If you’re a close follower of the political world and haven’t heard of Andrew Yang, the chances are you will at some point during Democratic primary. Yang is an underdog candidate running for President as a Democrat, but he’s gained niche attention in the online wonk space for his unique campaign centered around advocating for a Universal Basic Income (UBI). He’s done interviews with The Atlantic, TIME magazine, Vox, and more. Yang’s background is in the world of startups, and he is essentially the venture-capital futurist tech guy candidate for president.
Most of the attention Yang has gotten has been quite positive and credulous, focusing on his proposals for UBI and his futuristic appeal. In this piece, I intend to cast a more critical eye towards Yang. This is not out of animosity, but because every candidate deserves the respect of having their positions seriously examined from an honest and critical angle — and I don’t see that any major media outlet has given Andrew Yang this respect yet. Yang has been getting more and more mainstream attention, and is now a big enough deal that he deserves the respect of serious criticism.
Most of this piece will highlight the non-UBI areas of policy on his website. Outside of UBI, Yang has many policy positions that are alternately bizarre, likely unconstitutional, or incredibly destructive. They reveal a candidate who is prone to lazy thinking, who prefers marketing flash and consultant-style quick fixes to the hard work of finding actual solutions, and who ultimately is not ready to be president.
Consultant-ize The Government
One major problem that shows itself again and again as you meander through Yang’s policies is that Yang has a habit of thinking like a stereotypical consultant or venture capitalist. This habit manifests in two ways: a predilection towards simplified solutions/marketing flash over substance, and the assumption that government is actually really easy, if only you had the smart Silicon Valley tech guys and consultants running things. This habit will appear over and over, in a number of Yang’s proposals.
#1: Yang says that he would “Hire a management consulting firm to identify areas of inefficiency in the federal workforce” and cut 15–20% of current government workers. This scale of cuts is beyond the dreams of even the most slash-and-burn Republicans, and is incredibly short-sighted. Far from being bloated, federal government employment is nearing 40 year lows (and that’s total workers, not even federal workers per capita!). If anything, the federal government is actually critically understaffed from years of GOP driven cuts — see how the gutted State Department is unable perform many basic diplomatic functions, or how agencies as diverse as the DOD, the SEC, AbilityOne Commission and the NLRB are all woefully in need of workers.
Yang explicitly makes a comparison with the size of Apple, Google, etc, and the federal government, claiming that
If the top four tech companies can do as much as they do with fewer than 1 million workers, the federal government can find ways to do more with less.
Perhaps that sounds reasonable, if you’ve never taken even a few minutes to think about how the government is at least an order of magnitude larger and more complex than Facebook. The unspoken assumption is that if only the smart venture capital consultants ran the show, the idiots running various departments could finally be brought to task and shown how things should be done. It’s the height of shallow, consultant-esque thinking.
As an aside, this 15–20% cut also appears to be completely incompatible with the rest of Yang’s proposals. Almost all Yang’s proposals involve expanding government in ways both massive (Medicare for All) and small (creating large numbers of new departments like the “Department of the Attention Economy”).
#2: Yang has proposed that all laws passed by Congress must come with sunset provisions, and would need ‘KPIs’ or key performance indicators to measure their success. One of these ideas is merely silly, while the other may be the most dangerous thing any presidential candidate has proposed in decades.
The bit about KPIs being included with every law is another instance of lazy consultant-style thinking. Why are so many laws ineffective? It must be because nobody bothered to include KPIs. If only consultants were in charge and we thought to measure our results, we’d pass better laws! This bit of silliness wouldn’t actually hurt anything, but it’s indicative of Yang’s ignorance of policy making. The people who craft policy already think very deeply about outcomes and ‘KPIs’, and including them in the language of a bill itself won’t do anything to change how Congress operates. Laws are sometimes ineffective because making good policy can be really difficult and politics often makes first-best solutions impossible, not because bureaucrats are ignorant of the idea that they should measure their outcomes.
