Supporting Andrew Yang, the Democratic underdog
The more you learn about most of the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, the more objectionable things you find. With Andrew Yang, however, the more I learned, the more fascinating his bid for the presidency became.
Yang started off as a fairly obscure, niche candidate. In a field crowded with well-known senators and governors, he’s unique for having no prior political experience and very little name recognition. Despite this hurdle, Yang has successfully established a solid base of support; he currently floats between fourth and sixth place in national polls. He also amassed $10 million in the last fundraising quarter, putting him on competitive footing with big names like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. His online following, the “Yang Gang,” has been widely described as the most enthusiastic group supporting any Democratic candidate.
What sets Yang apart from the rest of the field is his focus on the future, and his almost laser-guided determination to fix what he diagnoses as the problem that gave Donald Trump the presidency : job losses due to automation in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. Voters in those areas bought Trump’s message about bringing jobs back from Mexico and China, and they played a critical role in destroying the so-called “Blue Wall” in the 2016 election. But Trump’s solutions haven’t worked, and as Yang points out, job losses are going to become more severe as technology improves.
Take, for instance, the most common occupation in 29 states (and, probably not coincidentally, the example that Yang most often cites): driving a truck. So far, computers don’t know how to drive trucks, but no one doubts that they will eventually learn, and when they do, humans won’t be able to compete with them.
This is not a bad thing. Robots will be better drivers than their human counterparts. They won’t need to eat or sleep and can drive 24 hours a day. They’ll probably be more fuel-efficient. Critically, beyond the cost of purchasing the software, they won’t need to be paid. All of this will make transportation safer, faster and cheaper, which will be good for consumers. Moreover, it’s not clear to me that, as a society, we should be trying to preserve the institution of people driving trucks, which is by most accounts a pretty miserable job. But it’s still a job that over three million people have, and the advent of autonomous trucks will eventually put all of them, and those who provide services to them, out of work.
This trend isn’t going to stop with truck drivers. Self-service kiosks and automated registers are already present in many stores, and their use will inevitably expand, crowding out human workers. Any job that a computer can do, a computer will eventually do at a worker’s expense. Again, this isn’t necessarily bad — it’ll increase efficiency and lower prices — but it’s going to decimate millions of low- and semi-skilled jobs for which it won’t be easy to find replacements. This might not happen as soon as Yang believes it will, but it will happen sooner or later, and when it does, it’s going to have huge consequences for society.
There’s no perfect solution to this problem, but Yang is alone among the Democratic candidates in recognizing it and proposing a workable response. His proposal is a universal basic income program called the “Freedom Dividend,” which would soften the blow somewhat and give people time to transition by giving them $1000 per month.
The beauty of UBI is that it’s simultaneously progressive and libertarian in different ways. Imagine for a moment that a government official showed up on your doorstep and demanded you give him $1000 in cash immediately. To a Wall Street banker, that’s nothing — that’s the cost of dinner in some Manhattan restaurants. To a carpenter, plumber, garbage collector or starving college student, the prospect is a lot more grim. Four out of five American workers are living paycheck to paycheck; they don’t have thousands of dollars to spare, and if they needed to pay the bill immediately, it would likely come as part of some larger sacrifice. This is what’s called a “regressive tax,” and almost everyone hates it because it blatantly favors the rich.
Now imagine the precise opposite — the government turning up on your doorstep and giving you $1000 in cash with no strings attached. Andrew Yang’s Freedom Dividend does precisely that, once a month for the rest of your life. It makes no distinction between rich and poor, but a thousand dollars is worth a lot more to a handyman than it is to a tech executive.
“But that’s socialism,” I hear you cry. Except it isn’t. A universal basic income recognizes the principle that the average person knows how to better spend his or her own money than the government does. Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and ideological godfather of the libertarian right, was supportive of UBI because he saw it as a viable alternative to welfare benefits, which are tied to poverty and unemployment. To some degree, these programs disincentivize success, since success means losing the security they provide. A UBI, paid out regardless of wealth or job status, doesn’t.
And where UBI has been tried on a smaller scale, it’s often been successful. A highly regarded example is the Alaska Permanent Fund, an annual dividend of around $1000 paid to every Alaskan in exchange for allowing oil companies to ravage their state’s natural beauty. It’s one of the most popular programs in Alaska, a deep red state; in 1999, a whopping 83% of voters were in favor of keeping it.
The key question, then, is how to pay for the Dividend. Yang argues that the extra spending would stimulate the economy, and some amount of money would be saved by people that no longer collect other government benefits. But the cost will still be several trillion dollars, which he proposes to raise by implementing a European-style “value-added tax,” charging tech companies like Amazon and Uber a small amount per transaction. This seems eminently fair to me. Amazon, altogether worth almost a trillion dollars, continues to insist that it makes no profit, and hence pays nothing in federal taxes. A value-added tax would change that.
Yang has over 150 other policy proposals listed on his website, some important (Medicare for All), some unimportant (eliminating the penny) and some odd (ranked-choice voting). But perhaps the most attractive thing about Yang is his personal charisma. It’s very clear that he’s not a politician; he doesn’t spend his time boasting of his legislative accomplishments and vowing to fight for the common man. He understands that the economics of technology isn’t that interesting, and often cracks jokes about it. Rather than blame tech executives for economic woes, as Trump blames immigrants, Yang focuses on a solution. Above all, he strikes me as a fundamentally decent person.
Case in point: in September, Saturday Night Live fired comedian Shane Gillis for making racist and homophobic jokes about several minority figures, including Yang. Yang’s response to the incident was remarkably nuanced. He immediately made it clear that he thought Gillis’ comments were unacceptable, but he disagreed with his firing, suggesting that people need a chance to learn from their mistakes. He also offered to sit down with Gillis in the future and discuss the implications of racist humor.
You might very reasonably disagree with Yang and believe that firing Gillis was the right decision. But for just a moment, isn’t his frame of mind just a little bit refreshing? Here’s someone who’s willing to call a truce in the endless culture war; someone who doesn’t mindlessly seek to punish the offender, but wants them (and society) to understand their error and learn from it. It’s a mindset that isn’t very common in today’s outrage-oriented politics, and we would all benefit from having a national leader who thinks that way.
There are other considerations for selecting a commander-in-chief, of course. Is Andrew Yang the person you want to shake awake at three in the morning to respond to an international crisis? This is where Yang falls short — as someone who’s never served in public office before, it’s no secret that he lacks political experience. In my mind, though, that’s not as important as his platform. As president, he’ll be surrounded with capable, skilled advisers, and unlike the Oval Office’s current occupant, he might actually listen to them.