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“Dignity in the Digital Age”: Rep. Khanna Calls for Wealth Tax & Decentralizing, Diversifying Big Tech

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We speak with Congressmember Ro Khanna, whose district is in the heart of Silicon Valley, about his new book “Dignity in the Digital Age: Making Tech Work for All of Us.” He argues more federal regulation in the tech industry can secure an equitable society while encouraging innovation. “We need to understand that if you care about social justice and racial justice, that you have to look at the wealth generation gap,” says Khanna.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We spend the rest of the hour with Democratic Congressmember Ro Khanna, whose California district is one of the richest in the United States because it includes Silicon Valley, home to Apple, Google, Intel, Yahoo, eBay, LinkedIn and Tesla. He has a new book out that lays out how to distribute that wealth more evenly, in part by relocating Big Tech jobs to rural areas and increasing diversity, wages and transparency.

Congressmember Khanna tweeted yesterday, “America’s billionaires gained $1 TRILLION in wealth in 2021 for a 25% gain. Meanwhile, workers’ wages were up 9% in December 2021 compared to December 2020 — and subject to income tax. Everyone has to pay their fair share. We need a wealth tax,” he said.

Congressmember Ro Khanna joins us now for more. We’ll also talk to you about what’s next for Build Back Better and climate legislation, the hearing you just chaired this week calling out the fossil fuel companies for failing to meet their pledges to reduce emissions. We want to ask you also about Yemen. But let’s begin with your book, Dignity in the Digital Age: Making Tech Work for All of Us. So, lay out one of the key emphases in this book, is the wealth disparity in this country, so much of which you represent in your district, and what needs to be done.

REP. RO KHANNA: Amy, thank you for having me on.

The wealth in my district and the surrounding areas is $11 trillion of market cap. It has gone up 40% during the pandemic. And yet so many Americans, in rural communities, in Black and Brown communities, have been left out of the modern economy. They’ve seen jobs go offshore. They’ve seen deindustrialization. They’ve seen their kids have to leave their hometowns. And workers have not shared in this prosperity.

The book makes two central arguments: that we need to decentralize the opportunities for wealth generation in the modern economy, so that people don’t have to leave their hometowns to prosper and so that Black and Brown communities are included, and that, secondly, we need to have workers on boards, workers represented, so that workers are participating in a lot of this digital prosperity, and that means fairly taxing the billionaires and these corporations.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ro, you also say in the book that we have to move away from the idea that a digital job is about working at Apple or Google or about turning a factory worker into a coder. Explain what digital jobs now consist in and what you see as their future. As you point out, by 2025 — that is, in just three years — there will be 25 million digital jobs.

REP. RO KHANNA: Nermeen, that’s absolutely right. That’s more than the number of manufacturing and construction jobs combined. And we do a disservice when we mythologize these jobs and tell people, “Oh, you need to become a coder.” When I think of these jobs, I think of Intel going to New Albany, Ohio, creating 3,000 manufacturing jobs, 7,000 construction jobs to build the semiconductors. These are high-wage jobs, twice the median average. They often require people who already have technical skills in building new things, in having modern production. They’re across the spectrum, from manufacturing to retail to healthcare. And they don’t often require a college degree. Frankly, they often require 12 months or 16 months of some training and a credential. And the problem is that many communities have been deprived of these high-paying good jobs or of these productive capabilities in our modern economy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what are your concerns about people having been deprived of these opportunities? The present divisions, as you point out, not just economic but also social and political, between the elite classes, many of whom come from this digital world, many of whom, in fact, you represent in Silicon Valley — the divisions, political, economic and social, between the elite class and the working class? And what do you think the spread of this digital wealth and these jobs might enable, not just in terms of wealth distribution but also in terms of people’s political orientation?

AMY GOODMAN: And if your child also wants to answer that question, feel free, Ro.

REP. RO KHANNA: We’re trying. I’m in my own room.

We need to understand that if you care about social justice and racial justice, that you have to look at the wealth generation gap. Ten to one is that gap, as you know, between a Black American and a white American’s earning. That gap is increasing because the modern wealth generation engine is excluding so many people from the Black community. One of the things we ought to do is have a goal, have a million Black Americans have these digital jobs by 2025, have a million rural Americans have these jobs. So, first, it’s an issue of social and racial justice, and lowering the — dealing with the racial wealth gap.

