Businessman and presidential candidate Andrew Yang is building his platform around warning that automation and advanced artificial intelligence will soon make millions of jobs obsolete, and he advocates establishing a universal basic income for working-age Americans.
NEW YORK — Among the many Democrats who will seek the party’s presidential nomination in 2020, most probably agree on a handful of core issues: protecting DACA, rejoining the Paris climate agreement, unraveling President Donald Trump’s tax breaks for the wealthy.
Only one of them will be focused on the robot apocalypse.
That candidate is Andrew Yang, a well-connected New York businessman who is mounting a longshot bid for the White House. Yang, a former tech executive who started the nonprofit organization Venture for America, believes that automation and advanced artificial intelligence will soon make millions of jobs obsolete — yours, mine, those of our accountants and radiologists and grocery-store cashiers. He says America needs to take radical steps to prevent Great Depression-level unemployment and a total societal meltdown, including handing out trillions of dollars in cash.
Quote: “All you need is self-driving cars to destabilize society ... That one innovation will be enough to create riots in the street.”
Career: CEO and president of Manhattan GMAT, a test-prep firm sold to Kaplan. Later started Venture for America, an organization that connects recent college graduates with startup businesses.
Family: Married, with two boys
Source: The New York Times
“All you need is self-driving cars to destabilize society,” Yang, 43, said over lunch at a Thai restaurant in Manhattan last month, in his first interview about his campaign. In just a few years, he said, “we’re going to have a million truck drivers out of work who are 94 percent male, with an average level of education of high school or one year of college.”
“That one innovation,” he added, “will be enough to create riots in the street. And we’re about to do the same thing to retail workers, call-center workers, fast-food workers, insurance companies, accounting firms.”
Alarmist? Sure. But Yang’s doomsday prophecy echoes the concerns of a growing number of labor economists and tech experts who are worried about the coming economic consequences of automation. A 2017 report by the consulting firm McKinsey concluded that by 2030 — three presidential terms from now — as many as one-third of U.S. jobs may disappear because of automation. (Other studies have given cheerier forecasts, predicting that new jobs will replace most of the lost ones.)
Perhaps it was inevitable that a tech-skeptic candidate would try to seize the moment. Scrutiny of tech companies like Facebook and Google has increased in recent years, and worries about monopolistic behavior, malicious exploitation of social media and the addictive effects of smartphones have made a once-bulletproof industry politically vulnerable. Even industry insiders have begun to join the backlash.
To fend off the robots, Yang is pushing what he calls a “Freedom Dividend,” a monthly check for $1,000 that would be sent to every American from age 18 to 64, regardless of income or employment status. These payments, he says, would bring all people in the United States up to roughly the poverty line, even if they were directly hit by automation. Medicare and Medicaid would be unaffected under Yang’s plan, but people receiving government benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could choose to continue receiving those benefits or take the $1,000 monthly payments instead.
The Freedom Dividend isn’t a new idea. It’s a rebranding of universal basic income, a policy that has been popular in academic and think-tank circles for decades, was favored by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the economist Milton Friedman, and has more recently caught the eye of Silicon Valley technologists. Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen have all expressed support for the idea of a universal basic income. Y Combinator, the influential startup incubator, is running a basic-income experiment with 3,000 participants in two states.
Despite its popularity among left-leaning academics and executives, universal basic income is a leaderless movement that has yet to break into mainstream politics. Yang thinks he can sell the idea in Washington, D.C., by framing it as a pro-business policy.
“I’m a capitalist,” he said, “and I believe that universal basic income is necessary for capitalism to continue.”
Yang, a married father of two boys, is a fast-talking extrovert who often wears a blazer and jeans without a tie. He keeps a daily journal of things he’s grateful for and peppers conversations with catchphrases like “core competency.” After graduating from Brown University and Columbia Law School, he quit his job at a big law firm and began working in tech.
He ran an internet startup that failed during the first dot-com bust, worked as an executive at a health-care startup and helped build a test-prep business that was acquired by Kaplan in 2009, netting him a modest fortune.
He caught the political bug after starting Venture for America, an organization modeled after Teach for America that connects recent college graduates with startup businesses. During his travels to Midwestern cities, he began to connect the growth of anti-establishment populism with the rise of workplace automation.
“The reason Donald Trump was elected was that we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin,” he said. “If you look at the voter data, it shows that the higher the level of concentration of manufacturing robots in a district, the more that district voted for Trump.”
Yang’s skepticism of technology extends beyond factory robots. In his campaign book, “The War on Normal People,” he writes that he wants to establish a Department of the Attention Economy in order to regulate social-media companies like Facebook and Twitter. He also proposes appointing a Cabinet-level secretary of technology, based in Silicon Valley, to study the effects of emerging technologies.
Critics may dismiss Yang’s campaign (slogan: “Humanity First”) as a futurist vanity stunt. The Democratic pipeline is already stuffed with would-be 2020 contenders, most of whom already have the public profile and political experience Yang lacks — and at least one of whom, Sen. Bernie Sanders, has already hinted at support for a universal basic income.
Opponents of universal basic income have also pointed to its steep price tag — an annual outlay of $12,000 per U.S. adult would cost about $2 trillion, equivalent to roughly half the current federal budget — and the possibility that free money could encourage people not to work. These reasons, among others, are why Hillary Clinton, who considered adding universal basic income to her 2016 platform, concluded it was “exciting but not realistic.”
But Yang thinks he can make the case. He has proposed paying for a basic income with a value-added tax, a consumption-based levy that he says would raise money from companies that profit from automation. A recent study by the Roosevelt Institute, a left-leaning policy think tank, suggested that such a plan, paid for by a progressive tax plan, could grow the economy by more than 2 percent and provide jobs for 1.1 million more people.
“Universal basic income is an old idea,” Yang said, “but it’s an old idea that right now is uniquely relevant because of what we’re experiencing in society.”
Yang’s prominent supporters include Andy Stern, a former leader of Service Employees International Union, who credited him with “opening up a discussion that the country’s afraid to have.” His campaign has also attracted some of Silicon Valley’s elites. Tony Hsieh, the chief executive of Zappos, is an early donor to Yang’s campaign, as are several venture capitalists and high-ranking alumni of Facebook and Google.
Erik Brynjolfsson, the director of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy and an author of “The Second Machine Age,” praised Yang for bringing automation’s economic effects into the conversation.
“This is a serious problem, and it’s going to get a lot worse,” Brynjolfsson said. “In every election for the next 10 or 20 years, this will become a more salient issue, and the candidates who can speak to it effectively will do well.”
Yang knows he could sound the automation alarm without running for president. But he feels a sense of urgency. In his view, there’s no time to mess around with think-tank papers and “super PACs,” because the clock is ticking.
“We have five to 10 years before truckers lose their jobs,” he said, “and all hell breaks loose.”