Tech entrepreneur and nonprofit aficionado Andrew Yang is by far the most interesting presidential candidate of recent memory—and there is not even a close second. After the two minutes of speaking time granted him at the Democratic primary debates in June—less than any other candidate (rumor has it his mic was cut)—Yang gained over 100,000 new Twitter followers within twenty-four hours. He is already on the verge of qualifying for the September/October debates alongside the final selection of candidates. But, despite his surging popularity and his lofty campaign promise to allocate $1,000 dollars a month to every American adult, to mitigate the impact of automation, not many people actually know what the man whose campaign slogan is simply MATH (Make America Think Harder) is really about. One good place to start is the book that launched his bid for the presidency: The War on Normal People.
“I am writing you from inside the tech bubble to let you know that we are coming for your jobs,” the book begins, setting the tone of stark realism that pervades it from start to finish. The title refers to what Yang calls the great displacement: impending job losses due to automation and artificial intelligence. From 2000 to 2016, America automated away around four million manufacturing jobs— predominantly in the swing states that Donald Trump won in 2016—and, if the projections are even remotely accurate, many other job sectors are going to be swallowed up shortly: including the transportation, retail, call center, food service and even clerical and administrative sectors. A report published during Obama’s final days in office predicted that 83% of jobs in which people make $20 dollars or less an hour will be subject to automation, and top financial institutions, such as Bain Capital and McKinsey, are predicting that around 20–30% of the total job market will disappear due to the development of autonomous technologies. All this, Yang contends, amounts to a war on normal people, and it’s high time normal people started fighting back.
The book tells the story of a country in decline: civic engagement is at an all time low; there is less trust in our institutions than ever before; our society is becoming increasingly politically and culturally polarized; there is a dearth of social capital in our urban centers and rural communities; and all these developments are being accelerated by our increasingly technologized economy, which is reducing main street business through e-commerce and in-store self-service. The US labor participation rate currently stands at a meager 62.9%, below that of nearly all other industrialized economies, and wealth inequality has skyrocketed to the point at which the highest earners have become socially and geographically separated from average citizens. Drug overdoses have overtaken car accidents as the most likely preventable cause of death, and suicide has risen so sharply that it has lowered national life expectancy. These problems will likely be exacerbated even further by the coming automation wave. We need to do something, Yang insists, and we need to act fast.
If the first part of the book is dedicated to diagnosing what Yang sees as the sources of the problem— automation, AI, special interests and social and economic inequality—the second is dedicated to seeking solutions. In addition to his headline policy of universal basic income, Yang suggests shifting from a collective mindset of scarcity to one of abundance, by creating a more human-centered capitalism. He puts forth a set of eclectic policy ideas that would help reorient the economy towards the development of human capital, in order to bring about a more unified nation, in which we are all playing for the same team. These suggestions include re-modulating our measurement of GDP to reflect how people are actually doing (using measures of self-reported happiness, physical and mental health, community development, etc.), and instituting a local digital currency in the more impoverished parts of the country, to stimulate their main street economies. Some might find Yang’s diagnosis more compelling than his cures, but clearly he has been thinking deeply about these problems. He neither clings to an idealized past nor dredges up historic grievances. He actually cares. That is a rare quality in a presidential candidate in these not so united United States.
But not everyone has taken kindly to Yang. Progressives find Universal Basic Income, which will be funded, in part, by a 10% VAT, unnecessarily universal and claim that it allocates fewer resources to the people who need them most—since it provides a universal social safety net, the cost of which is born by the middle class. Many libertarians critique his interventionism as too bureaucratic. And conservatives reject his lack of faith in free market principles and his emphasis on entitlements over responsibilities. But if there is something about Yang for people of every ideological stamp to hate, there is also something for them to love. He enjoys a lot of grassroots support as the only truly centrist Democratic candidate—a man willing to make difficult trade-offs, without betraying his most heartfelt convictions. Progressives appreciate his focus on climate change and his recognition that—despite the value of markets—capitalism simply does not work for everyone. Libertarians share his distrust of top-down government policy (Yang advocates a “trickle-up economy: from our families and communities up”) and his criticisms of the welfare state. Conservatives respect his emphasis on traditional values and his business-savvy approach to public policy. Yang takes the best that each worldview has to offer—without descending into partisan hackery.
Some might suspect that Yang’s analysis of the US situation is unnecessarily grim in order to justify his candidacy. If things are so bad, why does the economy seem to be doing so well under the Trump presidency and why aren’t we seeing the impact of automation more directly? Before taking office, Trump’s portrayal of the economy was pessimistic, but, now that it benefits his image, he has been touting America’s economic growth. He was right the first time. Yang describes the economy using the proverb of the elephant and the blind men. For someone in rural Alabama, the economy probably seems to have been on a downslide for a long time; while to someone in a thriving urban business district, such as Burlington, Vermont, the economy is on the up and up. Both are right—and both are wrong—but the distance between their two worlds has been increasing dramatically and that is the central problem Yang intends to address.
There is a similar dynamic at play with automation. If you work in a supermarket and get replaced by a self-service checkout; or at a plant where a new machine has been introduced that can do your job ten times faster than you can; or are a truck driver who has just discovered that, within a year, self-driving cars will render your service costly and redundant; the automation wave will feel all too real to you. The rest of us probably won’t even notice these changes because we don’t know what they look like in practice. They will be invisible to us—just as the disappearance of four million manufacturing jobs was invisible to everyone except those who worked in manufacturing. The economy is far too diverse to be summarized in a single statement and I’m inclined to trust Yang’s data more than the typical assessments of GDP and employment rates.
I favor Andrew Yang because I’m tired of the current toxic and divisive cultural discourse, which very few public figures seem willing to defy (plus it’s pretty cool to have a presidential candidate retweet your work). After writing favorably about him in Quillette a few months back, I’ve heard an abundance of criticism of the Yang gang. Much of this criticism has confirmed for me how important it is to have Yang in the 2020 race. He enjoys considerable support across political dividing lines—a fact that makes me optimistic (though some pointed conservative criticisms of Yang’s policies are well taken). We are living through a critical moment. We all feel it—though with varying intensity—and the choices we make now in terms of how we see ourselves and what values we champion are going to impact society for years to come. We are unlikely to make America great again anytime soon, nor are we going to be living in a multicultural Social Justice utopia in the near future. If our two opposing political factions continue to move further apart, it could rip the country in two. We need to find a way to reconcile this conflict of political visions by emphasizing the merits of each position: both the conservative wish to preserve tradition and the progressive wish to make the changes that will keep us on the right side of history. It’s a tall order, but we’ve achieved the seemingly impossible in the past. I see no reason to believe this challenge is any more insuperable.