Andrew Yang Is Not Full of Shit
It’s 7 pm on a Monday night in late September, and Andrew Yang, the most idiosyncratic of presidential candidates, is about to storm a stage in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park.
There are several thousand members of the #Yanggang milling around, talking, flirting, debating, and, by the scent of it, taking advantage of California’s liberal herbal policies. Many are wearing hats that say “math,” an acronym for Make America Think Harder. Others are wearing T-shirts with one of the pithiest and most compelling slogans in American politics today: “Math. Money. Marijuana.” It feels like a combination of Coachella and a TED Talk. As the opening act warms up the crowd, everyone chants “PowerPoint, PowerPoint, PowerPoint!”
Yang, a man no one had heard of a year ago, is everywhere. His face, chiseled by a generous graphic artist into something resembling Daniel Craig’s, is on posters all around. A more accurate depiction—with softer lines and a bigger smile—grins from hundreds of shirts and fake $1,000 bills, symbolizing Yang’s signature idea of giving every American adult a “freedom dividend” of $1,000 a month for life.
Most of the people here put an even higher value on his candidacy. To Vanessa Hurtado, a 35-year-old woman who says that she has never voted before, it’s worth more than seven figures. “If someone offered me a million dollars or for Yang to be president, I’d take Yang,” she says. “He seems to think about everything with a clear head.”
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Eventually, the real Yang comes bounding onstage and immediately launches into the core argument of his candidacy: Donald Trump wasn’t elected because of Russia, James Comey, or Macedonian trolls. He was elected because he spoke to people’s fears about automation and lost manufacturing jobs.
This is a problem that can be solved with smart policy choices, bipartisan outreach, and billions of $1,000 checks. He’s a true nerd, and he’s making arguments common in the nerd capital of the world, Silicon Valley. Except for one thing: Much of his stump speech lacerates Silicon Valley.
Yang’s candidacy is something of a toxic bouillabaisse for the tech industry. He presents himself as someone of the industry, wearing a lapel that says “math” instead of one with a flag. Pundits call him a tech entrepreneur, though he actually made his money at a test-prep company. He talks about breaking problems apart and finding solutions. He played D&D as a kid, read science fiction, and understands blockchain.
He has run his campaign in the most modern of digital ways too. The guy is dynamite on Reddit, and he spends time answering questions on Quora. And that is part of why he’s going to win, he hollers from the stage. He can beat Trump on his own terrain—“I’m better at the internet than he is!”
But the tech-friendly trappings mask a thorough critique of technology itself. His whole message is premised on the dangers of automation taking away jobs and the risks of Artificial Intelligence. He lambastes today’s technology firms for not compensating us for our data. If there’s a villain in his stump speech, it’s not Trump—it’s Amazon. (“We have to be pretty fucking stupid to let a trillion-dollar tech company pay nothing in taxes, am I right, Los Angeles?”)
If Yang is the candidate of Silicon Valley, he’s the one driving a Humvee up the wrong side of the 101. Or, as Chris Anderson, one of my predecessors as editor of WIRED and now a drone entrepreneur, tweeted the night of the fourth Democratic debate, “I turned on the radio for 6 seconds, enough to hear that the Dem debates were on and @AndrewYang, who I thought I liked, was talking about how autonomous trucks were endangering driver jobs. Head slapped, vote changed. Bummer.”
As Yang wraps up, he has another message: “What does this look like to you, Los Angeles? This looks like a fucking revolution to me.” That may be a bit much. It’s more an evolution, and it’s a killer party. Still, Andrew Yang has found his voice, found his message, and found his people.
So it’s entirely possible that, long after most of the other candidates have dropped out, Yang will still be there tweeting, jumping onto Reddit threads, grabbing microphones, and using the best of modern technology to explain why modern technology is leading America into the abyss.
There isn’t a whole lot in Yang’s background that would seem to have prepared him for this. He grew up in Schenectady, New York, where his father worked as a researcher for GE and his mother was a trained statistician who worked as a university systems administrator and then became a painter. When he’s telling his life story in a way that emphasizes immigrant success, Yang notes that his father got 69 patents. When he’s playing for hardscrabble background points he says, “My father grew up on a peanut farm in Asia with no floor.”
Eventually, he went to Phillips Exeter Academy, where his contemporaries included the social critic Roxane Gay and the musician John Forté, who wrote songs for the Fugees. His lab partner in physics class was Jedediah Purdy, later the author of For Common Things. Yang seems to have stood out among his classmates mainly for his goth style. One classmate, who thinks highly of Yang and has donated to his campaign, added that his main memory of Yang is that “he is the most disgusting eater of barbecue chicken wings that I have ever witnessed. Seriously. I can make myself throw up just by thinking about it.”
