12 Interesting Things Silicon Valley’s Congressman, Ro Khanna, Told Me Over Coffee

The freshman congressman talked about how Trump won, nuclear annihilation, Edmund Burke, fake conservatism, job creation, bully politics, and Plato’s Republic (really).

12 Interesting Things Silicon Valley’s Congressman, Ro Khanna, Told Me Over Coffee
[Photo: By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images]

Democratic congressman Ro Khanna has an interesting view of the world. He’s one of the few U.S. politicians that sees things through the eyes of tech companies and employees (in his Silicon Valley district). That vantage point, arguably, has never been so important as the country moves, often painfully, further into a new, digital, economy. Not so long ago, the tech industry wanted little to do with Washington (expecting only a buzzkill in the form of new rules and regulations), but things are changing fast–tech companies’ spending on influence in D.C. has been accelerating over the past few years.


Since last week’s State of the Union address was still on my mind, I decided to form my questions loosely around those issues when I met Khanna for coffee last Friday (Khanna saw the address live). It worked out well. We talked about everything from tax reform to job creation to North Korea to Edmund Burke and Plato’s Republic. Here are the choicest bits. Note: Comments are Khanna’s; subheads are mine.

On How Trump Got Elected

I think the country did not want another dynasty–they didn’t want the Clintons–and they wanted someone who would shake things up, but they didn’t really think through what that meant.

Being at the State of the Union, I can tell you this guy is a master showman. The way he enters and the way he conducts himself. And it finally dawned on me that that’s what he thinks of himself, that he’s an actor acting in a movie. And the theater–with the guy holding up the crutches and the Koreans–it’s just spin. It’s so infuriating because he’s painting this vision that’s just one level half an inch deep, I mean he’s not selling anything.


Edmund Burke And Fake Conservatives

If you look at it he’s undermining every principle of conservatism. Edmund Burke’s perspective on conservatism is that we have a deference to institution, a deference to tradition, and a deference to precedent, and we don’t trust brilliant or creative newcomers because the collective wisdom of a society over years outweighs the whims of those who may be in power. And here you have someone who is literally undermining every sense of institution, every sense of precedent, and every sense of tradition. So you can call Donald Trump a lot of different things, but you can’t call him a conservative.

This philosophy goes back to Thrasymachus in the Republic. That was the whole argument with Socrates: that might makes right, and that was his whole view of justice, and that’s Trump’s view of justice. ‘I want to be a winner, and winning justifies anything.’ And what the Republicans have done is thrown their lot in with Thrasymachus’s vision of justice. And all of political philosophy has been a construct to move away from that, and to put in place institutions that constrain that governing philosophy.

GOP Master Plan: Shrink Government By Starving It

This is the Ryan agenda: starve revenues, drive up the deficit, and force cuts. [Steve] Bannon said they want the deconstruction of the administrative state. They want to force this situation where we’ve got high deficits, ultimately triggering inflation, and someone is going to come in five years, 10 years down the line and say okay, we’ve got a crisis we’ve got to cut things. And it will be very hard to cut defense and very hard to cut taxes, particularly if we go into a recessions and if there’s inflation, so they say okay,  we’re going to have cuts in Medicare, cuts in Medicaid, cuts in social security, and cuts in other social programs and this is what they want. They want to shrink federal government spending.


They don’t mind the incompetence of government because their answer is privatization. Think about it. For a president to put Jared Kushner in charge of Middle East peace and to gut 30% of the State Department…it shows a total disdain for government expertise or government institutions or any sense of a public state.

What Silicon Valley Wants From D.C.

I think they want some form of comprehensive immigration reform. They want a path to citizenship, or at least green cards, for H1b visa holders, entrepreneurial visas for people who have founded companies to come here, a path to citizenship for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients because they understand that that’s part of America being welcoming to people coming in from around the world. I think they want high-speed internet all over America.

On Reversing FCC’s Repeal of Net Neutrality Rules

I’ve got more calls about net neutrality to my office than on any other issue this year. They get it. But we have a GOP-controlled Congress. Mitch McConnell is setting the agenda and he’s not going to let it come to a vote. It doesn’t matter if you have a majority of the American people and it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a majority of Congress. If you don’t have the leadership they don’t bring it for a vote.


On Apple’s “$350 Billion” Investment in the U.S. Economy

The numbers are slightly misleading. First of all, $275 billion of Apple’s quote-unquote $350 billion investment is just the spending on domestic product so it’s not actual investment. Of the $75 billion that’s left, $38 billion is just paying their taxes to the U.S. government. So you’re left with about $34 billion of investment, which is important and not to be discounted. But it’s not the $350 billion; it’s about 10% of that.

Trump talked (during SOTU) about (having already created) 2.4 million new jobs. (Fact Check) Forty-nine of the 51 counties with the highest unemployment rates are in red states. The question we ought to be asking is are all these jobs Apple’s going to create in my district (California’s 17th District, Silicon Valley)? Great. If they’re going to create more jobs in Silicon Valley, fine, but what has the tax plan done for all these people who voted for him?

