The Democrats are facing many challenges in 2020, but finding people to run is not one of them. As of April 22, twenty Democrats have tossed their hat in the ring. And the race is already contentious: Joe Biden has been smelling women’s hair, Amy Klobuchar might not be a good boss and “Mayor Pete” is the first unexpected hit. Amongst this sea of candidates is Andrew Yang, a forty-four-year-old former tech executive, who joined the fray on a platform to protect Americans from the effects of automation.
Yang has not been shy about putting forward bold policies, but his candidacy in itself is distinct. Yang’s parents immigrated to America from Taiwan in the 1960s. They met at graduate school and each went on to have successful careers in technology. Yang attended Brown University and then went on to Columbia Law School. On his campaign website, Yang states that he “grew up believing in the American Dream—it’s why my parents came here.” He and his family are uniquely optimistic in this experience of prosperity; only 23 percent of Baby Boomers say that the American Dream was alive for them and only 21 percent of all respondents say that the American Dream will be alive for the next generation. Yang, however, still has faith, and if he were to secure the nomination, he would be the first ever Asian American person to be nominated by a major party.
As a candidate, Yang also has a unique professional background. He recently stepped down as CEO of Venture for America, a company he founded, to run for President. Venture for America, a philanthropic organization, “places top college graduates in startups in low-cost US cities for two years, generating job growth and training the next generation of entrepreneurs.” He has also published two books, the second of which, The War on Normal People, lays out his plan to utilize Universal Basic Income to help Americans, which is essentially the core of his platform. Yang is very much a twenty-first century candidate. He is extremely tech-literate and proposes policies for an automated future that he believes is imminent. Whether or not that makes him seem attractive or ludicrous to voters remains to be seen.
Yang has also shared an element of his personal life that makes him unique: one of his sons was diagnosed with autism. Yang has been outspoken about the need to provide better resources for people with autism and their families. On his website, he writes, “As a country, we should provide ample resources to parents to be able to intervene to support the development of children with autism or who are exceptional in other ways. Many of these children have something unique to offer.” This is a far cry from President Donald Trump’s campaign: in 2016, Rosie O’Donnell re-posted a video claiming that Barron Trump was autistic. First Lady Melania Trump threatened a lawsuit if the video was not removed and insisted that Barron was not autistic. Regardless of whether or not it was true, Melania Trump’s reaction is not a kind one to the autism community. Voters may be excited to have a candidate like Yang who is addressing the concerns of Americans with special needs.
Yang as a candidate stands out from the crowd but his proposed legislation is what really makes him a distinct candidate. He is centering his campaign on a three-pronged policy strategy and he has no time for moderacy or gradualism: each of which would be a significant departure from the status quo. His first policy is arguably his least radical: he supports Medicare for All. Yang considered the Affordable Care Act a step in the right direction but draws on his own personal experience as a CEO to explain why this initiative needs to go further. On his campaign website, he cites a passage from his own book: “Technology that should decrease costs has been kept at the door because for most actors in the system, the goal is to increase revenue and profitability. The more services, tests, appointments, procedures and expensive gadgets you use, the better. The system rewards activity and output over health improvements and outcomes.” Yang carves out a compelling space for himself here as a tech CEO and trained economist who wants to use his expertise to fight for Americans who cannot afford healthcare. This may not be enough to convince those Americans to support Medicare for All; however, a recent poll shows that while 56 percent of Americans initially support Medicare for All, that number drops to 37 percent when they are told taxes would be raised, and decreases even further, to 26 percent, when told wait times at doctors’ offices would increase. Yang, armed with a BA in economics from Brown and a new model based of the highly effective Cleveland Clinic, has an uphill battle here but one that he is equipped to fight.
Yang’s second policy initiative takes a step into the realm of economic philosophy. He is proposing a new type of capitalist theory and has coined the name “Human-Centered Capitalism.” Yang argues that capitalism is still the correct form for the American market—a point that puts him squarely at odds with fellow candidate Bernie Sanders who is polling highly across the board—but that the current form of capitalism prioritizes the dollar, not the human. Yang, not unlike Smith or Marx, even provides three core tenets of Human-Centered Capitalism: “1) Humans are more important than money; 2) The unit of of a Human Capitalism economy is each person, not each dollar; 3) Markets exist to solve our common goals and values.”
This policy has noticeably less data and even less text on Yang’s campaign website. A quick Google search reveals that Yang really is the only person talking about this. As of now, there is no literature, data or theory that supports him—but Yang is certainly one to pick up a pen and write his own book in lieu of corroborating sources. He will have to fight against two centuries of history and a plethora of economic theorists who argue that capitalism, by its very nature, is about money. If anything, it seems as though Yang is proposing something that is certainly not capitalism but that, as a businessman candidate, he is afraid of losing voters who will only vote for a capitalist. The general impression of this policy is that it is purely rhetorical: it will sound good in a speech that Yang is a capitalist who cares, but it seems unlikely that Yang will be changing up the very premise of American capitalism by 2020.
