Ep. 143 – Ro Khanna 1
The Axe Files - Ep. 143: Rep. Ro Khanna
Released May 1, 2017
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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And now, from the University of Chicago Institute of
Politics and CNN, "The Axe Files", with your host, David Axelrod.
DAVID AXELROD, "THE AXE FILES" HOST: When you talk about challenges to
our democracy, you have to start by looking at the challenges to our economy
of rapid changes wrought by technology.
No one's thought more about this than Congressman Ro Khanna, a brand new
member of Congress from Silicon Valley, who has made it his business to travel
the country talking about the transformation of the economy, the changes in the
nature of work.
And what we need to do as a country to adapt to them so that the largest
number of people get the opportunities they need. Congressman Khanna came
by the Institute of Politics of the other day. And we sat down to talk about this
and his own really interesting story.
Congressman Ro Khanna, first of all welcome back to University of Chicago. I
know you cut your teeth here, your academic teeth here some -- in the 90s. So,
welcome back. It is good to see you.
REP. RO KHANNA (D), CALIFORNIA: It's good to be back. I had learned lunch
at Medici. I did not know was still around.
AXELROD: Yes, oh yes. Oh yes. That -- now that's an institution for those of
you who come to Chicago, the Medici 57th St. You've talked about your story
as kind of a classic American story. Share your story with us, your family's
KHANNA: My parents came here in the 1960s. My father came to study
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chemical engineering at Michigan. Then he went back to India, got married to
my mom. They came -- my mom came over in early 1970s. I was born in…
AXELROD: Why'd they come over?
KHANNA: They came over for opportunity, for education. I mean, my dad was -
- there was much better chance back then to have a great education here. And
it was in the, as you remember, was in the 60s when he came there was Sputnik
in the sense that we wanted people with an engineering or science background.
It was the simplest thing to come. He got a visa -- student visa early on. And
then when he worked at a chemical engineering company, he got a green
card. And you know, we really were opening -- open to people in science.
And it was also after the civil rights moment. Before 1965 there were very few
Indian Americans or Chinese Americans. And it was really the civil rights
movement that led to the Immigration Reform Act of 65 that opened immigration
AXELROD: You know, the obvious question is about where we are now. I was
really dismayed to read about the kind of precipitous decline in the number of
international students who were applying American colleges and universities.
Now I think 40 percent was the number in, you know, in the current class of
students who are applying for admission. What is the impact of that?
KHANNA: Well one it is not having the best and brightest come to the United
States. That's one of things that make us great as opposed to the Ming Dynasty
in China that didn't have sort of diversity of people from around the world.
Our uniqueness was we really attracted talent from every part of the world. And
now those folks are just going to be creating jobs and sorting companies in
other places. And also diminishes in some sense American leadership.
I mean, one of the advantages we had is people looked up to America because
so many folks knew someone who studied here or had an influence on our
AXELROD: You are a -- you studied economics before you went to law
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school. Do -- have you -- and I am sure you have very -- a a bunch of smart
folks who you tap for various data. Have you up studied what the impact of the
sort of abandonment or retreat on immigration might have on our economy?
KHANNA: Oh, there's studies all over the place. I don't want to quote
something inaccurate, but I think it's -- I mean, we're talking about hundreds of
billions of dollars that -- of value that immigrants have created either through
startup companies or by helping build so many technology companies.
[00:05:00] And I think that the important thing to know is many of them who
come to the United States were paying for their education or subsidizing
them. And then, we're -- if we're asking them to go back, we're basically paying
for their education and saying "create jobs or companies overseas". And
anyone, you know, from all of the president's talk about American greatness, I
ask the counter factual.
I mean, imagine a world where Google, Facebook, Tesla, Yahoo, were Chinese
companies, or European companies. That wouldn't be an America we would
want. We want these companies here. And anyone who's walked through
those companies know they're people from around the world -- that's partly
what makes them so successful.
AXELROD: You know, when the -- when the Obama administration and the
Senate passed an immigration reform bill during his administration, the
Congressional Budget Office did an estimate and said that it would add, I think it
was 1.4 trillion, was the number. See now I'm quoting inaccurate, but I'm pretty
sure that's accurate -- 1.4 trillion over a decade.
So, presumably the reverse is true as well -- if we ratchet down immigration,
there's a fairly significant number in terms of loss growth that we can count on.
KHANNA: Absolutely. And, as you know, David, the biggest factor for
America's economic growth from 1950 to today was actually women entering
the work force, because one of the biggest restrictors on economic growth was
our labor supply. So, now we're not going to have the luxury of a huge increase
of women in the work force. One of the things we need is immigrants at all
levels. And, to restrict it is to restrict America's economic growth.
Now, no one's saying there haven't been abuses. I mean, part of the abuse, I
Ep. 143 – Ro Khanna 4
think, of some of these companies that have over 50 percent H1B Visa holders,
or people who are using foreign workers to pay below market wages. I think
those few examples have been so excessive that they've gotten people
questioning all immigration.
In my views, we should perform some of the abuses, but not throw out all the
immigration that's led to our success.
AXELROD: It's interesting you've -- you've been traveling the country, I know,
talking to people in -- particularly in rural communities and communities --
factory towns, where the factories have long since gone. And president Trump
did very well there, in the Fall there, as you know. And, there is this sense of
loss there, in a sense that it is immigration -- it is trade that has cost people their
jobs or middle class wages.
It's kind of -- it's translated into an ugly strain, you know, our country -- some of
which aim that at Indian Americans, who we saw the incident in Kansas, that
was so tragic. As an Indian American, how do you process all of that? And
what are you saying to folks when you're out there and having this dialogue?
KHANNA: Well, I start, as many people do, with their own upbringing. I mean, I
grew up in Bucks county, Pennsylvania. It's fairly suburban, rural -- it was 99
percent Caucasian. When my family was Moving into our street, there was a
little bit of chatter on the street that Khannas are moving in. And my parents
finally figured out what the fuss was about.
I'm of Hindu faith, and on Christmas Eve, everyone would put the candle lights
on the street. So my dad said we'd be happy to put the candle lights on the
street, and we put out street lights. And for 18 years growing up, we had great
relationships with the neighborhood.
So there was a sense of me that believes fundamentally in the decency -
kindness, of most Americans. And a challenge of - how do we find this common
identity and respect for some of their traditions while being proud of your own
heritage? When I went to Paintsville, I don't want to go on too long, but John
Yarmuth was a member of Congress in Kentucky.
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KHANNA: He said to me, (inaudible), you should know 2 facts about where
you're going down. One, Barrack Obama lost this area to Hilary Clinton in the
primary, 9 percent to 91 percent.
AXELROD: Yeah. I remember that.
KHANNA: You do? Well, now --
AXELROD: I was on the 9 percent side on that one.
KHANNA: You guys really fence (ph) OK, this is not a criticism, in any way, but -
AXELROD: It's just math.
KHANNA: It's just math. But he said what do you think? I said, well, probably
had something to do with race. He said, well, Jesse Jackson in 1988 won that
county. And I said really? I said how did he do that? And he said he showed up
and Obama didn’t need to show up. Those (ph) (inaudible) the primary won for
other reasons. But there was something to his point of just showing up
mattered and I’ve got to tell you, when I went there, there was such a warm
reception from folks.
Here’s this person coming to our community, talking not in a patronizing
way. Not OK, here I’m from Silicon Valley, let me tell you what you need to do
but in a way of listening, understanding wh