U.S. Representative Ro Khanna (D-California) spoke about the role of technology in the future of the U.S. economy while discussing his new book at a Harvard Institute of Politics forum on Monday evening.
Harvard professors Michael J. Sandel and Amartya K. Sen joined Khanna at the event, which was moderated by Anika Bagaria ’24 and IOP director Mark D. Gearan ’78.
Khanna said the decision to offshore many manufacturing jobs, which has “left many people and communities behind” in the United States, needs to be corrected.
“Maybe it helped consumer prices, but the reality is that a lot of it has resulted in lost income, lost jobs,” he said. “And the beneficiaries ultimately were a lot of capital, people who owned the capital.”
According to Khanna, there is now a “bipartisan consensus” on returning some production to the United States due to the Covid-19 pandemic, “the hollowing out of the middle class” and “the rise in power of China”.
Panelists also discussed efforts to regulate social media companies. Sandel gave the audience his definition of the business model of social media companies – “to grab our attention and hold it for as long as possible, so they can capture more personal data about us, so they can use those data to try to sell us stuff.
“It strikes me as a pernicious business model that is deeply corrosive to democracy,” Sandel warned.
“Not just because it depends on hooking people up with sensationalized and often false and hateful information and news feeds,” he added, “but the very idea of capturing our attention and Directing towards the empty, mundane, sensational things that grab our attention distracts us from more important things to pay attention to.
Khanna agreed with Sandel that the business model of social media companies is a problem.
“The attention economy is universal,” he said. “TV is competing for attention, newspapers are competing for attention, but the difference – as you point out – is here that the data monetization of attention is what makes it even worse.”
“Yeah, they want you to keep reading The New York Times or The Harvard Crimson, but they don’t take more and more of your data the more time you spend,” Khanna added.
Khanna also addressed the racial wealth gap at Silicon Valley tech companies.
“You have this situation in Silicon Valley where some of the platforms are popularized by African Americans, Latin Americans, but they’re not on the boards,” he said. “They are not the recipients of venture capital, 0.32% of venture capital goes to black women entrepreneurs.”
Khanna said the lack of representation from minority communities among “the people who write the cheques” is a “huge problem”.
“It was easy for the people of Silicon Valley to march against the brutality of George Floyd, who was thousands of miles away,” Khanna said. “It’s much more difficult to walk on greater inclusion, on the practices within these technology companies in generating wealth.”
In an interview ahead of the forum, Khanna said he believed student debt would be canceled and a climate deal could be reached before the end of the year.
“On student debt, we just have to do it,” he said. “The president has to do it. At least $10,000, which he campaigned on.
To push through climate legislation, Khanna said he advocated for Sen. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) “to have the pen.”
“We have to make a deal with Machin and do it,” he said. “This is our chance.”
—Editor Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.