Ro Khanna. Official portrait.

Today I’m going to write about a Democratic congressman from California, one who is so far left that he was national co-chair for Bernie Sanders, one who has made a national name for himself for advocating a variation of “spread the wealth.” And I’m going to tell you why every chamber of commerce and every other business organization in Southwest and Southside ought to be inviting him in to speak.

Now, before you reach for the blood pressure medicine – or that “X” function on the keyboard – hear me out. This isn’t quite what you think. Rep. Ro Khanna is, indeed, a Democratic congressman from California and he did, indeed, co-chair Sanders’ campaign. But his message of “spread the wealth” isn’t quite the confiscatory message you might think. He’s the congressman who represents Silicon Valley and for years he’s been preaching a message that tech companies need to “spread the digital wealth” to other parts of the country. He’s teamed up with some rural Republicans and traveled to places such as the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and Beckley, West Virginia, to talk up the prospects of tech companies finding ways to put jobs in communities that have seen their traditional employers decline or die altogether. I don’t know what Khanna’s constituents think of him suggesting his district export jobs – Silicon Valley may be so well off they don’t notice – but he seems to be making a case for rural America that a lot of rural congressmen don’t seem to be making for themselves.

Now Khanna has a new book out – not his first – and “Dignity in a Digital Age” is getting rave reviews across the political spectrum. Both The Nation (which is very far left) and Forbes (which last time I checked still believed in capitalism in all its glory) have praised it, an alignment that seems nearly impossible these days. Before that, he was even singled out for praise – yes, praise – on the Trumpy conservative site Breitbart. More recently, the Daily Caller, another conservative site, excerpted part of his book under the headline “Rep. Ro Khanna Breaks Down How Tech Jobs Can Save Small Town America In New Book.” Forbes calls him “a virtual miracle among contemporary American political leaders,” a modern-day “statesman” who “calls to mind universal women and men of thought, plan, and action like Benjamin Franklin or Alexander Hamilton in the 18th century, as well as cross-disciplinary practical polymaths like Frederick Douglass, Madame Curie, W.E.B. Dubois.” So perhaps we ought to pay some attention to what Khanna has to say, eh?

(Yes, that means all you conservative readers can put your blood pressure medicine back on the shelf now.)

Khanna’s case is based on old-fashioned facts: The economic growth in this country is wildly uneven, is becoming moreso, and his district is responsible for a lot of that imbalance. Yes, economic growth has always been uneven, but here’s what’s different. In an earlier era, if automakers in Detroit did well, so did steelmakers in Gary, Indiana, and so did coal miners in Appalachia (and so did the railroaders who hauled all that coal north to the furnaces). Now, though, those economic connections have been broken. Silicon Valley isn’t buying algorithms assembled at digital plants in Danville; we’re not growing code on farms across Southside. This has completely altered the economic dynamics in the country, and not to our benefit.

Khanna wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal (not a publication that usually gives over some of its columns to a Sandernista): “Americans should not have to leave their hometowns in order to seek opportunity or build wealth. But our modern, digital economy has concentrated its dynamism in a handful of mostly coastal cities, including San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Boston and Austin. When these cities prosper, cities such as Youngstown, Ohio, or Beckley, West Virginia, don’t share in the benefit. Many residents of middle-American cities and rural areas are tired of seeing their young people buy one-way tickets out of their home states in search of work. They worry about the loss of community, the shuttering of stores and the dwindling of church congregations.”

Preach it, brother, preach it!

Khanna goes on to write: “Most of these Americans understand the importance of the tech sector to the U.S. economy. … By 2025, the U.S. will have 25 million digital jobs – more than the number of manufacturing and construction jobs combined. These jobs have a median salary of $80,000, nearly double the national average. They should not be available only to high-schoolers in Cupertino, Calif. – home to Apple – who have sophisticated robotics workshops in their garages. And yet, just five U.S. cities account for 90% of innovation job growth in recent decades, according to a 2019 Brookings and Innovation Technology and Innovation Foundation report. Nearly 50% of digital service jobs are in 10 major metro centers. As for the others, nearly 63 of the country’s 100 largest metro regions saw their share of tech jobs actually decline in the past decade. This distribution doesn’t have to be so unequal.”

