Rescue Plan. But those who have talked to him will say, he did that as a one-time thing. He said, he was very clear to the White House that it was a one-time support for the child tax credit, given the circumstances of the pandemic, but he is not signed on to doing this in a permanent way.
And, in retrospect, I mean, obviously, it’s easy to be a Monday-morning quarterback, but in retrospect, we should have probably taken him more literally in the early summer, and figured out how we get something done that he was comfortable with.
RG: Now, your your book isn’t really tell-all, or kind of a blow-by-blow of congressional action, but you do get into some pieces of legislation that you’ve been working on, and you do talk about one that is that is still alive and it’s kind of the second biggest maybe piece of legislation that’s still before the House. And that’s what was originally called the Endless Frontier Act. You had a version of it that predated that name; Schumer then changed it because he thought people were confusing it with like, a space bill or something? And so now it’s called something like the U.S.-China innovation competitiveness, something-or-other?
RK: Don’t give him any ideas. He hasn’t put China in there. It’s the United States Innovation and Competition Act.
RG: By the time we’re done, China will be in there.
RG: And so you talk about a particular portion of the bill that you’re excited about. I want to talk about that in a second. But you also mentioned that one of the chief obstacles that you had was the staff of the House Science Committee —
RK: You really read this book in detail.
RG: [Laughs.] And I don’t think people understand the role that staff play in the congressional ecosystem sufficiently. So can you talk a little bit about that? People might think that staffers are just aides to bosses — that a member tells staff what to do, and they do that, but particularly on committees, where that can become a career, where you work for the Science Committee for decades, where the subcommittee chairs turnover, the members turnover, but the staff stays, they become something of an institution themselves. And so what was their position towards the legislation?
RK: They are! And look, most staff are wonderful people who care about public service and are doing this not making that much money, including people on the House science staff. But the reason I detail this is the staff is often a huge challenge in terms of change. And it’s not because they are bought off by lobbyists, or it’s not because they are in any way nefarious; it’s because they bought into the reigning status quo ideology. And that’s almost more challenging than simply the lobbyist and money influence on Capitol Hill. It’s almost that you have an ideology on many different issues that emerges, and breaking from that ideology is very, very difficult.
Here you had the President of the United States, the Senate Majority Leader, and the Speaker of the House wanting to break from the ideology. But still, the obstacle in many ways was the staff. And the specific dispute here was: They didn’t want to have an industrial policy outlook from the NSF. They had this view that the NSF is pure, and it needs to be simply about theoretical science and that there shouldn’t be, necessarily, a technology directorate that uses that science to create jobs, like Intel is creating jobs in Ohio, the paradigm case for the Endless Frontiers/Competition Act — they thought that could corrupt the science.
So we had to have calls with the MIT president who said even theoretical scientists need the practical application to advance in theory, unless you’re Albert Einstein, you usually need to see how things play out. And by the way, if we’re using tax dollars, there should be some public accountability. And that was a long debate. Now I’m glad that the current version has the tech directorate, and has a massive plus ups. That was another thing that committee staff was very hesitant [about]: Can these agencies really take that kind of increase?
So, again, it’s not that they aren’t thoughtful, or that they don’t have a point of view. It’s just that they aren’t democratically elected, and that it shows how difficult it is to actually get change against an ingrained system.
RG: That’s interesting, ’cause I noticed that you were making that argument that practical and theoretical science interact with each other in a dynamic way. And that seems true and obvious. I didn’t realize, as I’m reading it, that partially that argument was fleshed out to talk the staff into moving on this piece of legislation. Is that right?
RK: Yes! And it was partly, we had the Caltech president, MIT president talk about how there is not this corruption of science. And there’s an understandable legacy of why science wanted to be independent of politics, right?
What you don’t want is: OK, so-and-so is a member of Congress x, and they want this funding coming to their district, and the science has to be dictated by members of Congress or committees. I mean, we can imagine how terrible that could emerge. And the scientific community wanted independence, and there’s a value, like any argument, there’s always some value to why it’s made in the first place. But the point is that they were so wedded to this, and there’s certain groups that are so wedded to this, that it sort of became science independence for its own sake. And I think there was a lack of appreciation of the public role in that, and the accountability that science still needs to have to the public, especially with tax dollars.