The mandatory sunset provisions idea is far more dangerous. Yang’s website says he will
Push for a Constitutional Amendment calling for an automatic sunset period for laws as they’re enacted, which will remove those laws barring Congressional evaluation and renewal.
Yang again identifies a problem — the US system of laws is very large and unwieldy. Again his solution is something that makes sense after about 5 minutes of thought, but not on any level deeper than that.
Let’s be clear about the political reality in play here. Congress is currently a dysfunctional disaster. It does not actually function in any meaningful way most of the time. As a nation, we can’t even stop the government from routinely shutting down due to lack of funding. We can barely manage to avoid defaulting on our debt, not because we lack the ability to pay but because Congress lacks the competence to push the ‘pay bill’ button without threatening to self-destruct. What serious person could see this institution and think that every single piece of legal code should be subject to the same brinksmanship? It’s an absurd conclusion and would lead to near-permanent crisis and dysfunction. Imagine a world where Ted Cruz could hold Social Security hostage every 10 years simply because he’s an ass. Imagine a world where the structure of the Federal Reserve could get regularly hijacked by Ron Paul. Imagine a world where the Freedom Caucus can simply wait for all climate legislation to delete itself and then refuse to reauthorize it. If you’ve been remotely paying attention to Congress for the last decade, you should not have any confidence that disaster could be averted. When you structure your institutions in a way that constantly threatens disaster, disasters will inevitably follow. If you put brinksmanship into every political fight, we will eventually fall off that cliff.
This is another instance of lazy, shallow thinking. Yang provides a gimmicky solution to an incredibly complex problem, seemingly without any understanding of the incredibly dangerous effects it would have.
#3: Yang seems to have an obsession with AI and wants to apply it to everything. AI life coaches with Oprah’s voice to help your marriage or help raise your kids! AI tele-counseling! AI financial advisers! AI for social workers!
There’s not any detail about how this would be accomplished or what it would actually mean. Frankly, it isn’t obvious that Yang even understands in much depth what AI actually is. Maybe he does, but there’s no way to tell that here. How would ‘AI’ apply to these areas? Who’s building all this AI? It certainly doesn’t exist right now, and the government just made drastic 15–20% cuts so they’re short-staffed and can’t do it. How exactly are we going to solve a social worker’s daily issues with AI? How is AI tele-counseling going to actually help people (especially when the benefits of human tele-counseling seem to be unproven)? How’s it going to save your marriage?
It seems like yet another instance of consultant style-over-substance policy. The primary intention seems to be to signal ‘All our problems can be solved with cool technology, trust me’. There’s a flashy solution with a cool tech buzz, and Yang throws it into his policy platform without seeming to have given any of the details much thought.
#4: Yang also proposes creating the ‘Legion of Builders and Destroyers’ (that’s the actual proposed name) which perhaps best encapsulates Yang’s penchant for both buzzwordy consultant style marketing and failing to think through the consequences of policy.
Rechannel 10% of the military budget — approximately $60 billion per year — to a new domestic infrastructure force called the Legion of Builders and Destroyers… The Commander of the Legion would have the ability to overrule local regulations and ordinances to ensure that projects are started and completed promptly and effectively.
One can choose to read the Legion in a charitable or in an uncharitable way. Charitably, this is simply the Army Corps of Engineers with ridiculous branding straight out of a tech-bro fan-fiction, and the clause at the end about overruling local laws isn’t serious. It’d be like if you proposed a ‘Department of Incredible Nuclear Power Force’ and pretended the Department of Energy didn’t already exist.
Uncharitably, we can assume Yang is serious about the Legion having the power to preempt laws, in which case this policy is incredibly dangerous (never mind that its constitutionality is extremely questionable). To be clear about what Yang is proposing: This appears to be a new military branch answerable only to the president, with an ‘independent source of funding’ that cannot be cut off by Congress, with the power to completely overrule local and state laws as they see fit. I’m not sure if Yang has made this leap, but what is the conceptual difference between “an executive who controls an independent military force that can ignore Congress and also local laws” and “a dictator”? What happens when someone like, say, Donald Trump gets his hands on such a military force? Imagine the politician you dislike most — would you trust them to only use this power for nice, positive infrastructure projects? Or would you suspect that in an era where Congress can’t get anything done, this would immediately become a tool for dangerous executive power grabs?
