Ro Khanna, the Bernie Guy Who's Okay With Billionaires

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Ro Khanna, the second-term Democratic Congressman from Silicon Valley and a national co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, has the tricky job of appealing to both internet zillionaires and DSA members. We spoke to him about impeachment, class war, the Bernie vs. Warren primary, and more.

We spoke to Khanna on Capitol Hill on Wednesday afternoon.

Splinter: Where are you on impeachment right now?

Ro Khanna: I’m where the Speaker is. Which is that we should have all our committees do aggressive investigatory work, but we need to also focus on our legislative priorities. I think we can keep the pressure on and hold the President accountable through the work the committees are doing.


Do you have any concern about the long-term consequences for the rule of law, that have been raised by your colleagues?

Khanna: I do. I’m very concerned that the President’s misconduct has jeopardized our institutions and the rule of law, and that’s why the committees need to do aggressive oversight work, and that’s why we need to express clearly that this conduct is wrong and inappropriate, and close legal loopholes in cases that may exist. But we can show the outrage by aggressive committee work, and ultimately the American people can toss the President out.


Is there any sort of red line that would make you change that position?

Khanna: Sure. I don’t want to engage in hypothetical, but every day it seems that the President and the administration is making it harder and harder with continued obstruction. I’m sure there would be a point where I believe that the action would be justified. Defiance of a court order would be a clear place of constitutional crisis.


How real of a threat do you think a war with Iran is?

Khanna: I’m hopeful it’s not gonna come to pass. My concern is that accidental circumstances may lead to a conflict. But the president has campaigned on ending endless wars. He should understand the last thing we need is another military conflict with a nation that has .55 percent of global GDP. Compared to China, which has 15 percent of global GDP. I don’t understand how the President can have a national security strategy that shifts towards “China is our primary competitor,” then get bogged down in a war with a country that is .55 percent of global GDP. It makes no economic sense, it makes no strategic sense, under the President’s own articulated national security framework.


For progressive Democratic primary voters—how should people think about how to make the choice between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren?

Khanna: I can speak to what Bernie’s vision is. I have great respect for Senator Warren. Bernie has shown a lifelong commitment to the idea of Medicare for all... He has shown a lifelong commitment to the idea of free public college, and would make tackling the rising cost of higher education a high priority. He’s been willing to vote against bloated military budgets, and has consistently stood up against foreign interventions. So we would see a reduced military spending and reduced militarism overseas. He also understand that it’s not just about an individual, it’s about a movement.


Do you have any concern that the two of them are going to split the lefty vote?

Khanna: I don’t, because I don’t think people vote in the conventional ways. I’ve seen Senator Warren appeal to to people who voted for Hillary Clinton, and I’ve seen Senator Sanders appeal to people who liked Joe Biden. I think politics is much more complex than lumping someone in a particular lane. It’s about who’s gonna fire up and mobilize and connect with folks, particularly in the early states.


What are the most important differences between Bernie’s vision and Joe Biden’s vision?

Khanna: Again, I only want to talk about what Bernie believes in. He’s been opposed to bad interventions. He voted against the war in Iraq. He’s been opposed to mass incarceration. He’s been speaking about ending cash bail. He’s talking about the decriminalization of marijuana. His campaign against mandatory minimums. He spoke out against the original versions of the crime bill many times, even though he voted for the final version, and regrets that vote... He has spoken out about bad trade deals, whether NAFTA or TPP. He is pushing for Medicare for all, and challenging this idea that incremental reform that keeps private insurance unchecked is sufficient.


Would you be interested in a cabinet position?

Khanna: I love representing Silicon Valley. I think it is a fabulous role, and an important role when we’re going through a technology revolution, and I’d like to do this job for at least a decade.


What do you think about Supreme Court reform?

Khanna: I’ve supported Bruce Ackerman’s call for term limits. And I’m actually trying to get Republicans on that, and it would be the single biggest reform that would be constitutional. We could say Supreme Court justices could serve for 18 years, and after that they have to go down to the Circuit Court. It would make the stakes of each Supreme Court hearing less, and it would make sure we aren’t being guided by people who were appointed 30 or 40 years ago... Maybe we’ll have to wait until Democrats are in control, but it’s worth it.


