“Should I tell the story about the killer robots?” Micah Weinberg said. “I love telling this story. It’s such a good story.”
A group of roughly 50 people listened raptly as Weinberg, president of a think tank called the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, addressed a public-policy luncheon in San Carlos, California, on Thursday afternoon. The event—whose guests of honor included Democratic lawmakers Ro Khanna, who represents Silicon Valley, and Tim Ryan, from the Thirteenth District of Ohio—was meant to foster a lively discussion about connecting Silicon Valley “to the heartland.” There would also be a sneak peak of a report showing the economic impact of Bay Area companies on every single congressional district in America. (Spoiler alert: The impact is awesome.)
Weinberg began his killer story as the crowd—including the mayor of Akron, Ohio; Silicon Valley municipal leaders; health care executives; business school academics; tech investors; representatives from Oracle and Palantir; and a Teamsters rep—made quick work of the carb-heavy boxed lunches. The tale was set in Alabama, which Weinberg claimed has spent almost half a billion dollars to attract auto-parts manufacturers to the state. The incentives brought in about 25,000 jobs, but the work is low-paying and dangerous. “Apparently one of the things that happens in these factories is that the robots that are making these parts and cars do a lot of maiming and, unfortunately, some killing of the folks that work there,” he said, teeing up his punch line. Companies in the Bay Area, on the other hand, have brought 27,000 jobs with higher average wages to the state, without incentives. “And I don’t think that our robots have killed anybody,” Weinberg said.
The humblebrag capper on an anecdote about deadly labor conditions drew a few clipped laughs, but the message was clear: Forget what you’ve heard. Silicon Valley is already tied to the heartland—and is here to propel the American dream.
Silicon Valley vs. Ohio Valley
Thursday’s event took place in a makeshift auditorium in the San Mateo Transportation Authority building. (After the event, Weinberg told WIRED that the luncheon was held in the transportation building as a reminder that financial support for the Bay Area touches on many other industries.) Lighting rigs hung from the ceiling of a large room that normally functions as a studio for a local TV station. A dozen or so folding tables had been arranged into a wobbly rectangle so long that you had to squint to read the name cards in front of each assigned seat.
Over the course of two hours, the luncheon played out like a good cop/bad cop routine around Silicon Valley’s role in creating vs. destroying jobs. On a wall-sized screen, Weinberg flashed slides from the upcoming report, showing that Bay Area companies are responsible for 50,000 jobs paying $2.5 billion in wages to residents in Ohio, including 763 jobs and $37 million in Ryan’s district. His presentation seemed to respond, word for word, to criticisms of Silicon Valley’s greed. “The rising tide in the Bay Area actually does lift all boats, throughout the country, so it’s really not zero-sum,” Weinberg said.
The report arrives in the midst of a populist backlash against the tech industry. Critics say Silicon Valley lacks accountability for the consequences of its staggering growth. As fears about job displacement from automation rise, so has a sense that technological progress will continue to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few.
During the forum, the institute’s representative argued that the Bay Area’s economic gains are already distributed around the country. Meanwhile, Khanna, whose largest donors included Alphabet, Salesforce, Oracle, and three venture capital firms, advocated for more equitable access to opportunity and for Silicon Valley to approach the rest of the nation with more humility. “There are hard-working entrepreneurial people across this country,” said Khanna, who had recently completed a trip to Appalachia to win over hearts and minds in coal country. “Are we really doing enough of a job imaging where talent is?” Ninety percent of venture capital funding goes to just three states—California, Massachusetts, and New York—he said. “It’s not clear to me [why] Steve Jobs couldn’t be born in Alabama or Mississippi.”
Representative Ryan had a slightly different agenda, but it dovetailed with Khanna’s thoughts and the report. He wants to convince growing tech companies to consider expanding in places like Akron, where commercial space is about $10 per square foot. (Last year, office rents in San Francisco hit $78 per square foot.) If employers paid an engineering graduate $40,000 to $50,000 a year, “that person would be the most loyal employee you’ve ever seen in your life, because those opportunities aren’t there,” he said. (A recent PayScale survey found that the median salary for an entry-level software engineer in San Francisco is $108,000.)
Ryan had a hype man in the audience to that effect: Patrick McKenna, a private equity investor and startup entrepreneur from San Francisco, who brought a delegation of 14 Silicon Valley founders and investors to visit an incubator in Youngstown, Ohio, back in March. “I reached out and said, ‘Hey guys, let’s see what’s going on with this country and see if we can help,’ ” McKenna said.
All the speakers—the congressmembers, Weinberg, and McKenna—evoked an optimistic vision of an efficient labor market that works for everyone, a vision at odds with the revanchist rhetoric of the Trump administration. The tech industry could hire cheaper labor, located in cheaper offices, by training workers around the country for exactly the skill set they need. Workers, in turn, would get a chance to participate in the new economy and find better job security.
The only thing missing from the discussion? A concrete plan for how to set this all in motion.
From the Valley to the Hill
The sole action item on the agenda came from Representative Ryan, who suggested that Youngstown and Akron open up offices in Silicon Valley to knock on doors and sponsor cocktail parties. Khanna made no demands of the tech giants in his district, such as a pledge to hire or retrain workers outside of California. In this way, Thursday’s policy discussion resembled the post-election rebranding efforts of tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg, who is in the midst of his own whistlestop tour.
Silicon Valley’s need to overhaul its image became evident at the end of the lunch, during a Q&A period in which rebuke came from one of Khanna’s own constituents. Doug Bloch, the political director at the local chapter of the Teamsters, told Khanna that he was concerned automation in self-driving trucks would have the same result as closures of steel plants and coal mines: the loss of a lot of good union jobs. “Representative Khanna, I’m glad you mentioned Luddites. We’re not Luddites, we’re not against innovation, but we believe that workers and their representatives should be partners in those innovations and not unintended consequences or casualties.”
Around the table, a few heads nodded in agreement.
In fact, Khanna had mentioned the Luddites at the start of the discussion to note that they got a bad rap. “They were destroying machinery of companies that they felt were not fair or were abusive or had the equivalent of killer robots,” he said. After Bloch’s pointed comments, Khanna concurred. There is no silver bullet solution, he said; nonetheless, “there’s so much wealth generated here there’s a greater obligation, in my judgment, to make sure that that is distributed in a way that accounts for people who are being displaced.”
At this point, Ryan eagerly interjected. “It’s like they’re in one of the conversations we have on the House floor,” he told Khanna, before addressing the room: “You’re, like, in our heads right now!”
Ultimately, the folks on the House floor—and elsewhere in DC—may be the most urgent audience for this image of a kinder, more generous Silicon Valley. In order to improve infrastructure, develop the local workforce, or create affordable housing, the region will need federal cooperation, as well as cooperation from other states.
After the lunch, Weinberg told WIRED that the report was assembled in advance of the Bay Area Council’s trip to Washington, DC. “Frankly, it’s obvious that California and Washington don’t always see eye to eye—particularly these days.” So it’s important to convince people that “we share an economic destiny, rather than being in competition with each other.”
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