PALO ALTO, Calif. – A perfect California day. The sun was shining, a gentle breeze was blowing and, at a Silicon Valley coffee shop, Rep. Ro Khanna was sitting across from one of his many billionaire constituents discussing an uncomfortable subject: the growing unpopularity of billionaires and their giant tech companies.
“There’s some more humility out here,” Khanna, D-Calif., said.
The billionaire on the other side of the table let out a nervous laugh. Chris Larsen was on his third start-up and well on his way to being one of the wealthiest people in the valley, if not the world.
“Realizing people hate your guts has some value,” he joked.
For decades, Democrats and Republicans have hailed America’s business elite, especially in Silicon Valley, as the country’s salvation. The government might be gridlocked, the electorate angry and divided, but America’s innovators seemed to promise a relatively pain-free way out of the mess. Their companies produced an endless series of products that kept the U.S. economy churning and its gross domestic product climbing. Their philanthropic efforts were aimed at fixing some of the country’s most vexing problems. Government’s role was to stay out of the way.
Now that consensus is shattering. For the first time in decades, capitalism’s future is a subject of debate among presidential hopefuls and a source of growing angst for America’s business elite. In places such as Silicon Valley, the slopes of Davos, Switzerland, and the halls of Harvard Business School, there is a sense that the kind of capitalism that once made America an economic envy is responsible for the growing inequality and anger that is tearing the country apart.
On a quiet weekday at a strip-mall coffee shop, the conversation between Khanna and Larsen turned to what went so wrong.
Americans still loved technology, Khanna said, but too many of them felt locked out of the country’s economic future and were looking for someone to blame.
“What happened to us?” he imagined people in these left-behind places asking.
Part of Khanna’s solution was to sign on as co-chairman of the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the democratic socialist who rose to the national stage by railing against “the handful of billionaires” who “control the economic and political life of this nation,” and who disproportionately live in Khanna’s district.
The other part of Khanna’s solution was to do what he was doing now, talking to billionaire tech executives like Larsen who worried that the current path for both capitalism and Silicon Valley was unsustainable. Boosted by a cryptocurrency spike last year, Larsen’s net worth had briefly hit $59 billion, making him the fifth-richest person in the world before the currency’s value fell.
Without an intervention, he worried that wealth would continue to pile up in Silicon Valley and anger in the country would continue to grow.
“It seems like every company in the world has to be here,” Larsen said. “It’s just painfully obvious that the blob is getting bigger.”
At some point, Larsen and Khanna worried, something was going to break.
The 2008 financial crisis may have revealed the weaknesses of American capitalism. But it was Donald Trump’s election and the pent-up anger it exposed that left America’s billionaire class fearful for capitalism’s future.
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Khanna was elected in 2016, just as the anxiety started to spread. In Europe, far-right nationalist parties were gaining ground. Closer to home, socialists and Trump-inspired nationalists were winning state and congressional elections.
Conversations of the sort that Khanna was having with Larsen were now taking place in some of capitalism’s most rarefied circles including Harvard Business School, where last fall Seth Klarman, a highly influential billionaire investor, delivered what he described as a “plaintive wail” to the business community to fix capitalism before it was too late.
The setting was the opening of Klarman Hall, a new $120 million conference center, built with his family’s donation. “It’s a choice to pay people as little as you can or work them as hard as you can,” he told the audience gathered in the 1,000-seat auditorium. “It’s a choice to maintain pleasant working conditions . . . or harsh ones; to offer good benefits or paltry ones.” If business leaders didn’t “ask hard questions about capitalism,” he warned that they would be asked by “ideologues seeking to point fingers, assign blame and make reckless changes to the system.”
Six months after that speech, Klarman was struck by how quickly his dire prediction was coming to pass. Leading politicians, such as Trump, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., were advocating positions on tariffs, wealth taxes and changes in corporate governance that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
Klarman wasn’t opposed to more progressive taxation or regulation. But he worried that these new proposals went much too far. “I think we’re in the middle of a revolution – not a guns revolution – but a revolution where people on both extremes want to blow it up, and good things don’t happen to the vast majority of the population in a revolution,” he said.
He wasn’t the only one who felt a sense of alarm. One of the most popular classes at Harvard Business School, home to the next generation of Fortune 500 executives, was a class on “reimagining capitalism.” Seven years ago, the elective started with 28 students. Now there were nearly 300 taking it. During that period the students had grown increasingly cynical about corporations and the government, said Rebecca Henderson, the Harvard economist who teaches the course.
“What the trust surveys say is what I see,” she said. “They are really worried about the direction in which the U.S. and the world is heading.”
A few dozen of those students spent their winter break reading “Winners Take All,” a book by Anand Giridharadas, a journalist and former McKinsey consultant, that had hit the bestseller list and was provoking heated arguments in places like Silicon Valley, Davos and Harvard Business School. Giridharadas’ book was a withering attack on America’s billionaire class and the notion that America’s iconic capitalists could use their wealth and creativity to solve big social and economic problems that have eluded a plodding and divided government.
