Andrew Yang ran for the US Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, and here he lays out part of his platform: Only a universal basic income can save America.
A CEO, a co-founder and an executive of numerous technology and education companies, Andrew Yang has attended elite colleges, held high-ranking positions and even competed for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 US presidential race. But he is not impressed with himself. As Yang tells it, his skill at taking standardized tests led to his Ivy League pedigree. In this engaging book – a cut above the usual political fodder – he describes an increasingly Darwinian economy that, he says, demands a universal basic income (UBI) for all Americans. Yang offers here, in more detail than he communicated as a minor candidate in the presidential race, a bestselling vision that just might win him new supporters.
Yang, though clearly mad as hell and not willing to take it anymore, offers an opposite book – not a contrarian book, since that suggests a specific political stance. Yang’s opposite book – or book of opposition, if you prefer – is unlike any current business or economic philosophy that CEOs either write or read with pleasure.
Most executives rave about the market potential for artificial intelligence; Yang describes AI as essentially a doomsday for millions of working-class Americans. Most leaders embrace big tech with joy; Yang sees it primarily as a vehicle that ensures a brutal class divide, with no dividends for those on the wrong side. The oft-uttered trope that the United States is a meritocracy? Don’t make Yang laugh: He makes a compelling case that the myth of meritocracy keeps most Americans in low-end jobs while letting their exploiters pat themselves on the back for their achievements.
This is not a screed, however. Yang offers rational evidence for his views, which clearly spring from his keen analytical mind and not from his emotions, though his writing is profoundly heartfelt.
Yang has grave fears about automation’s impacts. He argues that Silicon Valley and Wall Street boom at the expense of the rest of the US economy. Most tech start-ups, he insists, pursue business models that will automate workers out of their jobs. Yang argues that white-collar employment is also under threat.
I am writing from inside the tech bubble to let you know that we are coming for your jobs.Andrew Yang
Only the federal government, he believes, can address and carry out the necessary economic restructuring. Otherwise, he fears that Americans could end up competing for basic resources.
Lang laments that nobody is taking the leadership or policy reins of the frayed American economy. He cites his parents, who, in the 1970s, held stable positions at large companies that provided generous pensions. At that time, one-fifth of US workers belonged to unions. Now, private sector pensions are extinct, unions are toothless and a handful of giant banks dominate the financial system.
Yang cites the statistic that fewer than half of the Americans born in 1990 can expect to make more money than their parents. By 2016, he notes with outrage, CEOs outearned their workers by 271 to 1. Corporate executives don’t care about workers or communities – only shareholders.
Yang understands that most Americans live paycheck to paycheck, with no cushion if automation fuels massive lay-offs. He offers an alarming list of low-wage Americans jobs: Some 8.8 million people work in retail sales for $11 an hour; 2.5 million customer service representatives earn $15.53 an hour; and unskilled food service employees make $10 an hour. With profound contempt, Yang quotes a former McDonald’s executive saying that a $35,000 robot seems like a bargain, compared to a $15-per-hour human being. Some 3.5 million Americans without high school diplomas are truck drivers. Replacing them with robotic vehicles, Yang asserts, could save employers $168 billion a year. But if truck drivers disappear, so do truck stops, gas stations and service centers.
There is a lot of repetitive functioning in what we consider high-end professional jobs – what I call intellectual manual labor.Andrew Yang
Yang sees a grim AI future: Computers could even replace doctors, lawyers, accountants, financial advisers and reporters.
Yang describes the typical arc of high achievers: They head to top colleges and then mostly to New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, DC, to work in finance, consulting, law, technology, medicine and academia. Talented Americans cluster in these cities, the author recognizes, for money and status, as well as to be able to repay their student loans.
We say success in America is about hard work and character. It’s not really.Andrew Yang
Elites tell themselves that the US economy is a meritocracy, though Yang sees little of merit in the current system. Yet he repeatedly undercuts his pessimism with his hope that the best and the brightest will create opportunity for those on the lower tiers of the economic ladder, which, in Yang’s telling, is pretty much everybody.
Universal Basic Income
Yang offers one solution: a universal basic income. He reveals that, when the US government created Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s, more than 1,000 economists officially endorsed a UBI. President Richard Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan would have paid $10,000 yearly to every household. The proposal passed the House of Representatives but died in the Senate, because Democrats wanted more generous benefits. An American UBI today, Yang explains, should take the form of a “Freedom Dividend” of $12,000 a year.
A Sincere Critique
Those who tend toward Yang’s views – most likely supporters of Bernie Sanders – will enjoy this highly rational, sincere critique. Those who do not will dismiss it out of hand. But Yang’s portrait of America now and possibly in the future does not ring untrue or exaggerated. Students, activists, economists, futurists, CEOs with a conscience and businesses seeking to enable community will find inspiration here.