Let me start off by saying I am skeptical of electoral politics. If you don’t believe in the value of voting in the United States, I am not here to tell you you’re wrong. There are a number of great arguments for why your vote does not matter. If you believe that, fine. You can take or leave what I have to say about Andrew Yang based entirely on that.
With all that said, I personally ride the line where skepticism becomes cynicism. I have generally been a cynic, either because I can tell that politicians are obviously lying, or because I don’t believe a non-lying politician can get through to the public because of capital being allied against them. Andrew Yang is a person about whom I am skeptical, but not cynical. When Yang described his motivation for running in the first video I ever saw of him and his candidacy, which was on the Fung Bros YouTube channel in June 2018, he said, and I’m paraphrasing, that he has two kids and doesn’t want them to grow up to inherit a hellworld. He was not shocked or stunned by Trump’s election, per se, but he saw it for what it is — an enormous red flag. It’s a red flag that while our world descends into nihilistic depravity, we are not taking the appropriate measures to halt our descent. We are accelerating our self-destruction.
The other component of why I am not cynical of Yang is that, even though he’s obviously a long shot, I think he has some chance to win. I would not bet on that without being given generous odds, but I don’t see his candidacy as a zero. It is also certain to inform the discourse the same way Bernie’s campaign did in 2016. Bernie pushed a higher minimum wage and single-payer healthcare nonstop, and those ideas are far more mainstream now than they were in 2016. And in Yang’s case, it is his ideas that have enough appeal that they could propel him far enough into the mainstream to win.
So, what about those ideas? The centerpiece of the Yang campaign is a form of UBI called the Freedom Dividend. He frames the need for a basic income as a response to the threat of automation, which is a real threat. In brief, it is a way of acknowledging that jobs are being lost to automation at escalating levels, which will result in millions of people being out of work, or being forced into types of work they do not like or want to do. For me, neither the moral nor logical case for UBI rests on automation, but the fact it is a sensible response to automation doesn’t hurt its marketability. Everyone can see the loss of jobs happening in their communities. It is not new, and it’s not hard to understand. The only difficulty we have in comprehending it is how far reaching and how rapid this job loss is likely to be in coming decades. Andrew Yang talks about millions of truckers losing their jobs to automated trucks, but that is obviously merely the tip of the iceberg, just in the transportation sector. Buses, trains, ride sharing vehicles, and all other jobs in the transportation sector are at risk, as are jobs in all other sectors.
I talked about this in a previous story about UBI. My position is that the automation argument for the Freedom Dividend rests on a contradiction, because its dollar amount of $1,000/month sets it almost exactly at the federal poverty line. To be truly liberating to an individual, a UBI would have to be larger than putting someone exactly at the poverty line if they were to lose their job to automation and only have their cash disbursements to live on, but on the flip side, the social value of pulling millions of low-wage people out of poverty, and enabling hundreds of thousands of people sleeping on the streets to afford shelter cannot be ignored. The Freedom Dividend is not a high enough value to be optimal, but it is better than nothing. And a great many disenfranchised people today are truly getting nothing. They are forgotten and hopeless.
There are other problems with the Freedom Dividend, as well. It is not truly universal, as it would not be distributed to prisoners or children. The argument with regard to prisoners is that, since society is funding their food and housing, we should not also be on the hook for a UBI for them. I disagree with this because I think it sets a dangerous incentive for the state to incarcerate people, because automation will apply to prisons and all supply lines to those prisons, and the cost to incarcerate someone will decrease. What if the cost goes below the threshold for our UBI? What if it’s cheaper for the state to incarcerate someone than to pay out their UBI? What if this happens in the context of a provably-racist justice system? I don’t like it. I’m not sure what the argument about not giving children a disbursement is, but I imagine it is linked to the marketability of the Freedom Dividend in the context of electoral politics in the United States. The potential for scaremongering along the lines of Ronald Reagan’s racist “welfare queens” attacks could reduce the odds of a Freedom Dividend being successfully implemented to the point that it’s worth making this concession.
My hope is that, even though the Freedom Dividend would represent the largest rich-to-poor wealth transfer in human history, it would only be the beginning of a UBI policy, not the end. I believe once it’s implemented, it can always be improved to better serve individuals and the public. It can be increased much more easily than it can be decreased, and it can be expanded much more easily than it can be shrunk. Once people start to get their payments, do you really think they will accept having them reduced or taken away altogether? I imagine that would be unpopular, precisely because of its simplicity. It’s hard to see when we’re getting shortchanged if the benefits we receive are obfuscated or delayed, such as in the case of healthcare or Social Security, but if our monthly payment goes from $1,000 to $900, we’re going to notice, and a great many of us are going to have something to say about it.
Most arguments against Andrew Yang from the right are immoral and dishonest, which is to be expected from the right. Many arguments from the Left, however, are well-intended, but are spurious and misinformed. One common attack is that Yang is popular among Libertarians because they see his Freedom Dividend as a way to destroy the social safety net. First of all, most Libertarians are not super villains who want to destroy the social safety net in order to create widespread misery. Some of them are, but not most. Most are just people who don’t trust the government and who have gotten hoodwinked by grifters with bad politics into believing a bunch of things about the world that aren’t true. One of those things is an obsession with government bloat and a belief that everything involving government bureaucracy is automatically inefficient and worse than the private sector. They’re not wrong that the Kafkaesque nature of bureaucracy (be it government or corporate) is dehumanizing and inefficient, and if they see the Freedom Dividend as a path to efficiency, so be it. That’s not going to change my opinion. And if they think Yang will destroy the social safety net, I would say that’s not a bad thing if the reason the safety net gets destroyed is that it’s no longer needed. If you live in a society where there is no precariat, no poverty, no threat of disenfranchisement resulting from scarcity then you don’t actually need a safety net. If a UBI can achieve such a society, I’ll take it. The Freedom Dividend will not do that on day one, but a UBI could be sculpted to do that. And, going back to the thousands of people sleeping on the streets, we have to acknowledge our social safety net is a failure. Whether it’s improved or replaced by something better hardly matters; what matters is that there should not be people sleeping on the streets. People should have shelter.
This is the main reason I like Yang’s candidacy. His is a utopian vision. When he tells me his motivation for running is that he doesn’t like what he sees for his children’s futures if we continue operating under our current status quo, I take him at face value. UBI is one component of recognizing human beings as something besides workers. Everyone on the Left understands the ethical reasons for decoupling healthcare and work. Healthcare should be a right. We know this. Why not income? Why not a basic income that guarantees us a life free from poverty even if we don’t labor in a socially-prescribed way to receive payment? Why are we not entitled to a share of the economic surpluses currently being reaped from automation? Why are stay-at-home parents punished? Why is it so hard to make art, to take risks?
These are the questions the Yang campaign is bringing to the forefront by centering it around the Freedom Dividend. But, his campaign also has a bunch of other policy positions that I like. Some of the standouts to me:
- Ranked Choice Voting
- SCOTUS term limits
- Lower the voting age to 16
- Data as a property right (Not a fan of the terminology, but we should have agency over data about us)
- Vice President required for Nuclear Launch, not just President
- Democracy Dollars
Dozens more policy ideas can be found at his site. If, after looking at them, you’re still skeptical, I don’t blame you. If you’re not convinced of his motivations or sincerity, that’s on him, not you. If you decide not to vote, good. That’s your right. You shouldn’t have to participate in the nonsense of US electoral politics if you don’t want. For me, I choose skepticism over cynicism, and imagine a future without poverty, where we work because we want to, not because our survival depends on it.