Last fall, I interviewed the presidential candidate Andrew Yang for half an hour before he held a rally in Chicago. His candidacy was relatively unknown at the time, so he was (and still is, is my impression) taking all the press he could muster. I myself had little to offer, but my intern-y affiliations with a small national labor magazine generated enough cred that his people reached out, even after I’d acknowledged to them that no editors anywhere bit on my pitches, and so the prospective piece would likely never land.
I first heard of Yang while driving from Walla Walla, Washington to Spokane. I was driving alone. At that point I’d just graduated college and was working part time as a local newspaper reporter and I was listening to Sam Harris’s podcast, which is a common way to discover Yang. Yang came across as witty and smart. His ideas stood up to the light scrutiny of Harris, who played the friendly skeptic. The main idea about which Harris expressed his skepticism was Yang’s policy proposal to give every American adult one thousand bucks per month without (ostensibly) a solitary string
Univeral Basic Income attracts strange bedfellows. Libertarians sometimes like the idea because its enactment might be leveraged to gut the bureaucracy; Marxists sometimes like the idea because of its potential, in a living wage form, to liberate individuals from insidious traditional social structures and imperatives. Most normal people like the idea because $1,000 dollars per month would be pretty helpful. The contours here are well-established and if you are interested to learn more you should read Dissent Magazine’s excellent piece on the complicated history of UBI.
Having never encountered the concept in Yang’s proposed form, I found it compelling and provocative, and I continued to vaguely track Yang over the following months. And so, out of that unlikely podcast moment – I am hardly a Sam Harris fan-boy, for the record – here is Yang, nobody presidential candidate, and here am I, nobody journalist, and we start off inauspicious: I ask him about another place on his “Humanity First” tour – Detroit, where he says he has a “bunch of friends.”
“Really?” I say. He was doing something with his briefcase. I ask him what running for president entails, and he took the question literal, explaining the constitutional requirement that one be 35 and a natural born citizen, and the legal requirement that you file some paperwork with the federal election commission. Then he said, monotone and straight, that “the real challenge” of running for president “is that the whole thing is a giant social construction.” I wish I had invited him to elaborate.
The quick backstory, which you can now get anywhere, including in his book, which is pretty good, is that he ran a non-profit called Venture for America which looked to train business leaders in regions with stagnating economies. He told me, and has told others that he felt like he was pouring water in a bathtub with a gaping hole in it, and what do you do then? You stop pouring water. You try to patch the hole – especially when said bathtub hole threatens to “destroy us.”
I said lots of people might notice a similar sort of bathtub hole and would do a different thing than run for president. He said well, he’s an entrepreneur and a problem solver at heart:
“You wouldn’t ever propose something and say ‘well even if I wanted to do this it would not actually make a difference.’ And so I drew up: ‘what could you do that would actually solve this problem? – the fact that we’re quickly automating away the most common jobs in the American economy. And there are very, very few things one can meaningfully do to address that. And most all of them involve control of the government… because right now the market is the primary determinant of the value of people’s time and how much money everyone makes. And the market does not care at all about displaced truck drivers, or cashiers, or… accountants or journalists… If you look at it objectively, America has invested faith in the market for the last several decades, and the market is about to fail us catastrophically. I mean, it has already been failing us in terms of elevating most people’s standard of living, in my own life. But now it’s really going to get catastrophically dark. We’re in the third inning of the greatest economic and technological transformation in the history of the world and its already brought us Donald Trump. By the time we get to the fourth, fifth sixth inning it’s going to be unimaginable.”
He would later say again, at the rally, as he does at many rallies, that “third inning of the greatest economic and technological transformation…” thing. He’s very good, at least on a superficial level, at staying on message, at telling a clean story. The story he tells is that the early waves of economic stagnation which he believes have been largely ushered in by automation – and the logic that motivates its spread – are well-upon us and quite ugly, if still relatively inconspicuous in certain privileged enclaves, such that well-positioned liberally-inclined folks can still ignore the rot. His story is that that rapid economic deterioration of this character will continue, accelerate rapidly, and sprawl if we don’t act swiftly. Many economists take issue with this account, but it is a compelling and intuitive-seeming one, and he earnestly makes the case for it in terms of easy-to-understand numbers and trends, colored and bolstered rhetorically with anecdotal attributions to this or that in-the-know friend of his in venture capital or silicon valley. He paints himself as a kind of bridge between these elite-types and “normal people,” and he says these elite folks have told him, over lunch, for example, their dire and presumably well-informed predictions for the trajectory of American capitalism. Yang’s story is that he looks at the situation objectively, and considers dispassionate nonideological solutions that take as a premise that human life is innately valuable and that the market, left as it has been to its own psychopathic devices, does not share in this premise.