And it gets to one other point, which is scientific certainty. I mean, not to be philosophical about what is scientific truth, which Charles Peirce sort of says, over the long run in ideal conditions of discourse amongst scientific experts, that’s how we know what scientific truth is. But the point is that there is, too often I think, there’s this view: Well, they don’t know the science, and it can almost come off condescending. And one of the points that I try to make in the book is even when we’re talking about science, we probably want to have appropriate democratic participation and non-judgmentalism, and try to make the case of getting people on board with a recognition that it’s science in a democracy, it’s not science divorced from democracy.
RG: And I thought using science funding deliberately as industrial policy was an interesting innovation. Obviously we’ve done that, by accident, all over the place, whether it’s through the Pentagon or other places, government funding of science and technology has produced all sorts of industries, including Silicon Valley, the one that you represent, now and now in Congress, but to do it more deliberately fits into the framework that you lay out in the book. So let’s talk about that for a moment.
So you sketch out this idea of progressive capitalism in a way that you’re trying to kind of harness the wealth creation of Silicon Valley in a way that can democratize and spread the value across the country and across the world. And so, lay out a little bit of the outline of the book and then we can go into it chapter by chapter.
RK: So the thesis of the book is that in my district and the surrounding areas, you’ve had $11 trillion of wealth generation, the most wealth generation probably in any region in human history. And yet globalization in the new economy has not worked for a lot of working families in a lot of places in this country. They’ve had jobs go offshore, they’ve had deindustrialization. And for a long time, they were basically told, get new skills and move, and we saw towns deteriorate, stores shutter, and a lot of people left out of the participation of the new economy. Now, I think the billionaires in my district should be taxed. And I go into why they should be taxed — to have universal health care, and preschool, and nutrition. But I don’t think that’s sufficient. I don’t think Americans are sitting there saying, OK, let all the money be made in a few areas, tax them, and then invest; they want to contribute, they want to participate in this modern economy, where they’re gonna have 25 million digital jobs. And many of those jobs aren’t this idea of, oh, you got to go code and work for Google. I mean, these are jobs, like the 3,000 manufacturing jobs that are being created with Intel going to Ohio. And as Enrico Moretti and economists show, they have a multiplier effect. So you now have 7,000 construction jobs that are in a whole ecosystem in New Albany that is emerging.
And what I argue is that if we can find a way of decentralizing these 25 million jobs, if we actually incentivize them to be in small towns, in rural communities, in midsize cities through a series of policies, then maybe you could have more people staying in their hometowns — if they want — and having economic opportunity, economic revival, without cultural displacement, without telling them, you got to live in Fremont, California, or Palo Alto and that that would help both give people more hope about their place in a 21st century economy and create more connectivity, perhaps, between New Albany, Ohio, and Silicon Valley.
RG: And so the way you talk about expanding these opportunities to places like Mississippi, West Virginia, Columbus, Ohio, kind of fits into two big buckets. And then there’s a lot more to it, but to two main buckets: one would be training programs and the other is direct investment in the creation of research institutions, I think you called them digital land grants — basically building off of Abraham Lincoln’s land grant universities that he constructed in 1862, which really created a lot of the wealth in the United States. And that was a particularly, defining moment; this was a just ahead of Reconstruction, but it foresaw the creation of what they were trying to build as a multiracial democracy coming out of the Civil War where, freed slaves would be given land and then these land grant universities would teach both white and black farmers, the skills needed to participate in this in this new economy.
Obviously, the former part of that didn’t happen, the land was rescinded from freed slaves, and they were put into a Jim Crow system for the next 80 years, whereas the land grants did expand around the country, did provide skills and education and training to people, did produce wealth. You have some statistics in there that show that where there were land grant universities, you know, there was significantly more economic development. And so you propose doing something similar around digital education. That, to me, makes a lot of sense. Because, at minimum, you’re creating the jobs and those research centers, and those universities, and those schools — and then you’re creating people who have skills and understanding who can then build off of those networks that are created.
I’m a lot more skeptical about the training programs. And so I want to hear from you the best case that you can make for them. And you write about several, one of them in Kentucky where you visited Hal Rogers, one of perhaps Congress’s greatest earmarker in its entire history. Just ran an utter kingdom out there. And then you talk about some others elsewhere in the country. And those — there are success stories, but also at huge costs. And a lot of failure stories as well; a lot of people who come through them, but then don’t get jobs at the end of it. So what is the case that these training programs can actually work?
