Cardinal News Speaker Series
Sign up for the first speaker in our Cardinal News speaker series. The event is free but registration is required.

You don’t see the congressman from Detroit going around the country saying, “Hey, we’ve got too many of these car factories. You want one?”

Yet the congressman from Silicon Valley is going around the country essentially saying his district has too many tech jobs – or at least that other districts don’t have enough.

Tonight, he’ll be in Blacksburg and, ideally, he’ll tell us how we can create more in this part of Virginia.

I’ll confess I had a little something to do with Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, being there. A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about his book – “Dignity in a Digital Age: Making Tech Work For All of Us” – and suggested that someone invite Khanna to speak in Southwest or Southside.

Turns out that someone is us. Through the magic of the internet, that column made its way to Khanna and he sent word that he’d be thrilled to come talk. So he is. He’ll be speaking tonight at 7 p.m. at an event co-sponsored by Cardinal News, the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council and the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center. The event is free but seating is limited, so registration is required; you can sign up here. This will be the first in a series of speakers we hope to bring in to address some aspect of the changing economy. In September, Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, will be at a similar event in Danville. (Full disclosure: Besides the free public talks, we’re scheduling separate events as fundraisers for Cardinal.) Some of you have asked if Khanna’s talk Thursday – technically a “conversation” with Roanoke author Beth Macy – will be available virtually. I’m afraid not. That technology is beyond our means. We at Cardinal sometimes give the appearance of being bigger than we are (although we invite you to help change that by helping fund us!).

I’m hoping to see a lot of people from what I’ll broadly call “the economic development community” there tonight – business and government people who are at the forefront of helping Southwest and Southside build a new economy. Khanna doesn’t have largesse to dispense but I do hope he has some advice.

Here’s some of what he’ll likely say – because he’s said it in other places before.

First, here’s some basic bio: Khanna grew up in suburban Philadelphia. His father worked for a chemical factory. His mother was a school teacher working with special needs kids. He became an intellectual property lawyer and wound up in Silicon Valley. “Today,” he writes in his book, “I represent what is arguably the most economically powerful place in the world – the home of Apple, Google, Intel, Yahoo, eBay, and LinkedIn.”

From that vantage point, Khanna has come to a conclusion that not enough people in the tech world share but which many of us outside Silicon Valley feel pretty keenly: Our nation’s economic model is broken. It’s probably broken in lots of ways, but here’s the way that he means it: “When we had manufacturing, we were connected,” Khanna told an Iowa newspaper two years ago. If Detroit did well making and selling cars, then the steel factories in Gary, Indiana, did well, and so did the coal mines in Appalachia – as well as the railroads that hauled all those goods back and forth. The tech world doesn’t work that way. Silicon Valley doesn’t buy algorithms assembled at some factory in the Midwest, or dug out of the ground in Southwest Virginia. It doesn’t depend on the rest of the country, at all, except maybe to use its products.

We often talk about “the social contract.” That’s the social contract we’ve had for generations – that we were all in this together. Yes, some people always did better than others, but there was still some sense of connection somewhere. “In some sense, if manufacturing did well in Michigan or Ohio, it ended up boosting people who were linked to transportation hubs, people who were linked with coal and mining, people who were linked in any way with supply chains of these great manufacturers,” Khanna told the Carroll Times Herald. “That’s not the case right now with technology. If Google or Apple do well, it doesn’t necessarily translate into wealth generation across the country.”

Here’s why that’s a problem, Khanna says. “We can’t have only a select number of winners in a select number of places where people are just sort of succeeding by geographic accident like that,” Khanna told that Iowa newspaper. That’s just not going to hold the country together. 

A few years ago, Khanna visited eastern Kentucky, a place that has been trying to position itself as “Silicon Holler” by attracting tech-related manufacturing jobs. “I felt flattered when headlines about my visit … described me as the ‘ambassador’ of Silicon Valley,” Khanna writes in his book, “but that characterization was also startling – as if, for Kentuckians, the hotbed of American tech innovation were essentially a foreign country.”

It’s probably just not Kentuckians, either. Khanna won’t feel too out of place in Blacksburg. The New River Valley is emerging as a tech center in its own right – earlier this year, a report by the Brookings Institution found that New River had the third fastest growth of tech jobs in the country between 2019 and 2020. The catch, of course, is that the baseline numbers are small, so it’s easy to show a big percentage growth – in this case, 11.8%. Still, the New River Valley is legitimately a small tech center, with a particular emphasis on what some call “deep tech” – robotics, engineering and so forth. There’s a reason for that, of course: Virginia Tech. Other parts of Southwest and Southside, though, don’t have a major research university in their midst. They might well look at the New River Valley the same way that eastern Kentucky looks to Silicon Valley (or that some of us look to Northern Virginia): Is that really some foreign country? Economically speaking, it is.