Simple Solutions to Hard Problems
The four proposals above highlight the central themes of Andrew Yang’s style of policy
- Find a perceived issue with the federal government.
- Spend a few minutes thinking like a venture capitalist or a consultant, come up with brilliantly simple solution, often with some snazzy branding.
- Never consider potential downsides or reasons why the problem is not simple as you think.
Too much bureaucracy? Get some consultants and cut 20%! Too many old confusing laws? Just put a self-destruct button on every law! Real world is tough for counselors, parents and social workers? We’ll give everyone AI to fix things! It’s hard to build housing and infrastructure because of NIMBYs? Just let the military bulldoze local laws! Yang seems to treat every policy question as something that can be worked out by a clever tech entrepreneur in a 10-minute TED Talk.
When pushed gently by Vox’s Dylan Matthews about some of his wildest proposals, Yang tends to downplay concerns or retreat. Asked about cutting 20% of the federal workforce, Yang says
I’m not arguing that too many people work for the federal government writ large. We should hire many thousands of people for public works projects… but that does not mean you would not also want to scrutinize the organization that you currently have.”
It’s odd for a candidate openly proposing to cut 15–20% of the government work force to immediately backpedal to “I’m not arguing that too many people work for the federal government”. What else could he possibly be arguing?
Asked about the Legion of Builders and Destroyers, Yang says
Obviously, there would still be a need for some kind of consensus and agreement. You wouldn’t have some autocrat making decisions that would end up doing something that would be inefficient or negative for a given community at a high level.
This reads like saying “I promise I’ll only use this power to crush local laws in the good ways”.
These answers force me to conclude that Yang has not thought these ideas through at all. They amount to a claim of “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine! Trust me!” There’s no evidence Yang has seriously considered that there are potentially massive flaws in his policies, or thought of meaningful ways to address the downsides.
This pattern continues throughout his policy page. In the interest of space and time we can’t cover everything, but the general pattern should be familiar to you by now for a few more policies below:
- Fake news is a problem. Therefore we should create a federal News and Information Ombudsman who will decide which news is acceptable and what is not (never mind the First Amendment concerns that immediately come to mind).
- Smartphones are potentially harmful to children. Therefore we should create a federal Department of the Attention Economy that will regulate smartphone apps and all social media (never mind whether children are actually in danger or whether this would actually help anything).
- Corporations often behave badly. Therefore we should automatically jail the largest shareholder of any corporation that receives a large fine (never mind that Vanguard, etc. are almost always the largest shareholders, and that the largest individual shareholder may only own 2% of a company and have no say in decision making).
What about Universal Basic Income?
Despite these bizarre policy proposals, is it worth listening to Yang on Universal Basic Income? Yes and no. While UBI is an idea worth considering, Yang’s case for it is often confused and overstated, with a characteristic lack of attention to detail.
For instance, Yang cites a Roosevelt Institute study which claims that a $1,000/month UBI would grow GDP by 12–13%. Unfortunately for Yang, he would pay for his UBI by replacing current programs and raising new taxes, not by increasing the debt. Halfway down the first page of the Roosevelt Institute study, the authors explicitly state “When paying for UBI by increasing taxes on households, the Levy model forecasts no effect on the economy” (the 12–13% growth estimate only applies if you use pure deficit spending to finance the UBI). According to his own sources, Yang cannot make the claims he is making, but it’s unclear if he’s read the research in any detail.