RK: Well, I think that’s a very good recap of what I talked about.
I mean, the digital grants are at land grant universities across the country, at HBCUs, and they’re regionally specific. And what I say is: Look, we’ve got to get over this idea that a digital job is trying to turn a factory worker into a coder or trying to have you work at Apple or Google. That is not the digital job of the 21st century. The digital job is, in many ways, the middle class job, whether it’s in manufacturing or retail, and you have 25 million of them, more than construction or manufacturing combined. And so the question is: How do you prepare people for these jobs?
With GM, for example, that they’re hiring 3,000 people in the technical design of cars, those jobs don’t have to be in Silicon Valley. Those jobs could be in Michigan. And you could have these land-grant universities really work with the private sector, in offering a course — doesn’t have to be a four-year degree, it often has to be a 10-month, 18-months course, get the credential, have people working, whether it’s in retail and manufacturing — I’m talking about Alex Hughes in Paintsville, Kentucky, who’s making smart dishwashers and making smart refrigerators. So this is relatable, and it’s giving people the actual credentials.
There are two problems with the education. One, it doesn’t often have a sufficient practical outcome at the end, with the right mix of partnership with the industry that’s going to create the jobs. And two, some of them don’t have a job at the end. So you have people that get these courses and don’t have a job at the end. I think if it’s done in a way that involves the local industry, and it actually has an 8-month, 10-month credential, then it can lead to these jobs, and I cite a number of places where it has.
One other point I’d say there’s the challenge of there’s been this view that: Oh, let’s just go plop up Silicon Valleys everywhere or let’s, as a caricature, turn coal miners into coders. And I think that has done a disservice.
I think the broader question is: Where are the middle class jobs of the 21st century economy in different sectors going to come from? How do we get the credential that’s going to allow them to have these jobs? And how do we link those credentials to jobs? That, I think, is achievable.
RG: And how do we prevent these from becoming just rip-offs? The worst example of these would be our 20-year exercise in Afghanistan, of giving Halliburton or KKR a bunch of money to train local police, train soldiers, and they just pencil-whipped the whole thing. They just find warm bodies to put in desks, or often, actually not even; they don’t even have the bodies show up. They just write down that the people showed up. And they say: Hey, we trained these people, pay us our contract, and you don’t actually have anybody trained to do anything. There’s no incentive, necessarily, for Halliburton, in that case, to produce people who are actually trained in the thing they’re supposed to be trained with. Their only incentive is to hit their numbers, which is why I like the idea of an actual kind of digital university better. Because it’s a thing that you can understand. We understand college. We understand universities. But we also understand these for-profit training programs that can just turn people out. So how do you guard against that?
RK: Well, I’d be very skeptical of some of these for-profit training programs. And some of them, I won’t go into all of them in the book, but someone can just Google it and you can have story after story, including in The New York Times, about how a number of people came together, it created quote-unquote a nonprofit or even a for-profit, said that they were going to teach folks how to code or do technology, and then a couple years later, nothing happens. And I think actually, that’s added to the skepticism in these communities. So I would say you want to have the land-grant universities or the HBCUs involved; if you’re going to go with a boot camp or something that is not a land-grant institution, then you should have certification requirements and have the federal government or at least a good state government certify that carefully. And that you want to get credible private sector companies involved as well if it’s part of the curriculum, but in a place where there are metrics, that there’s accountability, so you don’t just have some grant going to a company and saying: OK, go do this. And I think if you have that ecosystem of the federal government sort of accountability, the land grant institutions or a very credible bootcamp with industry, then you have the best chance at success and without the fraud.
RG: And so what has wound up so far in the legislation, the Endless Frontier Act, so when it comes to creating these types of institutions?
RK: So in the Endless Frontier Act, it’s focused on the CHIPS funding, which is funding to the semiconductor companies to be able to expand into the Midwest and the South. And I understand there’s some concerns, and one of my hopes, and I’m working to actually try to get an amendment, is that these companies should be neutral towards labor organizing. So you can’t say that — I guess you can, but it would never pass — that they have to have union jobs. But they at least should not be opposing the union organizing if they are getting public funding. But that, to me, in making sure there’s sufficient guardrails on the funding is important.