This spring, Giridharadas took his argument to Klarman Hall. He slammed Mark Zuckerberg, taking aim at the Facebook founder’s $100 million effort to fix Newark’s faltering schools and his $3 billion push to end disease in a generation. “I’m glad he’s trying to get rid of all the diseases, [but] I wish Facebook wasn’t a plague,” Giridharadas said.
He trashed Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s independent presidential run as an effort to protect the interests of the uber-wealthy. And he lambasted the notion, frequently championed by the likes of Bill Gates and Barack Obama, that Silicon Valley’s innovations would disrupt old hierarchies and spread capitalism’s rewards. “Really?” Giridharadas asked. “Now five companies control America, instead of 100! And a lot of those companies are whiter and more male than the ones they disrupted.”
For many of the students, schooled in the notion that business could make a profit while making the world a better place, Giridharadas’ ideas were both energizing and disorienting. Erika Uyterhoeven, a second-year student, recalled one of her fellow classmates turning to her when Giridharadas was finished.
“So, what should we do?” her colleague asked. “Is he saying we shouldn’t go into banking or consulting?”
Added another student: “There was a palpable sense of personal desperation.”
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Khanna experienced a version of this desperation almost every day in his district. He grew up in an overwhelmingly white, middle-class suburb of Philadelphia. After college and Yale Law School, he moved to Silicon Valley in 2003, hoping to use his training as a lawyer to help set the rules for a lawless online world.
In 2014, backed by the tech community and a long roster of billionaire donors, Khanna challenged an eight-term incumbent in a Democratic primary and lost. The defeat caused him to reflect on what he had missed – in particular, the problems that runaway capitalism were causing in his district, where the median home value in formerly blue-collar cities surged past $2 million.
“The best thing that happened to me was that I lost my 2014 election,” he said. “Had I won . . . maybe I would’ve been a traditional neoliberal. It really forced my self-reflection and it pointed out every weakness I ever had.”
In California, Khanna’s home is a small apartment around the corner from a Dollar Tree, one of only two in his district. His wife and two children live most of the year in Washington, where home values are cheaper.
His days are split between meetings with billionaires and his many constituents who are struggling to stay afloat amid Silicon Valley’s success. “I am an 11-year renter with a master’s degree,” a teacher told him at a meeting with school employees. Her question wasn’t about whether she would ever be able to afford a home, but about a fellow teacher who couldn’t afford health insurance.
A few days earlier, he had met with two activists who wanted his help pressuring big tech companies to pay contract janitorial and cafeteria workers a living wage. Khanna agreed to host a press event on their behalf.
The billionaires in Khanna’s district, meanwhile, were consumed by a different worry. Mixed in with the valley’s usual frothy optimism about disruption and inventing the future was a growing sense that the tech economy had somehow broken capitalism. The digital revolution had allowed tech entrepreneurs to build massive global companies without the big job-producing factories or large workforces of the industrial era. The result was more and more wealth concentrated in fewer hands.
As technology advanced, some feared things were only going to get worse. Robots were eliminating much factory work; online commerce was decimating retail; and self-driving cars were on the verge of phasing out truck drivers. The next step was computers that could learn and think.
“What happens if you can actually automate all human intellectual labor?” said Greg Brockman, chairman of OpenAI, a company backed by several Silicon Valley billionaires. Such thinking computers might be able to diagnose diseases better than doctors by drawing on superhuman amounts of clinical research, said Brockman, 30. They could displace a large number of office jobs. Eventually, he said, the job shortages would force the government to pay people to pursue their passions or simply live. Only Andrew Yang, a long-shot presidential candidate and tech entrepreneur, supported the idea of government paying citizens a regular income. But the idea of a “universal basic income” was discussed regularly in the valley.
The prospect was both energizing and terrifying. OpenAI had recently added an ethicist – Brockman sometimes referred to her as a “philosopher” – to its staff of about 100 employees to help sort through the implications of its innovations.
To Brockman, a future without work seemed just as likely as one without meat, a possibility that many in the valley viewed as a near certainty. “Once we have meat substitutes as good as the real thing, my expectation is that we’re going to look back at eating meat as this terrible, immoral thing,” he said. The same could be true of work in a future in an era of advanced artificial intelligence. “We’ll look back and say, ‘Wow, that was so crazy and almost immoral that people were forced to go and labor in order to be able to survive,’ ” he said.
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Khanna heard such prophecies all the time but mostly discounted them as sci-fi fantasy. His focus was on fixing the version of capitalism that existed today. He often pleaded with big tech executives to spend just 10 percent of their time thinking about what they could do for their country and 90 percent to their companies.
The tougher question was exactly what he wanted them to do with that 10 percent.
On a warm spring evening, Khanna was trying to answer that question for about two dozen Silicon Valley tech executives, software engineers and venture capitalists. The group gathered at a $5 million Mediterranean-style villa perched atop a hill overlooking Cupertino, which glittered in the valley below.