In addition, Roosevelt’s model relies on the assumptions that
- The economy is currently operating far under capacity
- A $12,000 per year stipend would not cause people to work less
- Increasing taxes does not change household behavior
These assumptions are questionable to varying degrees. The economy is currently experiencing very low unemployment, and while Labor Force Participation is still down from pre-recession levels, it’s not clear if it’s possible to gain all of that participation back. There’s evidence that small UBIs such as the Alaska Permanent Fund do not significantly reduce employment levels, but it’s not clear if that would remain the case with a $12,000 UBI going to hundreds of millions of people (Yang’s proposal would be several orders of magnitude larger in scope than the APF).
Yang’s case for a UBI is also predicated on the idea that technological unemployment is coming for us. In most interviews, Yang paints a very bleak picture where millions of jobs will be rapidly automated and the scores of average people will be left unemployed and destitute by the advance of automation. Economists are generally highly skeptical that advances in technology and automation cause unemployment to rise (although it’s acknowledged as a factor in wage stagnation). Despite increasing levels of automation in most sectors in the US, unemployment is historically low and wages have been growing at a healthy rate in the last few years. There’s little evidence for the case that robots are coming for our jobs. Economist Robert Solow once joked, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” Similarly, one can see automation everywhere but in the unemployment statistics.
This is not to denigrate the concept of Universal Basic Income. UBI is an idea worth exploring, and it has many attractive features. Directly giving people money does improve their lives. UBI may lead to fewer perverse incentives such as welfare traps. UBI is less paternalistic than modern welfare programs, treats the poor as capable of determining where best to spend their money, and has an elegant simplicity as a direct way to ensure a minimum standard of living. There’s a reason why such a broad range of people are interested — from today’s progressives to past neoliberal economists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. Yang deserves credit for thinking big and promoting UBI in a very effective way, but his actual case for UBI is not the strongest or most factually sound argument.
Is Andrew Yang worth supporting?
This piece has been quite critical of Yang, so I’d like to take the time to review what’s good about him. Andrew Yang seems to be truly concerned with helping the average American, and the secondhand accounts I’ve heard paint him as a genuinely good person. He’s willing to advocate for big ideas, and to put himself out into the public sphere and take criticism. He doesn’t seem to duck questions — it’s not his fault that few reporters have bothered to read his entire policy page yet or ask him questions about it. And many of his policies are quite positive and would do a great deal of good — he supports Medicare for All, a carbon tax and dividend, and automatic filing of income taxes, among other positive policies. But in general what’s good is not unique, and what’s unique is not good.
Yang’s presidential campaign rests on his reputation as a futurist and a venture capital tech guy with new solutions to old problems. Unfortunately, many of Yang’s solutions are poorly designed in the extreme. The primary issue isn’t just that Yang has a number of really bad policies, though he does. The primary issue is that the bad policies show that Yang doesn’t actually think very deeply about the solutions he’s proposing, and doesn’t understand some of the basics of how our political system actually functions. His preferred policies show a bias towards oversimplified consultant-style solutions, and are often ignorant of the complexity and nuance required to manage the federal government.
You can’t just solve bureaucracy by mandating 20% cuts. You can’t just say AI is the solution to a half-dozen types of societal problems. You can’t create a military service with unchecked power and not damage our political institutions. You can’t introduce brinksmanship into every single law without falling off the brink. These simple solutions to complex problems don’t work, and they have obvious and massive flaws. It’s unfortunately a sign of shallow thinking that Yang seems to be either unaware of or unconcerned by these flaws.
Andrew Yang is a fascinating candidate who has greatly increased the visibility of UBI, and for that reason he may end up having a positive impact on politics. But too many of his ideas are poorly thought out, and would be incredibly destructive if implemented. In 2016 the US elected an outsider businessman who insisted he was smarter than all the politicians, who appeared to have crazy ideas and very little understanding of how the government actually worked, who promised to disrupt the established order with his very good brain. It would be ignorant in the extreme to do so a second time. Yang is not morally foul in the same way Donald Trump is, but he shares the same hubris of neglecting to understand the political system he wants to revolutionize, and because of that Yang should not be considered for president.