I do think we ought to have the entire Democratic Party, in my view, descend on New Albany, Ohio, to claim credit for $20 billion in 3,000 jobs coming to that state. I mean, Trump did almost nothing with the Carrier deal or Foxconn. And the whole country knew about it. Here, under President Biden’s watch, you’re basically having the revitalization of parts of Ohio. And we’re not talking about it: the Endless Frontiers Act or the Competition Act would make that even more possible in many other parts of the country on the semiconductor front.
And then they have these tech hubs, which would be an investment in local universities, in combination with the private sector to say: Hey, we want to have certain technology development, whether that’s in clean technology, whether that’s in AI, whether it’s in robotics, and we want to try to to establish that in our midsize city or our community. And they could apply to the Department of Commerce for that funding.
RG: And the other thing you write about is, or you kind of shy away from the political implications of people moving in the way that they did during the pandemic, a lot of people from cities moving out to rural areas, because you talk about how there’s a lot of skepticism in rural areas that these are folks that are just coming in to try to turn their county blue, and that there’s all this fear that they’re going to try to bring their cosmopolitan, liberal values to rural America.
And I don’t know if I’ve talked about this on this show or not, but I was one of those cosmopolitan liberals who, during the pandemic, we picked up and moved to Southern Vermont, because school was in and we just couldn’t fathom the idea — we have four little kids. And so the idea of four kids doing remote school for an entire year was just absolutely terrifying.
RG: And so we went to Vermont.
RK: Your sentiment probably explains a lot of the challenges with the Democratic Party in the large parts of this country. I mean, I think parents are just fed up — I’m not saying because our policy has been wrong, I just think as a matter of fact that the challenges for parents have been very, very difficult. I say that as a father of two young kids.
RG: Yes. And we did it for the spring of 2020, the shut down in March. And just, good Lord, it’s just absolutely brutal, because a lot of the software also doesn’t work very well. So not only do you have the difficulty of kids trying to learn through screens, but you also have difficulty just hooking up, and keeping it hooked up, and keeping everything working. And if you’ve got four of them, it’s just hopeless.
And so we went to Vermont. And I think a third of the public school was people from New York, New Jersey — a couple, actually, from Washington — just moving to the area, to work remotely, and getting a taste of this rural life. And some of them stayed. And I think you’ve seen that around, you’re going to see that after the pandemic. You’re going to see a number of people say: You know what? I don’t need to be in New Jersey or New York, I don’t need this hour commute on the train; I’m going to work remotely.
And so there are political implications of this shift. And some of them are partisan, and could influence elections on the margins. But I think the theme that you talk about more broadly is even more interesting than that, in the sense that if we continue on the current trajectory of cities like Cleveland and Columbus becoming fully hollowed out, that then animates and heightens the hostility to those cities out in the rural areas outside of there; in other words, the worse off things get in Cleveland, and Columbus, and Cincinnati, the more hatred and racism there is in the rest of Ohio. There’s this othering that people out in the hinterlands of Ohio don’t visit Cincinnati, they don’t visit Columbus, but they hear about it, they hear about the violence, they hear about how awful it is, and they understand that the best of Ohio was in the past. And that creates a breeding ground for fascism, for a kind of nasty right-wing populism that then creates its own vicious cycle that is very difficult to turn around. And so turning that around, does have some interesting implications for let’s say that Senate in New Hampshire or Montana have; if you’ve got a whole bunch of liberals moving to Bozeman, that can be interesting electorally, but also from just a political, economic perspective, it seems like the only way to keep the country from falling apart is to put people physically together in these places. And the technology hubs and the remote work seemed like at least a possibility of doing that. Did you think about the kind of social fabric as you were working on this idea?
RK: I appreciate that, because these are exactly the themes that were motivating my thinking.
First point is that the Democratic Party or as a country, we need a theory of production, of people wanting to contribute. Cleveland was the Silicon Valley of its time. And part of why I use this lens of technologies, it represents the future, and people want to have pride, they want to have prosperity, they want to contribute to the economy. We have a wonderful case, I think as Democrats, of distributive justice: everyone needs health care, everyone needs preschool, everyone needs nutrition, everyone needs a proper wage. But we also have to have some sense of aspiration for people. People want to work, they want to be fulfilled in their work, they want their communities to thrive.
