Rep. Ro Khanna, chairman of the Subcommittee on the Environment, questions the witnesses during a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Doom and gloom permeate our political conversation, especially when technology is brought into the mix. Social media drowns us in misinformation and divides us into culture war battalions. Robots are killing jobs. Rural communities and heartland cities are left behind. Big Tech honchos are laughing all the way to the bank, or wherever it is that cryptocurrency goes. 

But Silicon Valley’s Congressman Ro Khanna lays out an alternate vision in Dignity in a Digital Age. The California Democrat’s book is a plan he says can steer technology—and economic prosperity—to forgotten places, compel Big Tech CEOs to follow tougher rules, pay higher taxes, and promote an online discourse that brings us together. 

The three-term representative was a national co-chair of Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign and is deputy whip in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. On February 7th, when both of our sets of children were finally in bed, I spoke to the 45-year-old, Yale Law School graduate about what Democrats have learned in the past year, and what they should do going forward.

This transcript has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

BILL SCHER: Much of Joe Biden’s legislative agenda is stalled now. Do you think progressives should heap blame on Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema for their resistance? Or do Biden and congressional progressives deserve some of the blame?

RO KHANNA: There could be an alternative, not mentioned in the hypothetical. 

I wouldn’t heap blame on Senators Manchin or Sinema. I don’t think anything constructive comes out of that. What we must do is figure out what can pass. I believe you can get $400 to $500 billion in addressing climate change, and preschool for every three and four-year-old in America. That’s a huge deal. And expand Medicaid.

What is to blame for us not being able to get there? We have some of the slimmest majorities that a president has had. We have one of the most polarized countries. So, if you have very slim majorities and no Republican votes, it’s hard to thread the needle. I think Biden has done quite well in that circumstance to get the American Rescue Plan and infrastructure passed. And if we are willing to compromise, we can do something very big for climate and social investment. 

A narrative took hold on the left during the Obama years and afterwards: Obama erred by trying so hard to be bipartisan and to please moderates. In turn, Biden went in a different direction and met initial success, particularly with the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, even slipping in this huge expansion of the child tax credit without much public discussion. But since then, partisan legislating has proved much more challenging than bipartisan legislating—the expanded child tax credit died after a year. Should progressives rethink the conclusions that they drew after the Obama presidency?

No. There are philosophical conclusions. And then there’s a pragmatic orientation of how we get it done. 

There are two philosophical conclusions progressives drew from the last 15 years, starting with the Great Recession. First is a rejection of austerity politics—the sense that the stimulus was not big enough, that we needed to do more in making sure the economy did not have a slow recovery or fall into a deep recession. That was a lesson that we followed in passing the CARES Act, even under Trump. We had $3 trillion of crisis spending before Biden even took office. A rejection of austerity politics is the right economic lesson.

The second lesson that, I think, is that there must be a laser focus on policies that are going to help directly working-class Americans and help communities that have been left out. 

Then when it comes to pragmatic strategy, I just think there’s a sense that the Republicans didn’t do anything to really help Obama. Majorities are rare, they’re fragile, and I’m glad that the president has gone for it. He got very, very close to getting Build Back Better passed. If his [poll] numbers had stayed in the high 40s, 50s it probably would have been law by now. But we are where we are, and we must compromise.

It seems to me that Democrats proceeded with the American Rescue Plan on the notion that if we deliver economically, who cares if it’s technically bipartisan or not. If we slip in this child tax credit, and we send these checks out, it’s going to be so popular that everyone’s gonna love us for it. I’m curious whether amongst you or other progressives, is there any kind of introspection about that plan not working out.

To me the child tax credit was not about just popular policy. To me that was about justice. It was about cutting child poverty. I’m not sure that was seen as a political winner, though I think it’s more positive than not. But I think it was more a sense of, “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to do the right thing.”

When we’re talking about popular policy, my view is it’s more like Intel bringing jobs to Ohio. What do we do to facilitate job creation in communities that have been left out? Maybe parts of the infrastructure bill could do that. I think this America COMPETES Act–if done well can do that. I think we have to distinguish between goals that progressives think are just, and policies that are going to appeal to independents and swing voters.

Now you talk about how to bring economic prosperity to struggling regions in, Dignity in a Digital Age. Can you talk about what prompted you to write the book?

What prompted me to write the book is that there’s $11 trillion of market value in my district in surrounding areas. And young people who grow up in my district are very, very optimistic about America’s future. They think the world is their oyster. And I was struck as I have visited communities, rural communities, that they have the same aspiration to have economic prosperity. They understand what’s happening in the economy. They don’t want to move, but the same opportunities aren’t there. And we’re going to have 25 million digital jobs by 2025. How do we make sure that these jobs are accessible to people in the communities where they live?