What were your thoughts on Warren’s proposal to break up the tech companies?

Khanna: I believe we need stronger antitrust laws, and I believe we need stronger privacy laws, but I don’t believe that approach is ideal. I would rather look to the Microsoft case, which is to say: companies shouldn’t be able to privilege their own platforms. You can’t have Amazon put Amazon Basics the highest up in search. You can’t have Facebook give preference to certain vendors and not to others. They should have neutral platforms. But I don’t think you need to break them up, nor do I think that would solve the privacy issues or the data ownership issues that are at the heart of the concerns.


Have you ever found that people on the left are skeptical of you because of the support you have from Silicon Valley?

Khanna: No, I’ve been very open about it, and I’ve been willing to hold Silicon Valley accountable. I’ve criticized tech on stock buybacks. I’ve criticized tech on the abuses of people’s data, and released the Internet Bill of Rights. I’ve called for stronger antitrust enforcement. I’ve said that tech needs to hire more diversity... so I think they see me as someone who’s willing to call out the industry when necessary, but ultimately believes that innovation is important, that Silicon Valley is important, that we’re going through a technology revolution and that America should lead in that.


Can you see a day when Silicon Valley’s politics shift much farther to the right, because of the amount of money being generated there?

Khanna: No, because a lot of them are talking about income inequality, and they tend to believe fundamentally in pluralism. So [as long as] you have a Democratic Party that stands for a woman’s right to choose, that stands for religious tolerance and respect, that stands for thoughtful immigration policy, that stands for tackling climate change—most of the technology leaders share those values. And they also believe fundamentally in tackling income inequality, and really having bold plans to tackle that... they’re fairly indifferent to taxes, probably because they have such obscene amounts of money. Reid Hoffman or Sean Parker just don’t care about their marginal tax rates.


What do you think when you hear people say, “Billionaires shouldn’t exist?”

Khanna: I disagree with that. I have no problem with Steve Jobs being a billionaire. I think he was a creative genius who helped make sure that we all have Apple products, and contributed to information spreading in the world. I have no problem with Sergey Brin being a billionaire who helped give more people access to information that even the president of the United States had back in the 1980s, because of the dissemination of Google. I have no problem with someone who comes up with a cure for cancer being a billionaire, or Elon Musk being a billionaire for starting Tesla, to get to electric vehicles. My concern is not with billionaires that are produced by innovation or entrepreneurship. My concern is, how do we deal with wage stagnation in this country? How do we ensure that the bottom 40 to 50 percent gets a wage raise? And the reason they haven’t is largely because of high health care costs, which have been diverting money that could have gone in workers’ pockets. The average employer is paying $13,000 a year for a family of four for a health care premium. Imagine if that money was going in a raise to workers. My concern is, how do we have upward mobility of people to participate in the American dream. That’s my focus, and that’s why I call myself a “progressive capitalist.”


Do you think there’s a lot of substantive meaning in the public debate over “socialism” that’s happening these days?

Khanna: No, it’s not substantive. I got the OMB director today to admit that it was economic nonsense to call Medicare for all “socialism.” It’s political posturing. Socialism means the government should control the means of production. No one I know believes that the government should take over Apple computers. I don’t know anyone who believes anything close to that.


Do you expect that Wall Street will fully get behind Trump if Bernie is the Democratic nominee?

Khanna: No, not fully—there will be some people whose social values, and values on immigration, and sense of character may give them pause. But obviously Sanders is going to have opposition from interests that oppose his vision of giving ordinary Americans more stake in the economy.


Why can’t we get a carbon tax, given the fact there’s so much bipartisan support, at least outside of Congress?

Khanna: We need to build in Congress. I just had lunch with Francis Rooney, a very thoughtful Republican from Florida. He’s the only Republican, I think, who’s come out for a carbon tax. We were talking about how we have to build, and he said the coastal areas get it. Florida gets it. So we need more leaders like Francis Rooney, willing to stand up for his convictions... I believe we’ve reached a point of [climate change] crisis, given what’s happened in Florida, given what’s happened in Puerto Rico, given what’s happened in California and Texas. My hope is it’s not gonna take something even more cataclysmic for people to get it.