Exeter led to Brown, which led to law school and then to a law firm in New York City. As Yang tells the next chapter, he became disenchanted with the law. His firm, Davis Polk, had become “a temple to the squandering of human potential.” It’s also helpful to note, though, that his next step was to immediately jump into the frothiest startup market in the history of mankind, which was a temple of similar design.
He and a friend from the firm founded a startup called Stargiving.com. An early press release notes that “Stargiving, a high-profile celebrity/charity event platform, enables fans to become everyday philanthropists by allowing internet users to send money from corporate sponsors to charity. At the same time visitors to the site are entered into a raffle to win a unique experience with featured celebrity.”
Despite an early partnership with John Leguizamo, or perhaps because of it, the company went belly-up. Eventually, though, Yang built a test-prep company that he sold to prep giant Kaplan for somewhere in the low tens of millions. The deal made Yang wealthy, but not as wealthy as many believe. His net worth, according to Forbes, is just one-twelfth that of Elizabeth Warren. “Andrew worked his butt off, and that ethic came from his parents’ hustle,” said Nagesh Rao, a friend. “Immigrant families: Everybody’s got to earn their keep.”
After selling to Kaplan, Yang founded an organization called Venture for America that helped entrepreneurs start companies throughout the country—with a special focus on the sorts of places where people don’t start a lot of companies. And this is when, like so many other people in recent years, he came to believe that technology is hollowing out our economy.
Yang’s recent book, The War on Normal People, is a story about the costs of automation and the uneven distribution of wealth in America. At one point, he writes of seeing the country as a place where the most ambitious people all do one of six things (finance, consulting, law, technology, medicine, or academia) in one of six places (New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, LA, or Washington.). And as economic growth centralizes there, it disappears elsewhere. “In places where jobs disappear, society falls apart,” he writes.
This means Yang had a different perspective after Hillary Clinton’s balloon drop at the Javits Center was canceled, and as Trump swaggered toward the White House. He had an instinct that economic change had done this, not Vladimir Putin. Yang started reading the research and talking with people in and around politics. He lived in midtown Manhattan with his wife and two young children, but he worried about the rest of America.
As Yang explained to me in his offices on West 39th street—where he had ridden in on a battered Schwinn bicycle with granny bars and a child seat in the back—the data seemed entirely obvious to him. “If you look at the voter district data, there’s a straight line up between the adoption of industrial robots and the movement toward Trump in each voting area in the Midwest. And so I went through the numbers and said ‘Oh my gosh, this is an economic and automation story.’”
The canonical meeting—at least as the story has solidified—was in early 2017 with Andy Stern, formerly the head of the SEIU, one of the largest labor unions in the country. Stern had written a book arguing that America needed some kind of universal basic income as a way to counter rising income inequality. Yang agreed and told Stern that he’d run for president on that platform if no one else was likely to.
In February 2018, Yang sent an email to the contacts in his Gmail address book. “Hello all, I’m writing with some big news to share—I’m running for president as a Democrat in 2020,” he wrote. He explained his signature policy issues, asked for some help, and signed off “Andrew Yang US Presidential Candidate (D)” and his phone number.
Many recipients were confused, but intrigued. “My jaw dropped,” Rao says. “I chuckled and thought this is pretty darn cool!” Even the people who knew him well enough to get personal calls were surprised. According to Rachel Sheinbein, a San Francisco investor who has known him for years, “when he called me to tell me he was running for president, I couldn’t believe it.” She asked him “president of what?” Other friends, he just forgot to tell. One, Andrew Chau, told me that he had hung out with Yang and only learned the next day that he had declared for the presidency.
“I’m a fairly normal, sane person. And it’s not normal to run for president. So—I’d be surprised if they weren’t surprised,” Yang tells me when I ask about his friends.
But something funny happened when Yang started running: It turned out he was damn good at it. Unlike most humans, fame and cameras seemed to improve him. Unlike most presidential candidates, the book he wrote to launch his campaign was actually interesting. And soon after entering the mix, Yang got a chance to go onto the most important political program in America right now: the Joe Rogan podcast.
The Yang who came across to Rogan and his many millions of listeners, over the course of two hours, was thoughtful, charming, and full of original ideas. Almost immediately, they got to the centerpiece of Yang’s campaign: universal basic income. (Yang freely admits he dubbed it a freedom dividend because it tests better.) The plan calls for every American older than 18 to get a $1,000 check in the mail every month, for life. In theory, the money would help people transition between jobs as the riptides of automation grow stronger.
