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Can Silicon Valley save the Rust Belt?

Mark Makela/Getty Images

The American working class is struggling—and tech titans seem to believe they can help. From universal basic income proposals to education reform, the tech industry is apparently convinced that its ability to design apps translates to an ability to achieve real political change. Now, venture capitalists are going on safari to Ohio and Michigan and Indiana. Kevin Roose reports for The New York Times:

Last month, I accompanied Ms. Li and roughly a dozen other venture capitalists on a three-day bus trip through the Midwest, with stops in Youngstown and Akron, Ohio; Detroit and Flint, Mich.; and South Bend, Ind. The trip, which took place on a luxury bus outfitted with a supply of vegan doughnuts and coal-infused kombucha, was known as the “Comeback Cities Tour.”

It was pitched as a kind of Rust Belt safari — a chance for Silicon Valley investors to meet local officials and look for promising start-ups in overlooked areas of the country.

This tells us quite a lot about how the industry defines progress—as its ability to replicate itself outside the borders of California. Progress also entails a deep appreciation for Silicon Valley:

During the Akron stop of the bus trip, while the Silicon Valley investors mingled with local officials over a dinner spread of vegan polenta pizza and barbecue sliders, Mr. McKenna, the San Francisco venture capitalist, told me that he felt a difference in people’s attitudes in cities like these, where the tech industry’s success is still seen as something to celebrate.

“People want to be in places where they’re the hero,” he said.

McKenna is right: Everyone wants to be a savior. But it’s far from certain that Silicon Valley can play that role. The tech industry’s labor practices are notably poor; just talk to striking Lanetix workers or to those working under grinding conditions in Elon Musk’s Tesla factories. One way venture capitalists could help is to support higher taxes to fund an expansion of the social safety net, and to implement fair labor practices in their workplaces. And if they really want to hear from the working class, they’ll have to leave the luxury bus behind and talk to people outside of a managed setting. But one word of advice: Leave the coal-infused kombucha at home.