Dignity in a Digital Age: Making Tech Work for All of Us

Image of Dignity in a Digital Age: Making Tech Work for All of Us
Release Date: 
February 1, 2022
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: 

The social and political implications of the digital economy are the source of increasing attention. The latest entry comes from Congressman Ro Khanna, a Democrat representing Silicon Valley. Congressman Khanna served as a political appointee in the US Commerce Department during the Obama administration and then he ran for Congress, challenging the Democratic incumbent in the primary, and winning in Silicon Valley.

Khanna is clearly a liberal in his political orientation. He served as national co-chair of the Bernie Sanders 2020 run for president and is a member of the House Progressive Caucus. But to those progressive sentiments Khanna brings a welcome pragmatism, including a willingness to reach across the aisle in Congress. Moreover, he has been tireless in his efforts to spread more of the tech economy, now too concentrated in places like Silicon Valley and the Boston region, to the heartland.

It is this passion to extend digital opportunity to more places and people that is behind his penning Dignity in a Digital Age and as such, it’s fitting that the book opens up with a discussion of the need for dignity for people in left-behind places in our economy. Khanna reflects on conversations he has had with individuals in places like rural Kentucky and what is being done and can be done to ensure that the digital economy does more to benefit places like this and the people living there.

He writes, “Let’s encourage people to move to where the new opportunities will be, so the argument runs. But perhaps our politics would not be in such turmoil if we listened to more humanists for balance.” Amen. Too many economists and policy makers treat a commitment to home and place as irrelevant, if not harmful. Khanna goes on to write, “this book imagines how the digital economy can create opportunities for people where they live instead of uprooting them.”

Taking a page from FDR’s call for “bold, persistent experimentation,” Rep. Khanna lays out an array of interesting and promising initiatives the federal government should take, including “digital grant colleges” (building on the original land grant colleges from the late 1800s), a national digital corps, computer science for all, federal incentives for hiring software workers in rural areas, and federal funding to support the creation of ten or so tech hubs in the heartland based this on a proposal from the Information Technology and innovation Foundation.

As he rightly notes, “the alternative to competing for these high-paying jobs is to see them go elsewhere, including migrating north to places like Toronto and Ottawa.” Indeed, one of the challenges of the last decade or two is that rather than seeing broad prosperity growth across the entire US economy, a few places—leading tech hubs—have significantly outperformed much of the “heartland.” Leaving it only to “the market” means leaving it only for people to get up and move away from home.

Khanna is a font of interesting policy ideas, including tech partnerships with institutions that serve communities of color and a $5 billion fund over the next five years that school districts can access to provide laptops for the 11 million students who lack their own.

In addition, he lays out bold proposals to spur more technological innovation in the country—critically needed if we are to stay ahead of China technologically—such as additional funding for increasing the federal budget for artificial intelligence to $25 billion a year, as well as other needed federal investments to spur innovation. It would be great if all of Khanna’s 434 colleagues in the House were as focused on policy experimentation to drive digital growth and opportunity as Khanna is.

This is welcome stuff, particularly from a political progressive, since all too often their solutions to present challenges involve simply attacking large companies for the sin of being large, especially tech companies, and focusing on policies that redistribute income and wealth, rather than expand and create it in ways that are fairer. As Khanna notes:

“People do not simply want to be taken care of; they want to be agents of their own lives and productive members of society. The research expertise, new technology, collaborative platforms, digital training, and creative financing that are driving a huge chunk of prosperity in our modern economy must be broadly accessible, not confined to the coasts.”

So far so good. Most liberals and progressives will likely agree with these ideas, even if some of them involve helping large corporations, something all too many progressives are loath to do, even if the end result helps workers.

They will also likely appreciate the other parts of the book, which focus less on the government role in spurring digital growth and opportunity, and more on the government role in limiting companies, especially large technology corporations. On the other hand, much of the second half of the book, that focuses on the downsides of digital technology and how government needs to regulate, may give conservatives and moderates pause.

For example, when it comes to federal policy to helps ensure that broadband is available to most places in the nation, Rep. Khanna reflects a long-standing desire by progressives. He advocates for

“federal grants to municipalities, co-ops, or private companies to provide affordable internet services to places without access. The bill prioritizes fiber to rural, rejecting the conventional wisdom that only big cities need fast internet service. This provision is opposed by many telecom lobbyists. They fear that a fiber public sector option, subsidized by taxpayers, will put pressure on companies that use copper cable and telephone wires which are much slower and inferior, to upgrade.”

This sounds good; but it reflects a long-standing progressive priority to have more broadband provided by governments, rather than companies like AT&T and Comcast. Khanna rightly wants robust broadband to all areas, including unserved rural areas. But the key here should be “robust” rather than “fiber.” With continued improvements in technology, even regular telephone wires and certainly cable TV wires can and often do provide lightning-fast broadband, as will many forthcoming 5G wireless offerings. So mandating a particular kind of wire, rather than an adequate performance for the wire, is not necessary.

