I first stumbled upon Andrew Yang after reading his essay on video games and the meaning of life. I was more than shocked to find at the bottom of the page that the author was running for president in 2020. After descending down the Yang rabbit hole, I wrote a number of articles in defense of Andrew Yang and his central policy of Universal Basic Income ($1000 a month per American adult) — utterly enthralled at the prospect of having a candidate who is willing to approach complex problems with nuanced and fact-based solutions. Although it is still well within reach for Andrew Yang to become the president of the United States, I believe the ripple effect of his candidacy will continue to reverberate in the mainstream whether or not he finds his way into the Oval Office. There is sufficient reason to be hopeful.
Andrew Yang’s pitch to America is simple: We are in the midst of the greatest technological and economic transformation in history, and the only way to adapt to the tectonic unfolding shifts is to construct a human-centered capitalism from the ground up.
We are in the third inning of what Yang calls “The Great Displacement.” Between 2000 and 2015, America automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs (four times the amount lost to globalization), many of which were in swing states Donald Trump won in the 2016 election. Many more jobs are projected to disappear in the transportation, retail, call center, food service, and even clerical and administrative sectors due to the ongoing advances in autonomous technologies. A report published during Obama’s final days in office predicted that 83 percent of jobs where people make less than $20 an hour will be subject to automation or replacement in the near future, and between 2.2 and 3.1 million driving jobs in the US will be eliminated by the advent of self-driving vehicles.
His approach would incorporate the implementation of UBI, along with a broad-based remodulation of the incentive structures that run our economy. Yang has almost 100 specific policies listed on his website, but the crux of his platform involves developing ways to adjust to the transforming job market and reinvigorating our collective sense of purpose amidst these immense changes.
To draw a quote from my own self, here is a breakdown of our predicament: “To add insult to injury, the American economy is less dynamic than ever before. The job participation rate is at 62.9 percent today, below nearly all other industrialized economies. People are less and less inclined to start a business, with 100,000 fewer businesses sprouting up per year than was the rate just 12 years ago. Furthermore, 59 percent of American counties watched more businesses close than open between 2010 and 2014. Americans move from state to state and change jobs at lower rates than at any point in the last few decades. A Bankrate surveyconducted in 2017 found that 57 percent of Americans don’t have enough savings to pay an unexpected bill of 500 dollars. Meanwhile, drug overdoses have risen above car accidents as the most likely accidental cause of death for Americans, and suicidehas risen so sharply that it has actually lowered the national life expectancy rate. The decay and despair is palpable to anyone who walks around an American city not handsomely nestled in a coastal bubble.”
Universal Basic Income is a compromise between liberal and conservative sensibilities. Conservatives like the fact that UBI is a market savvy policy, encouraging an accelerated form of Capitalism where income doesn’t start at zero — but are skeptical of the idea that monetary dispensation will solve the problems of individual and community development of itself. Liberals like the fact that poor people will have access to greater resources, a more compassionate form of Capitalism — but are suspicious of the idea that everyone will receive the money including people who don’t necessarily need it.
Many people wonder why we can’t simply have a cut-off of $100,000 a year or so, allowing only people on the lower end of the economic bracket to receive basic income. But the reason that $1,000 a month has to go to everyone is a matter of principle. For one, we don’t want to treat people like victims and incentivize helplessness even in a subconscious way. And secondly, people will invariably abuse the cut-off rule and hide money because even someone making over $100,000 a year could use an extra $12,000. Third, we can afford to a universal basic income if we implement a Value Added Tax , so we might as well avoid any funny business that might go against the fundamental purpose of basic income: to induce the national feeling that we are all on the same team.
One of the policies I find most interesting that Andrew Yang has proposed is his idea of a digital social currency. He explains in a recent interview, “Digital social currency, in its simplest form, would be that the federal government goes into a particular region—let’s call it Mississippi—and then says, there are some social problems here, Mississippi, that we might be able to help address. Like, maybe child obesity…or educational outcomes… Then, the government comes in and says, organizations that are doing work in those areas, we’re now going to put the equivalent of the financial incentive in place for people and companies who help meet certain goals. And here’s how you can help measure their work and participation.
If someone were to…spend lots of time tutoring kids—that might help with educational outcomes—then, if they document what they were doing, and there’s a local nonprofit that says, yes, they did tutor these kids for X hours, then they could get this social credit that they could then exchange for dollars if they chose. But there would be other ways for them to get rewarded that didn’t involve just running to the bank to cash [the social credits] in for dollars. You could use your social credits to get experiences or discounts at certain vendors or trade them with others.
Then, let’s imagine that that’s successful and then over time that improves educational outcomes in Mississippi, then you put social credits to work for other various goals. And then, over time, you end up building a fairly robust set of opportunities for people.
The social credit system would be something that would be very easy to implement in various regions and communities. If you think about it, we already have 15 or so currencies that we’re already dealing with. There’s cash, but then we also have credit cards, and then our points, and then a punch card from the deli, and then your Airbnb credits… We all have myriad currencies that we’re currently using. So, this would be another way for us to be able to push people to work that drives social goals that right now we know we need more of but that the monetary market would not currently reward.”
Even if Andrew doesn’t make it to the White House, his ideas will live on and become increasingly urgent over a long enough time scale. With the invent of autonomous technologies and the hyper-specialization of the job market, it will become necessary to reassess our collective relationship with work. People need jobs more than jobs need people, and in the absence of work we will have to derive meaning through other modalities. We need to find ways to keep people engaged in their community, feeling like we are contributing to something greater, without presuming they have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. We also can’t fall into the trap of having government hand-outs act as the centerpiece of our lives. The failure of Welfare is that it rewards failure and punishes success, and UBI has to avoid those same pitfalls — incentivizing productive engagement without letting millions of people fall by the wayside. That might seem almost impossible, but the attainment of the unattainable has been the benchmark of the country’s character.
The future is in our hands.