Yang’s third policy initiative is the keystone of his campaign: he is proposing a Universal Basic Income, or UBI. A UBI, as Yang envisions it, is that every single American citizen over the age of eighteen will receive $1,000 a month, every month. Yang’s explanation of the UBI paints a grim picture for the future of the United States: “By 2015, automation had already destroyed four million manufacturing jobs, and the smartest people in the world now predict that a third of all working Americans will lose their job to automation in the next twelve years. Our current policies are not equipped to handle this crisis. Even our most forward-thinking politicians are unprepared.” And Yang has a plan to get ahold of the billions of dollars that it would take for implement a UBI. He suggests that the United States pull the money from four places: 1) shifting money away from current welfare programs; 2) implementing a Value-Added Tax of 10 percent, which is a consumption tax where tax is added at each stage of production where the value of the product increases; 3) using the new revenue generated by UBI; and 4) eventually cutting funding from prisons, homeless shelters and health care centers because they will be less needed when everyone is able to financially care for themselves. Yang is clearly sold on the merits of UBI but understands that the American public may need convincing. On his campaign site, he lists the 461 research papers that have been written about UBI; the projects that he highlights include the “Mincome” experiment, an experiment completed forty years ago in which people of a rural Canadian town were all given a basic income, which resulted in less hospitalization; and the BIG pilot program, which gave a basic income to a Namibian village resulting in improved health and reduced crime. Yang doesn’t simply want to ameliorate Americans’ financial situations—he wants to save our minds. One of his favorite studies to cite is a Princeton survey that found that persistent financial insecurity lowers a person’s IQ by thirteen points. If these sources aren’t enough to convince voters, on his campaign site, Yang has anticipated twenty-plus questions that a voter may ask, ranging from “Isn’t this Communism?” to “I don’t see robots. Isn’t this early?” and provided answers.
While Yang and his staff do a thorough job at explaining a future with UBI, there is much to be understood about the past of UBI, which is extensive and spans several countries and centuries. The idea first originated in England as the product of humanists Thomas More and Johannes Vives’s collective musings when they realized that society would not provide a basic standard of living for everyone and that some people would be living in desperate poverty. Vives even developed a plan for a basic income that was implemented in the Flemish municipality of Ypres, but most of this work goes unremembered by history. Other advocates of UBI include Thomas Paine, Napoleon and Martin Luther King Jr., so Yang is in good company. The last politician to seriously take up the cause in the United States was Huey Long, a populist senator from Louisiana who rose to prominence during the Great Depression; he proposed a basic income of $2,000. Today, that amount would be about $37,000. While UBI has a significant amount of famous supporters, it has yet to ever come close to being implemented. Yang believes that at this critical juncture of technology advancement, when thirty-six million American jobs are at risk of automation, people may begin to seriously consider UBI as a viable and even critical policy.
This is because, while UBI certainly has its merits, it doesn’t seem all that feasible. Simply from a logic perspective, any plan that requires its own success to access its benefits seems problematic: a significant part of the funding for the UBI comes from the revenue that will be supposedly generated by UBI, as well as from the programs that the United States will be able to cut because of UBI. If UBI isn’t a fairly immediate success, it will not be able to continue. And while Yang is able to provide sources that point to the fact that UBI will be successful, other ongoing studies involving UBI have yet to find any promising results. In Finland, a research agency began paying workers and non-workers between 550–700 euros a month. The government, however, quickly grew critical of the program and cut funding to the people who were employed, defeating the purpose of the experiment and demonstrating that it may be difficult to remain committed to the program. Moreover, the National Bureau of Economic Research just published a paper stating that current plans for UBI are still too vague and underdeveloped to actually achieve any of the proposed benefits and that we are still a long way away from developing a successful UBI program. However, it is certainly too soon to draw any definitive conclusions from this research, and most economic scholars seem to think that while finding a working UBI would be a challenge, it would still be worth the endeavor.
Yang’s campaign, with UBI as its keystone, has yet to garner any significant attention in the 2020 Presidential Race. He is a businessman-turned-politician, which is not something Democrats are feeling great about since Trump, another businessman-turned-politician, took the White House; Yang has had to take a defensive stance in attempting to separate his story from Trump's. Moreover, while Yang claims to not ascribe to the traditional capitalist/socialist dichotomy in the United States, a lot of people still see him as a socialist; to combat this, he has re-named his UBI plan as “the freedom dividend.” Strangely enough, Richard Spencer, a prominent white nationalist, has tweeted his support for Yang; Yang has firmly separated himself from his fringe white-nationalist support, but Democrats are much less likely to find his campaign appealing if they know that white supremacists share their interests. The support from Spencer could certainly turn into a larger issue if Yang garners more attention, but currently, Yang’s biggest issue is the latest polls that show that he does not have much popularity or name recognition. His greatest supporters are millennials and Asian and Hispanic voters; there is a path to victory for Yang but currently, he is quite the longshot.
Yang is an example of a candidate who may not have the poll numbers but who does have the potential. Crucially, he knows how to win over the Internet: he has amassed a significant following on Facebook and on Reddit, prompting the New York Times to dub Yang a “meme-worthy candidate.” As America learned in 2016 with the Sanders campaign, if a candidate can win over the Internet, he or she will enjoy near limitless free promotion and enthusiasm from millennials, a notoriously un-interested group of voters. In addition to potential, Yang has also demonstrated his commitment to this race. He is headed to Iowa, where he will personally implement the freedom dividend for one family, giving them $1,000 a month for the next month to see how it may change their lives. He recently did the same for a family in New Hampshire. In Iowa, where Yang has been polling at a dismal 1 percent, becoming a Yang supporter is, if nothing else, essentially buying a lottery ticket for $12,000.
Yang is approaching the Presidential race with creativity, ingenuity and no intention to stay within the lines. That alone merits America’s attention; while 2016 was filled with cries to “Drain the Swamp” that led to very little actual change in America’s political landscape, Yang has put time and effort into thoughtful and effective ways to shake up the system. While it isn’t likely that President Yang will step into the Oval Office in 2020, he is certainly a candidate to watch and the race for the Democratic Primary will be more interesting with Yang as a part of it.
Lucy Ritzmann is a first year prospective Political Science major interested in political media and law. Last summer, she interned at the Manhattan Borough President's Office. For winter quarter, she is a Fellow's Ambassador at the IOP. In her free time, she enjoys being with her friends and zumba.