But more fundamentally, right now when Silicon Valley does well, it doesn’t mean that Youngstown, Ohio, does well. It doesn’t mean that South Carolina does well. And so there’s a disconnect. What could be possible — and I write about this with Alex Hughes’s story in Paintsville, Kentucky, or Lakisha Lester’s story in Clarksdale, Mississippi — is that people can be working on distributed teams. They may be prospering together. Suddenly there’s more interconnection in the country. And there’s not the stark division if we have these jobs not just concentrated in a few places.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about racial justice, Congressmember Khanna. In our headlines today, we reported that California is suing one of your corporate constituents, Tesla, accusing the electric car maker of operating a racially segregated workplace at its factory in the San Francisco area. California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing received hundreds of complaints from Black workers at Tesla’s Fremont plant who say they were subjected to racial slurs and discriminated against in job assignments, discipline, pay and promotion. And then we found out that last year a federal jury in California ordered Tesla to pay one man $137 million in damages, Owen Diaz, a Black man who suffered racist abuse while working at Tesla as an elevator operator. Your response?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, it’s very concerning. And as a representative of that area, I’ve been hearing these stories anecdotally for years about the conditions of workers at Tesla. So, obviously, those allegations are serious, and the judicial process needs to play out.

But let me make a more fundamental point on Tesla and why everyone ought to care that they are treating people fairly beyond the law. Tesla is a beneficiary of everyone’s tax dollars. If the Obama administration had not given Elon Musk massive loans, Tesla wouldn’t exist. And Elon Musk prepaid those loans early so that the government didn’t actually get the returns that they would have been entitled to. So, given the extraordinary subsidization of Tesla by U.S. taxpayers, we have a particular interest in making sure that they are doing things that are just and in the public benefit. And these reports are very concerning, as is, frankly, their relationship with a lot of the building trades and other hostility to unions.

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re talking about breaking up Meta. People have to get used to that new company name — right? — the company name for Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram. Can you talk about what that would look like?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, Amy, as someone with Democracy Now!, as a more independent news source, you probably appreciate more than anyone that we ought not to just have two or three social media companies controlling access to information. And what Facebook did in acquiring Instagram, what they did in acquiring WhatsApp, is kill new discursive spaces from emerging. I believe that the best we can do in social media to help facilitate a modern public sphere, to get as close as we can to an ideal deliberation space, is to have a multiplicity, a plurality of discursive spaces. And on that alone, they should never have been allowed to acquire WhatsApp and Instagram, and those should be unwound. Of course, there are more regulations that are needed on privacy, on consumer safety and on making sure that they aren’t hurting the public health or hurting teenagers on Instagram, but there definitely is a lack of adequate antitrust enforcement and regulation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ro, can you explain further what you think state governors and city mayors can do to allow tech into their communities? And then also respond to the criticism that the tech industry, in itself, creates massive levels of inequality. And San Francisco is a very good example of that. So, why would we think that making tech jobs, digital jobs available elsewhere in the country wouldn’t also create comparable levels of inequality?

REP. RO KHANNA: A very good question. Let me answer the second one first. San Francisco, the planning was poor. And, first of all, it was a compact space. There was not enough housing. And it’s led to a boom in housing prices, but not an equal pay increase for service workers. So, for many service workers, people who are doing the food preparation, the janitors, the bus drivers, the security guards, they’ve seen their pay not keep up with the explosion in rents. That certainly does not have to be the case in many other places. First of all, in lots of other places, there is a lot of land, and property values are depressed. And so, having new jobs emerge and having storefronts open and having some appreciation of property values could actually be a good thing, which is why we need a better equilibrium in this digital economy. It would actually help places like my district to lower housing prices and help lift the property values in other places.

But, second, we also need to make sure that the service workers are treated fairly and with dignity and proper pay. It’s important to recognize in this economy two-thirds of workers don’t have anything to do with a laptop or a computer. Many of those workers were the essential workers during the pandemic. They aren’t being treated fairly. In some cases, they have an algorithm as a boss, which is worse than even having a human boss. People are in Amazon warehouse factories. They used to make 30 bucks; now they’re making $15, $16, $17. So, we need to increase their pay. We need to have workers represented on boards. We need to have workers given more respect. And this is why I talk in the book about an Essential Workers Bill of Rights, that I did with Senator Warren. And those two aspects — better housing policy, better worker pay policy — are critical to avoid some of the problems in my district of the stark disparities that you talk about.

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