The other thing was to demystify these jobs. This is not the caricature of: Let’s turn a coal miner into a coder. These are manufacturing, construction ,and retail jobs. In Paintsville, Kentucky where I went to [Republican] Representative Hal Rogers’ district, the people who are graduates of the Interapt program are working for General Electric making refrigerators and dishwashers

You mentioned in the book that you went to visit Rogers’ district. And in several places, you talked about bipartisan opportunities related to Big Tech. Yet there’s still a big appetite in the Democratic Party to avoid bipartisanship. As someone who has done a fair amount of outreach to Republicans, what value do you think bipartisanship has, for Democrats and progressives, if any.

It absolutely has value. It has value because it allows you to build broader support for policies in the country, it has value because I don’t believe anyone wants us to be a polarized nation. And we could pass something saying the sky is blue. And if it’s partisan, it’s going to still divide Americans. And so, if we can get support from the Republicans for initiatives that have value in helping take steps to stitch this country back together. That doesn’t mean that it’s a recipe for paralysis and you don’t take action. But you try when can to get support. The Endless Frontiers bill [later renamed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act] was a classic example. We compromised to get the 60 senators on board. I wish we had tried to get, frankly, more Republicans on board of the House version [known as the COMPETES Act]. After [House-Senate] conference, we hopefully will.

Congresspeople typically are advocates for their local industries. You are the representative from Silicon Valley. You’ve had donors who are Silicon Valley corporate executives, but in your book, you are critical of some tech company practices. You’re critical of Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp and the search engine arrangement between Google and Apple. You propose some tighter tech industry regulations and higher corporate taxes. Many people assume that most Congresspeople are just water carriers for their donors. But you don’t seem to fit that mold. So can you give us a window into what the politician-donor relationship is like. Do donors call you into their office and demand you do their bidding? Do you have awkward conversations at dinner parties? 

I certainly get calls with people who are upset with things I’ve said., I fielded a few of those calls this week after my “Morning Joe” appearance and “Colbert” appearance. But you know, overall human beings in my experience are not that transactional. I think what people do is support a vision. When I talk to individuals, they usually talk about things they care about: climate or jobs or polarization. Occasionally, tech leaders will call and say: “Hey, I disagree with you.” And, you know, obviously, usually I listen and respectfully disagree. But I’ve not had a situation of people saying: “Okay, if you take that position, I’m not going to support you again.” Now, maybe, you know, maybe some of them will stop supporting me quietly. I certainly lost some support when I co-chaired Bernie Sanders’ campaign. But if you look at the tech leaders, a lot of them continue to support me. And so, I think that just shows that you can be fairly independent and still have support from that area.

You write in your book, “United States case law gives tech companies too much latitude in controlling their digital platforms.” And you propose we regulate them as “essential facilities.” What would that accomplish?

It would basically mean that you can’t just kick people off your platform without good cause. 

I’m selling my book. If Amazon says—I think I just tweeted something out this evening, saying they shouldn’t raise their prices—let’s just deny Khanna the ability to sell his book on Amazon. You know, that’s perfectly legal to say that actually; they have no obligation to put my book up there. And what would I do? I think 65 percent of book sales are on Amazon. 

What I’m saying is, if you become a physical platform like an Amazon or a Google or an Apple, you have some obligation not to discriminate against sellers. But that should be a rebuttable presumption. If you don’t want Parler on your site, or if you don’t want to have speech that you think is promoting hate, then you should have the ability to say that having this violates your fundamental terms of service or violates your privacy concerns and be able to show that it’s reasonable. 

Now, you say in the book that treating them as essential facilities is preferable to regulating them like utilities. But if the internet is as essential as electricity, why not regulate them like utilities, and force them to set rates that are affordable to everybody?

Well, that would really hurt innovation, I’m not prepared to say that Amazon and Facebook are going to be the platforms 10 years from now, 20 years from now. I would hope we’d have new platforms. As a utility, you’d have a forced guaranteed rate of profit, and basically, regulatory agencies determining all the decisions. Congress and some of the administrative agencies can barely understand these tech companies. Can you imagine if they were responsible for all the decisions of how they should be run? So, I don’t think that’s smart. And what I’d like to see is just increasing competition, not turning these companies into utilities.