And part of what I say is causing this some of the resentment is that a lot of communities don’t feel like they have that. And they’ve been told: Go move! Just go move, you’ll find a job. And their kids are buying one-way tickets out. And they’re talking about a brain drain in their communities, like my parents talked about when they left India; many of them want to stay. Moving is great if you want, but you shouldn’t be forced to, to move just for the search for economic prosperity.
So part of this is saying: We’ve got to bring a way for communities to thrive without telling them that they have to move. And, if they’re able to thrive, maybe they’re able to hold on to some of the cultural traditions and mores of a town that makes the shift demographically, in this country, easier for people to embrace if they still have some familiarity in their local communities and traditions.
And then the second point is: Right now, when Silicon Valley does well, it’s very hard to argue that Beckley, West Virginia or Columbus, Ohio, maybe, but certainly Youngstown and other places, are doing well — it’s disconnected. And if we had more connectivity, with people in these communities thriving, but that they also had some stake in the digital economy. And, by the way, I have a whole chapter on workers and how you could win the lottery working for Amazon in terms of you’re suddenly working for one of the richest companies ever, and you’re basically dehumanized in the workplace. I mean, think about that prospect from a worker’s perspective; here, you’re working at a company that has more market-value than everywhere, and you’re still not thriving. But if we could figure out a way that you actually had more connectivity with the digital prosperity that’s been driving most of the wealth generation of the last decades — both geographically and based on class, and based on race, and gender — then maybe we have more sense of connectivity in this country. And those are the themes. It’s not to say I have a pollyannaish view that OK, now you’ve got people in Silicon Valley, working with rural Americans and African-Americans, and somehow we’re gonna have Kumbaya. But I can tell you the disconnect is on prosperity and the enormous gulfs of economic opportunity are certainly exacerbating the challenge of becoming a multiracial, multi-ethnic democracy.
RG: Now, one of the criticisms of the idea — and you address this a little bit in the book, I want to put a fine point on it – is that looking to tech as a solution here is undermined by the fact that tech in the places where it’s already dominant, has produced massive inequality in its own backyard. In other words, the idea that it’s going to do anything useful around the country is betrayed by that; if you look at Austin, or if you look at the Bay Area, or other places where wealth is growing, you have workers who are pushed so far out into poor neighborhoods that they can barely commute in and out just to serve the wealthy people who have been able to build moats around their areas. And so how optimistic are you that that can be grappled with?
RK: That’s a very fair critique. And I tried to make it and in chapter four, where, you know, I actually critique Enrico Moretti, he is a brilliant economist. He says: Tech has this multiplier effect — one good tech job, and you’re going to have four other good jobs paying above the median wage. The problem is that it doesn’t account for a lot of the people who are doing service jobs. Two-thirds of the jobs in this country don’t require a computer, they’re physical jobs still.
And what about all the people who are serving the food, and driving the buses, and cleaning the buildings, and baristas at the coffee shops? It turns out in my district, which I know, obviously, the best, there are a lot of people in those occupations who are rent burdened, who’s have 50-60 percent of their salary simply go into the rent, and it’s created gentrification where basically, you know, some of these young techies come in and say: Well, why can’t they move if they can’t afford it, and you have families who have been there three, four generations, haven’t believe the neighborhoods that they they grew up in having to commute two hours, and not having a fair wage.
Part of this unique to places where you have multi-trillion-dollar companies. And the vision here isn’t to have a Google and Apple everywhere. In large parts of this country, there’s a lot of land, you’re not going to have this kind of huge spike in housing costs, and they could use the investment — if anything, property values are depressed. But as these communities start to develop, and if some types of technology hubs and activity emerges, it’s so important that they get the housing policy, right, which we didn’t in Silicon Valley; that they get the wages right, which we didn’t in Silicon Valley; that they look at some of the lessons of the vast economic disparity of the Valley. And they say: We’ve got to avoid those mistakes.