Rogan loved the idea, and he broke into his affectionate bro-speak after an extended Yang riff on the topic. “Yeah, it does make perfect sense! That’s what’s scary about it. I’m not disagreeing with you in any way, shape, or form. I’m just thinking, man.” Rogan’s listeners loved it too. Wandering through the crowd at MacArthur Park, roughly half of the people I surveyed said that they’d first heard of Yang on that podcast.
And as Yang has hammered home in interviews and on his website, the freedom dividend wouldn’t just help with job transitions. It could also reduce domestic violence, child abuse, and drug overdoses. It could improve mental health and encourage art too; America would have increased entrepreneurship.
One of our interviews was, charmingly, conducted as we played foosball in a boba tea shop near the park where he spoke. As we shot the ball back and forth, he added that the money from freedom dividends would go to day care, car repairs, Little League sign-ups, and nonprofit donations. In fact, the only benefits I have not heard him claim are that it will cure baldness or make your teeth whiter.
Yang’s idea isn’t original. He likes to attribute it to Thomas Paine and Martin Luther King. (Credit could also be given to Richard Nixon and Charles Murray, but those names might not test as well in Iowa.) No matter the origins, universal basic income has started to gain traction in Silicon Valley, in part because that’s the place most attuned to technological disruption, in part because it’s the place most interested in crazy ideas, and in part because, if income disparity leads to revolution, we know whose heads roll off the guillotines first.
After the Rogan interview, Yang went on arch-conservative Ben Shapiro’s show. His Twitter follower count bloomed, and his tweets started getting better. He jumped into Reddit with the handle AndrewyangUBI and explained his policy choices, his strategy, and his favorite condiment (honey mustard).
Eventually, he started giving out actual freedom dividends to actual voters, mostly in the early primary states. At first, he paid them out of his own pocket, and then from the campaign. Critics suggest it’s a violation of campaign finance law, but the Federal Election Commision is staffed by only three commissioners at the moment, and no meeting can take place unless there are four. So there is, quite literally, no one to enforce the law.
Reddit for the most part has loved Yang’s ideas. Economists, though, have been more cautious. There are three critiques of Yang’s freedom dividend, the first of which is that there’s no need for it. As numerous economists have pointed out, there’s limited evidence that technology is actually making jobs disappear.
We have feared the robot displacement since the time cars started replacing the folks who drove the horses and buggies. And so far we’re doing just fine. (As WIRED’s Kevin Kelly argued in 2012, automation tends to unleash a cascade of new jobs for humans.) The current unemployment rate is at historic lows. Productivity growth has been sluggish too, suggesting that hyper-efficient machines haven’t come for all the jobs yet.
The second critique is that, even if job loss accelerates, a freedom dividend isn’t going to be a panacea. Self-driving trucks may eventually dominate the highways, and as Yang points out, trucking is the largest employer in 29 states. But a trucker making $50,000 isn’t going to be thrilled with $12,000. Put another way, the freedom dividend is just too small.
The third critique is that the freedom dividend, is just, well, too big. Say there are roughly 250 million Americans over age 18. Send each of them $12,000 a year, and that’s $3 trillion a year. I asked Austan Goolsbee, the top economic adviser to Barack Obama, what he thought of the cost. “The entire income tax is around $1.5 trillion. The entire [annual] payroll tax, all of FICA, that’s a little over $1 trillion,” Goolsbee responded. In short, as the saying now goes, “an affordable UBI would be inadequate, and an adequate UBI would be unaffordable.”
Goolsbee also doesn’t buy the premise of Yang’s campaign—that automation is responsible for the rise of Trump. Yes, it is true that districts which lost a lot of jobs to automation swung for Trump. But to draw a conclusion from that may be to interpret correlation as causation. “Yes, it’s true that places that had more manufacturing and had more manufacturing job losses voted for Trump,” Goolsbee says. “It’s also true that more rural places voted for Trump, and rural places tend to have more manufacturing.” He adds that Trump also won places with lots of pickup trucks. But that doesn’t mean the president’s best electoral strategy is to ship pickup trucks to blue states.
It may be impossible to run a regression analysis that truly explains why America voted for Trump. This doesn’t really matter to Yang’s argument. Because what he’s actually saying is somewhat simpler: “I care about numbers, and I care about people who don’t watch Rachel Maddow every night.” Maybe he’s wrong about why so many counties in Indiana and Iowa switched from supporting Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. But at least he’s paying attention to those places and trying to win back those voters.