Like any respectable presidential candidate, Andrew Yang calls from a diner in New Hampshire. Naturally, he’s having the clam chowder. He says it’s delicious.
Over the past few months, like the more than a dozen other Democrats running in the primaries, Yang, a 44-year-old businessman, has been campaigning in early states and doing the media rounds.
The only thing is that nobody knows who he is. Well, not nobody, but basically nobody. In early February, in a blog post on his campaign website, Yang touted the fact that he was included in a national poll, showing him as the top choice of one percent of voters. (The margin of error was 3.6 percent.)
So, I ask the obvious question when he calls. Why run? Yang takes long pauses between his words, whether to eat his soup or really think before he speaks I’m not sure. He slowly begins to try and explain why he, a regular guy from New York, would embark on such a tedious endeavor.
Seven years ago, Yang started an organization called Venture for America, a sort of Teach for America, but for startups. Yang proudly tells me he was honored by the Obama White House for his work with the organization.
But his efforts, he realized, were like “pouring water into a basket that has a giant hole in the bottom.”
“I came to realize that for every job that I was helping to create we were losing 10 or 100 or 1,000 jobs in many of these communities,” Yang said. “And I believe that that’s why Donald Trump won the election in 2016…we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Michigan and Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Iowa — all swing states that he needed to win and did win.”
That’s what Yang really wants to talk about: Robots. They took manufacturing jobs, he says, and they’re coming for retail jobs, call center jobs, fast food jobs, truck driving jobs, and even journalism jobs, Yang warns.
“Donald Trump is a symptom of the fact that we’re in the third inning of the greatest economic and technological transformation in the history of the country,” he says, earnestly.
“Let’s say you have five to 10 years before the truck drivers get sent home, at least in some number. There are three and a half million truck drivers in this country. The average truck driver is a 49-year-old man with a high school education. So if you were looking to enact meaningful solutions, we don’t have a ton of time.”
That’s why Andrew Yang is running for president. Automation, he believes, will mean the end of work in America as we traditionally know it, and he thinks he knows what to do about it: Give people money.
A universal basic income (UBI) — or, as he’s branded it, a “freedom dividend” — is central to Yang’s campaign. As president, Yang says he would provide $1,000 a month to every person in the United States over the age of 18.
“Right now, there are millions of American women who are trapped in exploitative or abusive jobs or relationships, in part because they feel like they don’t have the wherewithal to walk away and improve their situations,” Yang says. “How many of those women would be able to improve their day-to-day environment if they were getting a $1,000 a month — if they knew that they didn’t have to rely upon that exploitative job or that abusive husband or boyfriend for their very survival?”
Yang argues a UBI would also improve children’s health and nutrition, graduation rates, and mental health. “It would make our families healthier and stronger,” he says. “It would improve relationships. It would reduce domestic violence and hospital visits.”
Yang’s freedom dividend would be opt-in, and the goal would be to make sure every American was getting at least $1,000 a month from the government. For example, someone who was already receiving food assistance would choose between a check for $1,000 or to continue receiving assistance directly from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) equivalent to $1,000 a month.
That proposal raises a number of questions for experts. Robert Seamans, an economist with New York University, told ThinkProgress that any UBI proposal needs to be very specific about what programs are included and whether people can switch back and forth between assistance from, say, SNAP or Medicaid to the $1,000 freedom dividend check.
Seamans said he was also concerned by Yang’s proposal to fund the program. Yang has proposed a value-added tax that would fall most heavily on companies that benefit from automation, like Amazon, Google, and Facebook.
“What happens if Amazon goes bust, then how do you find UBI?” Seamans said. “What happens if Amazon reorganizes? What happens if Amazon moves to different country? There’s so many things that could go wrong it doesn’t seem feasible.”
Experts are also not in agreement about the premise of Yang’s campaign, the idea automation will kill the U.S. job market.
“That is an assumption and it’s not an assumption that is universally agreed upon,” Seamans said. ”There are many economists, including myself, who believe that there will be a lot of what will happen with AI and robotics will be augmentation of existing jobs.”
As with most campaigns, however — and Yang’s longshot campaign, in particular — the specifics aren’t really the point.
“By talking about certain types of policies like UBI, it helps describe the types of values that we as a society think are the right types of values,” Seamans said. “This is part of what I love about Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign — he’s causing people to seriously think through why we might want a UBI and what a UBI could accomplish.”
Yang has made a number of other off-the-beaten path policies central to his campaign as well, including hiring a White House psychologist, paying NCAA athletes, and making Tax Day a federal holiday.
“My suggestion is instead of, ‘we have this tax day that everyone hates, in April,’ we turn it into a national holiday called Revenue Day,” Yang says. “And then when you file your taxes, you get shown a video of various government employees thanking you and showing the work that you’re doing, and then you can elect where you want the last one percent of your taxes to go, so it can be something that you care about. And then we’d bring citizens to the White House and celebrate our great country.”
Yang knows his campaign is a long shot, but winning, he says, isn’t the only metric of success.
“We are going through historic changes as a country, and to me, our leaders are behind the times in solving the problems that genuinely plaguing us,” he says. “So if someone else were to adopt my solutions, let’s say the Freedom Dividend, and make them a reality as president in 2021, and that person was not me, I would be thrilled.”
He adds, “I’m running not because I’ve dreamt about living in the White House all my life. I’m running because I want to solve problems so that my kids don’t grow up in a total disaster of a country.”