I’m looking forward to hearing Khanna talk more tonight about how we can change that – what economic bridges we can build. In Iowa, he’s helped the state make connections with Silicon Valley that have led to the creation of a tech training center in the small town of Jefferson, population 4,182. He helped Iowa State University win $1 million from a Silicon Valley foundation for agricultural research. (Khanna also sits on the House Agriculture Committee, which seems unusual for someone who’s not from a rural area.) He’s helped secure scholarships for Des Moines Area Community College for computer programs. He helped connect the family-owned Iowa newspaper quoted above with Facebook for grant funding to help it transition to online. Some see all this effort in Iowa cynically: Iowa is famously home to the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses. Might Khanna have other plans? He says no but that’s what they all say until they say otherwise. In any case, he’s also been to Kentucky and West Virginia, places that don’t have Iowa’s political cachet but have many of the same economic challenges. Ditto Southwest Virginia. Khanna comes from his party’s left wing but his basic message on a wider distribution of technology jobs doesn’t seem particularly ideological. Any jobs that wind up going to rural American are, for the most part, going to benefit Republican-voting communities.

In Washington, Khanna has been a main driver behind the technology bill now being negotiated in Congress. (Different versions have passed the House and Senate, so a conference committee must work out the details; U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, is one of those conferees.) I’ve written about the importance of this bill before: It would set aside funding to create regional “tech hubs” to do what Khanna has talked about – more widely disperse the tech industry. (I think there’s a decent chance the New River Valley would win one of those tech hubs, but we’ll see. I explained why and how in that original column.)

The New York Times interviewed Khanna earlier this year: “Khanna rattles off an array of initiatives that would harness the resources of the federal government to the agility of the private sector – building ‘digital grant colleges’ inside the country’s 112 land-grant universities to teach applied technology skills, underwriting apprenticeship programs at tech companies, creating a ‘national digital corps’ as a kind of Peace Corps for rural America.” I suspect I’m not the only one who read that quote and noticed the phrase “land-grant universities.” Virginia Tech President Tim Sands might want to find time for a quiet chat with Khanna; this seems a pretty rare opportunity.

Khanna makes the case that by 2025 technology jobs will outnumber manufacturing and construction put together. Of course, the difference between the two is increasingly harder to define. Is a computer chip manufacturing plant a tech company or a manufacturing company? Yes.

As Khanna goes around the country, he says a lot of the same things that we hear politicians here in Southwest and Southside say, just with an additional twist: “No person should be forced to leave their hometown to get a good-paying job,” Khanna told the Iowa newspaper. “A community’s biggest export shouldn’t be their kids. So we’re going to rebuild and revitalize these communities to bring them the opportunities of the technology revolution.”

I’ll be curious to learn tonight just what Khanna thinks communities should be doing to attract these jobs. We make a mistake if we think every tech job is some software coder with a computer science degree. But what kind of skills and training does he think workers should have? What should schools be teaching? What should community colleges be doing? Amazon’s not going to plunk down an HQ3 in the middle of Appalachia, so what are realistic goals for communities our size? We talk about “tech” as if it’s all just one thing, but it’s not. There are sectors upon sectors upon sectors – so which ones make the most sense for us? Those are just some of the more general thoughts I have. I’m sure people who actually work for a living in economic development will have far better ones.

Some think Khanna is, well, kind of crazy. A few years ago he led a bunch of Silicon Valley venture capitalists on a tour of some Rust Belt cities, looking for places to invest. “Khanna’s visits to Trump country have invited some predictable eye-rolling,” the Los Angeles Times wrote four years ago. “Executives returned from their post-election bus tours and barbecues in flyover land and went back in their bubbles. There have been spurts of investment, but not game-changing investment.” Let’s face it: Silicon Valley is generally left of center and rural America is very much right of center. Are we really going to see Silicon Valley tech companies prioritizing investment in deep red America? That’s another question I hope gets asked tonight. (Keep in mind that, in picking HQ2, Amazon said it valued things like diversity and a good cultural fit. Amazon may find those things in Arlington but it sure won’t in much of rural America; parts of Southwest Virginia are close to 98% white.) In any case, these figures remain intact: Just five metro areas in the country account for nearly 70% of the venture capital investments — and two of those (San Francisco and San Jose) are either in or near Khanna’s district. How can we get those investors to bet more broadly on the economic success of the rest of the country? What do we need to do to make sure we have start-ups worth them investing in? Those are some more good questions.

So why is Khanna doing this? He frames this in pretty dire terms: “I would say the future of the country is riding on this, [not] rural America and urban America preaching back and forth at each other about whether you should use gendered pronouns or how many guns you should be able to own,” he told Vanity Fair. “Those are arguments that are going to continue to divide. What we’re doing is literally potentially preventing a civil war, because this wealth inequality just can’t stand.”

Khanna’s prescriptions may or may not be right; that may depend on your political preferences – but he does seem to be addressing some big issues that other politicians don’t even acknowledge.

Dwayne Yancey

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