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Dan Breznitz recognizes that place matters—that we need a plurality of approaches to economic development suited to different communities across our nation. Not everyone can or should live in Silicon Valley, Boston, or Seattle, and not every community should aspire to emulate them. Breznitz charts a reasonable middle ground between a romanticized call to bring the old jobs back and a new age “techno-fetishism” exhorting everyone to learn to code. The former is not good enough for communities that have been left out of the modern wealth-generation engine. The latter leads to absurd pronouncements such as Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo’s recent remark that hospitality and tourist sectors would not face a worker shortage if workers acquired “digital skills” and learned about cloud computing and cybersecurity.
Breznitz believes deeply in innovation but argues that there are multiple paths open to communities as they reinvent themselves. I agree entirely. Not every community needs to court the next Amazon headquarters or to fund the next Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter. A community need not chase unicorns and should draw instead on existing assets. They should feel free to ignore the Silicon Valley mantra of going from “zero to one”—meaning inventing new products with breakthrough technology. Broadening the opportunity horizon, Breznitz celebrates “1 to n”—the kind of incremental progress that Valley entrepreneurs may dismiss as lacking sufficient ambition. For Breznitz, communities can take pride in providing specialized IT services, or in becoming essential suppliers as part of a critical global supply chain, or in improving the production process of consumer or industrial goods. Innovations come in all shapes and sizes.
Many of us share that view in Congress. Take the bipartisan Endless Frontiers legislation, which I coauthored with senators Chuck Schumer and Todd Young and fellow representative Mike Gallagher. The bill, which has already passed the Senate, calls for $100 billion in new technology development across the country, recognizing that different communities will have different economic development strategies. It is consistent with Breznitz’s philosophy that innovation should not simply focus on invention or theoretical advances. We explicitly fund commercial product development in addition to science research, and a lot of the funding will be geared toward advances in manufacturing processes and the building of technology infrastructure. These investments may not lead to the creation of companies with multibillion dollar valuations overnight. But they will generate many new, good-paying jobs in industries such as electronics manufacturing, semiconductor fabrication, clean technology, cybersecurity, and robotics. Communities will get to decide for themselves what type of innovation and production makes sense for them as opposed to having a mandate come from policy experts in Washington.
While I fully embrace Breznitz’s pluralistic conception of innovation, I think he may underestimate the scale and importance of the digital revolution. There is a reason that most of the wealth generation during the pandemic was in the digital space. Software, as Marc Andreessen famously put it, is “eating the world,” transforming almost every industry and every occupation. The architects of this digital infrastructure—the millions of people who are working in manufacturing, construction, retail, or agriculture—are aggregating most of the wealth. By 2025 the United States will have 25 million digital jobs, and they will pay a median salary of almost $80,000. To put that in context, that is more than the current number of U.S. manufacturing and construction jobs combined. Economist Enrico Moretti has shown the enormous multiplier impact of tech jobs in creating other high-paying jobs—a multiplier that is larger than even the manufacturing multiplier. Digitization, moreover, spurs organizational redesign and forces traditional businesses and educational institutions to adapt, change, and innovate. The reality is that in a digital age, a community cannot be content specializing simply in product manufacturing or consumer goods, while allowing most of the digital jobs and digital wealth to go to the coasts. That would mean a continued brain drain from these communities of young talent and continued depletion of resources from spending on digital goods and services.
Post-pandemic, the hope is that digital jobs can be spread across the nation, creating opportunity without uprooting people who are drawn to these careers. These jobs enable people to participate in digital wealth generation. And they offer the promise of allowing someone to pursue opportunities and interact with diverse communities in this country and globally while being anchored in their own. Digital jobs—unlike many traditional ones—can lead to an intersection between local communities and globalization, empowering people to thrive in a place they love while participating in the broader activities of the nation and world.
Breznitz is right to caution us against overselling the Silicon Valley dream. We certainly need a broad range of economic development strategies that are aligned with a place’s values, traditions, and existing capabilities. But we would do a disservice to communities left behind and to our democracy if we did not insist on democratization of the digital revolution itself. Equal participation in a modern democracy requires a stake in designing the digital architecture of the modern world.
Ro Khanna represents Silicon Valley in Congress. His forthcoming book, Dignity in the Digital Age: How To Make Tech Work For All of Us, will be published by Simon & Schuster in February 2022.
To generate local, inclusive prosperity, cities must think beyond tech accelerators and science parks and instead embrace a wider range of innovation strategies.
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