That has got to be the Democratic vision and answer is that we’re for bringing jobs to the places that were left out, not just doubling down on the places that were already doing well.


On Touring Apple Park

I’m usually a little jaded about doing these tours, but I was like “wow” this place is a monument to human ingenuity. I think that thing is going to become an icon like the Empire State Building.

Are We Beyond Hope Of A De-Nuked North Korea?

Clinton did the framework in 1994, and then Bush came in and ripped it all apart and labeled North Korea part of the axis of evil. Then Obama couldn’t do anything because he had a hardliner in South Korea. Now you’ve got Moon, who’s willing to make peace.

This is a golden opportunity. We can do a number of things. We can go in and try to make a deal so that they don’t have the ICBMs that have a nuclear capacity, we can negotiate our presence with our joint war games that we hold with South Korea like we did in the ’90s, put that on the table. And we ought to assure Kim Jung Un that we have no interest in regime change, because that’s what’s accelerating the desire to have these nuclear weapons. I do think deterrence will work with North Korea. They are evil–I’m sure they tortured the person at the State of the Union, and have no regard for human rights–but they’re not suicidal, unlike Al Qaeda.


Silicon Valley is actually a prime target for an ICBM missile strike. It occurred to me as I has touring Apple Park that if I was concerned about Americans’ safety and the symbol of America’s future I would think that those is Silicon Valley as the most vulnerable. That’s where you would be attacking the future economy. And now you have these symbols like Apple Park that are vulnerable.

As fears persist that the Trump administration might bumble its way into a nuclear crisis with North Korea, Khanna recently wrote a letter (co-signed by 29 other House members) urging the administration to re-establish military-to-military communications between the two countries. Amazingly, North Korea is the only major country with which the U.S. doesn’t have such a channel.

How (And How Not To) Create Jobs In The New Economy

Trump is great at beating his chest and demanding that companies locate in the United States, and he’s willing to give them tax breaks to come here, but there’s not a sense of the kind of investments the government has to make to make places attractive for capital to go or for companies to go. Just lecturing them or tweeting at them or shaming them might get people to be fearful and do PR moves, but it’s not going to get them to make sustainable investments.


They want the administration to sit down with tech leaders, not just for a photo op, but asking Tim Cook, asking Sundar Pichai, asking Steve Case “what would it take for you to make an investment in Youngstown or Gainsville?” What does the government need to do to have more communities like Birmingham or Chattanooga? If you talk to any tech leader and you say “what’s going to make you go somewhere,” they’re going to say ‘is there a workforce there?” Is there a place where they can set up a business?

What I’m proposing is “tech opportunity zones” modeled on Jack Kemp’s Economic Opportunity Zones where we create those kind of public/private partnerships in places across America. If you do 10 of them across the U.S. and you start to see this robust vitality and economic activity and technological activity and you start giving people hope in places that didn’t have it, then I think you start getting people bought in to America’s future.

Later this month Congressman Khanna will join Ohio Democratic Rep. (and likely 2020 presidential candidate) Tim Ryan on a visit to Youngstown, Ohio to talk to venture capitalists and companies about investment opportunities and job creation.


Old Economy Jobs, Or New?

Some of them are advanced manufacturing jobs, some of them are like auto mechanics–still necessary–but they’re going to need to understand software in auto parts, people in manufacturing are going to have to understand how to do 3D printing and CNC machines (digital fabricating machines). So the nature of work is changing, but the things that will be required are not that everyone has to become a coder or that everyone works at Facebook or Google or Apple but that everyone has digital proficiency and literacy and opportunity and access to the right type of educational institutions and the right type of people systems where technology is part of it.

Plato’s Republic, Or Trump’s Idiocracy?

You’ve got to tell people that just being a high school graduate is short-changing their future, and I think there’s going to be a time when people are going to be open to that honesty. They don’t want to be patronized. They don’t want to be lied to. They don’t want to be told “Okay, you’ve got to go study Plato’s Republic.” But you’ve got to understand that people in India and China are thinking from the age of seven what kind of job they’re going to have. And if you want your kids to compete in that economy for the long run and have a shot at the American Dream they’re going to have to have certain skills.

I think the president is actually positioned to give that message to his base, and to say to them “If you want this to be the American moment it’s not just about business, it’s about your having the capability and tools to take advantage of that business and I’m going to partner with Democrats to give you those tools.”


Make America Smart Again

Fast Company: What about the idea of forgetting about this humungous infrastructure project for a second, and first pump some real money into vocational schools, junior colleges, trade schools? Teach those skills and maybe we can better use those people for building the new infrastructure that we need.

RK: I love it. And expand public universities. Exactly. Put that plan forward! I’d vote for it! He’d have a hard time finding Democrats to vote against it. And he’d have a hard time finding Republicans to vote against it. Then he could go to Middle America and say, “I care about you. I understand that it’s not just businesses coming to America I want you to have that shot, I want you to have those tools.”

Our working class and our middle class wants that for the future. They just need the break. They need the roadmap and they need the tools. The rest they’ll do on their own.

About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.