Speaking of that, you write “currently, the Department of Justice, and FTC must make a detailed showing of how acquiring a potential rival hurts competition and harms the consumer before they can block the action. We should change the burden of proof and require dominant tech companies to show why an acquisition will not lessen competition before they can get approval.” Why not go farther and draw a line that says, “If your company surpasses a certain percentage of market share, then you have to break it up.”

Well, that’s not looking at network effects and the benefits of network effects. I mean there could be value in the fact that we’re on a platform and that there are efficiencies of scale. And you have to consider consumer welfare. What you don’t want is the acquisition that kills competition. So, if you’re just building, and it turns out that you’re building something that consumers love, and that’s efficient, and that has benefits of scale, I’m not for just breaking it up for no reason. I don’t think big is inherently bad. On the other hand, if you’re acquiring things like WhatsApp, or Instagram, knowing that this could be a competitor, and you want to kill that competitor, and there’s evidence that that’s your motivation, that shouldn’t be allowed. 

You also talk about the impact of Google and Facebook on local newspapers because they have become digital advertising behemoths, taking ad revenue from the papers. You propose a small tax on digital ad revenue, which would go into an independent fund to support local newspapers. My colleague at the Washington Monthly Philip Longman proposed even tougher medicine. He says you should ban the buying and selling of personal data, which is what Google and Facebook use to provide targeted advertising that pinpoints users based on their behaviors. Wouldn’t that do more to help local newspapers?

I’m not for banning all targeted ads. First, digital targeted ads have dramatically reduced the cost of advertising. And a lot of small papers rely on that, as well as a lot of small businesses. I have no problem seeing an ad saying the pizza you like, here’s a good place to get it in Cupertino, and not have to see all of the ads for pizza in Chicago. I have no problem with someone saying, “Okay, if you liked ‘Dignity in a Digital Age,’ you may like a book that’s also about technology.

What I have a bigger problem with is the massive collection of data without our affirmative consent, and then the targeting of that data in ways that people are unaware of and in ways that exploit people’s vulnerabilities. That’s where we should regulate. 

Are there proposals in the book that have a shot of getting passed in this Congress? And is there one that you think Democrats really are not taking a hard enough look at?

Well, the COMPETES Act is central to the book’s idea, which is let’s create these tech hubs around the country. I was a co-author of the original Endless Frontiers [bill] now that’s become the COMPETES Act. Many of those ideas are in the book including the sense of 10 tech hubs, that we’re going to have a have a Technology Directorate, and that we’re going to spend money on these breakthrough areas of science and technology. 

As the COMPETES Act is implemented, I want to make sure that we’re focused on production, not just invention. One of the fallacies of this country has been: “Okay, if we just invented things here, then you can mass produce them in other parts of the world.” Well, we didn’t invent the jet engine. And we didn’t invent all of the automobile. But we really figured out the best production of that. And that mass production is what helped build us into a world economic power. 

I don’t think we should just replicate Silicon Valley everywhere. But can we build the right type of production—like you’re doing in New Albany, Ohio, with the Intel semiconductor fabrication plants—innovation that is suited to the assets of a community. But I’m proudest of that bill, the COMPETES Act, in terms of the things I’ve worked on for five years in Congress. 

Let me give you one action that the president could do tomorrow and one action that requires Congress.

If I were advising the president, I’d say call in the 20 tech leaders to create a million digital jobs in rural America and in the African American/Latino community. Challenge them to do it. And I think if Biden did that really pushed them, tech leaders would respond to the call. 

I think in terms of legislation, I would really focus on the land grant colleges and HBCUs becoming places which would graduate people with digital skills to enter the digital economy. 

Let me end with a political, midterms question. It seems to me that both parties right now are in some degree of a circular firing squad. With the Republicans tied up in knots over January 6, and Democrats frustrated with how Manchin and Sinema have stalled Build Back Better. What needs to happen for progressives and moderates to get on the same page and maximize their chances for beating the odds and having a good midterm?

First, stop making every disagreement an issue of questioning a person’s integrity and motives. You can have a philosophical disagreement and not be corrupt. 

And then I think we must be proud of what we’re achieving and have a clear vision of what we’re going to do to give people economic opportunity.

And finally, we must be patriotic and tell a story of patriotism. I think the biggest challenge is when you hear every Democratic speech, and it lists all the things that are wrong with America. And I guess as a son of immigrants, I marvel at all the things that are still right about America. And people don’t need their leaders to remind them of everything wrong. They want leaders telling them why their nation can lead the 21st century.

It’s like if you have a football coach, and the coach keeps giving speeches about everything wrong with their team. No, they want to know, how are you going to take the team to the Super Bowl? What’s your plan? We need more of that.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.