Khanna described a December trip he organized to tiny Jefferson, Iowa, for a group of tech executives that included Microsoft’s chief technology officer and a LinkedIn co-founder. The executives donated to the community college’s scholarship fund and paid to equip its computer lab with the goal of training 25 to 35 students for software developer jobs, starting at $65,000 a year.
Khanna had made similar trips to West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. The total number of jobs these trips produced was small, and the pay wasn’t great. Still, Khanna believed they served a larger purpose. They proved that people in Silicon Valley cared about places like Jefferson, a rural town of only 4,200. They gave people hope that even the remotest parts of America could take part in the country’s tech revolution.
The next step, Khanna told the executives at the mansion in Cupertino, California, was a $100 million effort to build 50 technology institutes, similar to land-grant colleges, to train workers in left-behind parts of America. Khanna had already introduced a bill that he admitted was unlikely to pass. But that wasn’t really the point. “It sets a blueprint,” he said.
Khanna’s blueprint reflected his broader view of how to unite an increasingly polarized country. Many Democrats blamed Trump’s victory and the country’s divisions on racial tensions as the nation grew more diverse and whites lost their favored positions.
Khanna had a different view. He saw the country’s problems primarily as the product of growing income inequality and a lack of opportunity.
Sometimes Khanna imagined what people in these left-behind parts of the country were thinking: Their grandparents had fought in World War II and helped build the country’s industrial age economy. Now they worried people like Khanna, whose parents emigrated from India, were surging past them.
“They just got here, and they are doing really, really well,” Khanna imagined these people saying. “What happened to us?”
Not everyone at the tech gathering was buying Khanna’s analysis.
Atam Rao, a nuclear engineer, told Khanna that he had come to the United States from India 50 years earlier. Rao’s son, who founded a successful video-game company in Los Angeles, was born in America. The day after Trump was elected, his son suggested shifting some money to a bank account in India, just in case they needed to return someday.
“Are we welcome here?” he said his son asked.
He believed that Khanna was underestimating the racial anger in the country.
“They found someone to blame,” Rao said of Trump and his backers. “This is not going to be won by logic.”
But that wasn’t the America Khanna knew. It didn’t fit with his experience growing up in suburban Philadelphia or arriving in Silicon Valley, where Indians had become rock stars and CEOs of companies such as Google. And it didn’t comport with the results of the 2018 election, he said, now speaking directly to Rao.
“The same country that elected Trump just elected the most diverse Congress in the country’s history,” Khanna said.
Khanna didn’t deny the problem of racism, but like Sanders he saw the country’s divisions primarily through the prism of capitalism’s shortcomings and the economy, not race.
A few days after the meeting at the Cupertino mansion, Khanna was standing in front of 16,000 amped-up Sanders supporters. The San Francisco skyline rose in front of him and the Golden Gate Bridge spanned the bay behind him.
In his gray suit and pressed white shirt, the two-term congressman looked a bit out of place – an emissary from establishment Washington crashing someone else’s revolution. Khanna gave a brief speech introducing Sanders, who a few minutes later rushed onto the stage and into the same campaign spiel he had been delivering since the 2016 Democratic primaries.
He bashed the billionaire class and its influence over American elections. “Democracy means one person one vote and not billionaires buying elections,” Sanders yelled in his Brooklyn growl.
“We say no to oligarchy,” he continued. “Yes to democracy.”
Khanna’s eyes fixed on Steve Spinner, a big tech investor in Silicon Valley and major fundraiser for Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. Spinner, who chaired Khanna’s congressional win, was listening with his arms folded across his fleece vest.
“We dragged him out here,” Khanna said. “He’s about as far from Bernie as you can get.”
Many of Khanna’s billionaire supporters – even those who worried about capitalism and inequality – seemed genuinely puzzled by Khanna’s affection for Sanders.
For Khanna it was simple: In Sanders, Khanna found a candidate who shared his diagnosis of the country’s most vexing problems: inequality and the failures of unrestrained capitalism.
Sanders wasn’t a perfect match for Khanna. Sanders didn’t really understand the tech industry – though he wasn’t calling for the breakup of big tech companies like Warren and some other candidates. Warren’s proposal, if executed, would hurt companies in Khanna’s district and alienate some of his wealthiest backers.
Khanna wished Sanders would talk more about the greatness of the American economy and the power of the tech industry, when properly taxed and regulated, to lift people out of poverty. But on that score Khanna believed he could help Sanders.
“We can quibble over his plans to solve this issue or that issue,” Khanna said. “But I have no doubt that if Bernie Sanders was in the White House, he’d wake up every day thinking, ‘How do I solve structural inequality in America?’ ”
The 77-year-old socialist’s speech had passed the one-hour mark and the crowd was still laughing, cheering, hooting and shouting.
“We’re probably not going to get a lot of support from the one percent and the large profitable corporations,” Sanders said.
A voice in the crowd screamed an expletive.
“That’s OK,” Sanders continued, “I don’t need, and we don’t want, their support.”
The congressman in the gray suit gazed out at the crowd, which stretched to the back of the park. Khanna saw Sanders’ revolution as an imperfect solution to a near-impossible problem. For now, though, it was the best he could find.