RG: And you also, in a later chapter, talk about freedom of speech, censorship algorithms, and January 6, and try to grapple with that from a democratic perspective. You take a much more, I think, hands-off approach than a lot of your colleagues who are urging for significant amounts of censorship from Big Tech. But you also talk about, it’s sort of like public Facebook, maybe? I’m curious what what, what you have in mind when it comes to what could be publicly owned — because I do think, and I don’t have any answers to this, but I do think a significant problem is the way that these social media companies have designed their algorithms in order to exponentially increase engagement, and the way you increase engagement is you make people angry. And so you find the things that are making people angry, and you put those in front of other people; you find the people who make other people angry and make sure that they see each other all the time; and that produces anger, and it can produce disengagement. That’s basically how those algorithms are built. And so when you talk about doing a public-focused forum, what did you have in mind?
RK: Well, my view is that we need a plurality of places to have speech. Now, there’s no doubt that the extreme stuff that took place on Facebook, where you had people, before January 6, actually posting about killing lawmakers in a particular time on a particular day, that that should have been taken down and reported, and the fact that the law allows Facebook not to report that and just to turn a blind eye to that is wrong. And we do need to have things that wouldn’t pass the Brandenburg test in terms of speech, that has to be taken down and reported. But then beyond that, the question is, how do we deal with trying to improve the public discourse in this country, online. And I say: Well, one of the things you need or could do is to introduce a public internet forum, either in a local community where people got to trade ideas, or in a national sense, sort of a PBS for the internet.
Now this is not going to be some panacea. And nor would it be the only place you want conversation, because you’d have reasonable restrictions on time, manner, and place. And sometimes you don’t want to speak just politely. There’s value in anger. When Black Lives Matter were angry about George Floyd, you don’t want them just to have reasonable time and place: the language of protest is sometimes good, and the language of anger is sometimes justified. But you want to have more options in the types of conversations we’re having. And you don’t want to just default to the lowest common denominator of outrage. And so my biggest problem right now is the architecture is largely being determined by people like Dorsey and Zuckerberg, it doesn’t have an inclusive group of people making the architectures. You have Clubhouse, rife with racism and sexism, and not enough people actually participating from the Black community, the Brown community, or women, or rural America, and you don’t have enough options in terms of speech. And we have three networks telling us what we can watch, and all of them with a few tech leaders. So that would go some way.
Then, one other point, what newspapers or the work you do as a journalist, you I’m sure, like many people, you get excited if it has a lot of clicks, you want to get engagement. I mean, I hope this interview gets listened to a lot. And that’s human impulse. But there’s something else that’s animating you; it’s not just monetization. You care about making some contribution to democracy. And I think the new media companies, Facebook, Twitter, they have this fiction that is totally wrong, that oh, they’re just the pipes. They’re just the telephone wires. No. They are media companies. And they have an obligation to think about their role in society, and not just duck that. And that takes years to develop, and they should develop that.
RG: And speaking of press freedom, and this is somewhat related to your theme, the British High Court has allowed Julian Assange to appeal his extradition to the U.S., but all of this could go away if the Biden ministration would just drop the charges against Julian Assange and stop trying to extradite him to the United States. How much have you looked into this situation? Have you spoken with the White House about this? Do you think the White House ought to drop its prosecution of Assange?
RK: I do. From my understanding of the case, and the facts I’ve looked at, here’s why: There is no evidence that I have seen that Assange was actively engaged in encouraging or aiding the hacking of sensitive government information, or certainly classified government information. All of the allegations are that he was a recipient of this information and he published it. You could condemn that, morally; you could say he should have redacted things, I mean we could have a whole debate about whether what he did was right or wrong — and I think there are things he did that were wrong in terms of putting people’s lives at risk, or trying to time things in ways that could have an impact on electoral outcomes. But if you make that criminal, the publication of information that you have received, that you had no role in actually trying to secure, then you’re putting almost every journalist at risk of publishing information that should be in the public domain.
And, of course, there’s so many examples from the Pentagon Papers onwards of people who have published this information, and that actually turning out to be important for democracy. So I think the prosecution of Assange is just overboard, and it shouldn’t be. It’s having a chilling effect on journalism and speech. You know, it’s a hard position for politicians to take because Assange has done a lot of things that arguably have put American interests or even American lives at risk based on when he’s published things. So you can speak out clearly against them. But that doesn’t mean you should speak out for the prosecution. There’s a reason the Obama administration decided not to press further with the prosecution.
RG: Great. Well, Congressman Khanna, thanks for joining me. The book is “Dignity in a Digital Age.” Congratulations on it.
RK: Appreciate it. Appreciate it. You’re reading it so carefully. I enjoyed the conversation.
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