Like I said, Preach it, brother, preach it!

Now, as we all know, identifying and describing the problem is not quite the same thing as doing something about it. So what does Khanna propose? Other than that tech companies should be encouraged to spread their operations around?

Khanna does have some specific suggestions, a whole platform full of them, actually.

He proposes that federal contracts involving software companies require that 10% of their workers come from rural areas – essentially a “rural set-aside” similar to other federal contract requirements for women-owned businesses or veteran-owned businesses and so forth. “Imagine if the competing companies knew they would be more likely to be selected if they hired tech workers from left-out regions,” Khanna writes. (This is where ideological conservatives in rural areas may have some philosophical discomfort even if the practical benefit comes to their communities.) He also proposes giving companies a federal tax credit of up to 10% for every rural-based employee they hire. Even conservatives might like the idea of a federal tax credit for employers, right?

But wait, that’s not all …

Khanna also proposes a “national digital corps” modeled after the Peace Corps that would bring “the brightest minds in technology to universities, community colleges and local businesses to spend three to six months building effective credentialing and apprenticeship programs and mentoring newly trained workers. Like the Peace Corps, participants would receive a stipend for living expenses and would enhance their own resumes while developing a better understanding of rural markets and the economic opportunities there.”

He wants funding for land-grant universities – hello, Virginia Tech! – “to develop applied technical training programs in concert with the private sector.” (No, I’m not entirely sure what this means, either, but I’ll accept this as a concept and not a detailed proposal.)

He thinks computer science should be taught in every school. “According to Code.org, only 47% of U.S. high schools teach computer science, and only 10 states provide classes for all grades,” Khanna writes. “Not everyone needs to be a coder, but even non-techies benefit from understanding the basics in order to be confident using digital technology and operating machines.” Of course, this runs smack into two issues we plague rural Virginia: the lack of modernized school buildings (which become a problem if trying to plug in lots of things that overload antiquated electrical systems) and the general disparity between rural schools and affluent ones.

I’ve written earlier about the proposal for the federal government to fund “regional tech hubs” around the country – there are rival proposals in the two tech bills that the House and Senate are now hammering out in a conference committee. (I wrote that the Senate version is far superior and offers a decent chance that some community in our part of Virginia, most likely the New River Valley, would get selected.) The Senate version calls for 18 regional tech hubs; the House version calls for “at least 10” (one of many ways the bipartisan Senate version is superior to the Democratic-only House version, which is why we should be grateful that Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, is one of the conferees.). Khanna has what might be an even grander idea: He thinks “the government should finance and help create American Centers of Technology near research universities in every state by the end of this decade” – so that’s at least 50. Two years ago, he introduced a bill that called for 30 (and $900 billion to support them). Whatever the details, Khanna seems very serious about the notion that the tech industry should be more geographically diversified.

What’s his motive in this? After all, most members of Congress don’t make a career of seemingly trying to look out for somebody else’s district. Khanna sees himself trying to save democracy and stitch back together a country dangerously polarized along cultural lines that are further organized along geographical lines. “When tech project teams are geographically distributed in this way, they may bring together employees living in coastal cities with those in rural communities and communities of color,” he writes. “That experience may help to soften some of the country’s cultural fault lines. Those who are uncomfortable with the increasingly multiracial nation that the U.S. is becoming may relax their opposition when their incomes and careers are linked to those of a diverse team. Cosmopolitan techies may become less disconnected, learning to appreciate the culture, traditions, struggles and stories of blue-collar or rural towns if they work with people who live there. A more geographically inclusive tech sector will not only bring Americans together but also spark the innovation that America needs to compete in the century ahead.”

That seems a message we can all agree with.

So here’s my proposal: Somebody should invite Khanna to come tour Southwest or Southside Virginia (or both!). Every author wants to sell books, so presumably he’s available when he’s not tending to his day job. However, it would behoove us to make connections with the congressman from Silicon Valley, whatever his politics may be. Then maybe we should ask our own congressmen what they think of some of his ideas. 

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.