In fact, the current US broadband system is pretty good, with average speeds increasing over 30 percent per year for the last ten years. Moreover, while there can be a case for government-provided broadband networks where no private companies will invest, even with government subsidies, putting the thumb on scale in favor of government-owned networks is a progressive, not a pragmatic, tactic.

Calling for government ownership of broadband networks because of an aversion to private sector companies is quite different than being agnostic to the kind of organization—for-profit or government—that can provide the best service at the best price.

Any progressive book on digital has to include the obligatory attack on Amazon, and Dignity does not disappoint. The book asserts that Amazon unfairly treats its workers, who in fact make significantly more than the average “mom and pop” retail worker, especially now that Amazon instituted a $15 minimum wage. It’s much easier to criticize Amazon than the small retailer down the block who exploits his workers. Besides, Khanna proposes a good solution to all retail outlets: increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour. He is right to note that this will help millions of low-wage workers, who, scandalously, have not seen an increase in the federal minimum wage for almost 12 years, during which time the minimum wage has lost 23 percent of its purchasing power.

Interestingly, Khanna defends his proposal for a higher minimum wage from the criticism that it will lead to layoffs because companies will substitute machines for workers, thereby raising productivity. But progressives shouldn’t apologize for productivity and automation, they should celebrate it. After all, the main reason why poor nations have so little technology and automation is because they their workers are paid so little that it makes little economic sense to invest in machines. If we want good jobs for American workers, we need both a higher minimum wage and more technology and productivity in low-wage occupations.

Like the attack on Amazon, the book also contains the obligatory criticism of Uber and Lyft, proposing laws that require them to treat drivers as workers for purposes of employment law. But most of these companies’ drivers actually prefer to work part-time and many of them drive for both platforms at the same time. In this case, who would be responsible for the benefits, Uber or Lyft or both?

And of course, any progressive book on digital must criticize “big tech” for violating privacy. Khanna doesn’t fail here, stating “the collection and use of data for targeted advertising or recommending content poses a threat to our dignity,” because the tech platforms try to place advertisements that people are more likely to click on.

If this is threat to our dignity, so is showing beer commercials during televised football games. Moreover, tech platforms generally do not sell their customer’s data. When you see an ad on your Twitter or Facebook account the advertiser doesn’t know it’s you looking at it. They just know it’s someone more likely to click on the ad.

And while Khanna’s instincts are right to ask and even require more of businesses, especially when it comes to how they treat their workers, the progressives’ core mistake is to see small business owners as oppressed by big corporations, with their interests aligned with the working class against rapacious capitalists.

As a result, just as many conservatives want to exempt all business from obligations on how they treat their workers, many progressives want to exempt small businesses. Khanna writes that his proposed “legislation would require any billion-dollar public company to pay the public benefits of their employees if they were not paying a $15 wage.”

He goes on to write, “billion-dollar companies, by underpaying their employees, leave American taxpayers to foot the bill for government services like Medicaid and housing assistance.” But don’t $999 million companies, or for that matter, $99,000 companies do the same? Democrats think that if they exempt small business from obligations that bigger companies face, that somehow they will capture the “petit-bourgeoise,” main street vote. Not likely. Small business is rock solid Republican.

Khanna also endorses a number of initiatives that while sounding good, would likely create more problems than they solve. One is his embrace of free tuition for college students. This sounds good, but on average, people who finish college earn much more than people who don’t. So why should we ask the latter to pay, through higher taxes, for the former? If the issue is college affordability, a better answer is higher education reform to pressure universities to slash costly overhead, while expanding need-based programs like Pell Grants. Even more fundamentally, Congress should address the bigger problem, which is the overproduction of college students, many who now compete for the limited number of jobs that require a college degree.  

True to its title, the book covers a lot of ground, including national security. When it comes to national defense, the congressman is right to talk about the need to end the “endless wars,” something President Biden was finally able to do when he pulled the last troops out of Afghanistan. These past “neocon”-inspired engagements were a tragic mistake. But with the increasing buildup of the Chinese military and its hegemonic intentions, it is troubling that Khanna wants to pay for his social policy proposals by cutting the defense budget. He notes that the current defense budget is higher than during the Cold War, but neglects to point out that as a share of GDP, it is about half of those levels. At the same time, China is rapidly expanding its military budget.

One might wish politics was more of a Chinese menu (no pun intended): taking some things from various columns of conservative, moderate and liberal, that the voter likes. There is indeed much to like about Congressman Khanna’s agenda, especially as it relates to stronger federal support for helping disadvantaged workers and regions, spurring greater levels of technological innovation, and raising taxes on the wealthy. It would nice if voters could order only that, and not have it come with a heaping helping of anti-corporate regulation, which would hurt innovation, economic growth, and US competitiveness. 

But either way, the book is an important read, if only to better understand the US progressives’ take on digital policy issues.