It can be difficult to tell what Yang thinks about the dirty unethical practices that color so much of contemporary American capitalism: he understands and can explain its most brutal tendencies quite well, but it worries some critics that he doesn’t seem to outright condemn these tendencies per se. Yang ultimately identifies as a capitalist (which of course he means in a specific way), and this sensibility shows up in his corporate-sounding lexicon, by which Yang unironically deploys the rhetoric of “job-creators” and “entrepreneurship” that tends to show up as nonsense to those skeptical of capitalistic platitude.
He’s not concerned about how he sounds on such rhetorical litmus tests. He told me the “entire dichotomy of socialism and capitalism is decades old and anachronistic, and right now the temptation is for someone who sees the problems of capitalism to say ‘well I hate the stuff so I must want the opposite, which is socialism.’ I’m going to say two things from what a guy named Eric Weinstein said that I agree with wholeheartedly: the first thing he said is that ‘we did not know that capitalism was going to be eaten by its son, technology,’ and the second thing is that ‘we need to become both radically capitalist and radically socialist in different arenas.’”
So Yang says he’s not interested in semantics. I said that some people are, and he said that his policies would be attractive to the average left-wing voter, but that he sees in invocations of socialism a pernicious nostalgia, “a fondness for a world that never existed.” He thinks there are ways to credibly engage with the dark forces of our time – automation and climate change being dark force 1a and 1b on his list – “that don’t frankly look back on the teachings of someone from like a hundred years ago” – he laughs here – “as, like, the end all be all. Because no one a hundred years ago could have foreseen artificial intelligence or any of the technologies we’re currently looking at, and so I quote Joe Rogan on something he said in his recent Netflix special, which is that ‘if the founding fathers woke up today, their first question would be: you mean you didn’t write any new shit?’ We have to stop looking backwards. We seem to be obsessed with what the scrolls say, you know? It’s a stupid way to think about trying to” – he caught himself: “I don’t want to be dismissive, but we have to get with the program: it’s like, 2018 soon 2020. We have to have some new ideas.”
The “nostalgia” that Yang is somewhat glibly critiquing here consists, he told me in the supposed aspiration among many on the left to return to the more equitable economies of the fifties and sixties. He says the idea that these economies were in many ways better for the working class is accurate, but that trends regarding globalization, deregulation, automation, contracting – all the forces and avenues by which corporations have found ways to weasel out of any and all genuine civic obligations – have rendered this vision of return a fantasy. Yang went on that Bernie – who he said he would have voted for, had he voted in the 2016 primary – is among those who “unfortunately hue to a vision of the economy that is still extremely institutional and institutionally led. It’s like ‘get the institutions to treat people the way we want them to be treated.’ Instead we should just provide people directly with the things that would make them better able to accomplish their own goals and meet their own needs and adapt for the future, and just skip the middleman.”
If I were better at journalism, I would have pressed Yang on what exactly he means when he dismisses an “institutionally led” vision of change, or when he paints the picture of a left stuck in the past. His unchallenged elaboration was that “trying to pretend that we can massage our current version of the economy into something that seems moral based upon things like increasing the minimum wage or bullying companies into treating people better strikes me as the wrong approach. I think we should look directly at the goals that we have, such as getting money into people’s hands, and just say ‘okay, we want to put money into people’s hands? The most direct and effective way to do that is to put money in people’s hands.’”
Why is forcing companies to be better the “wrong approach?” It seems reasonable to say that the implication here, that we should not try to go through corporations to make our society more moral, because that is a lost cause – just not going to happen – feels like a remarkably radical concession for the government to make – being as it supposedly is the only locus of institutional might sufficient to patch the bathtub hole. For Yang, this may be the reality we live in, and we need new ideas to make this world work: to salvage a modest little bubble of humanity impervious to forces of the market; but for many on the left, this is a deeply pessimistic vision, and it is already when you should stop taking Yang seriously. (Moreover, if critical thinking consists in one part intellectual humility, another in a charitable ear, this ungenerous take on Bernie’s singularly expansive political vision does not inspire much confidence in the man whose sober intellect is the hallmark of his brand, a man who frequently invokes – albeit with a layer of irony, – the nerdy Asian stereotype to bolster his credibility as a foil to Donald Trump).
But neither are critics on the left particularly charitable to Yang, who has taken heat for the absence of explicit class politics in his campaign. Indeed, he does not explicitly engage in the rhetoric of collective action. Critics see his UBI proposal as a mere palliative, an unimaginative morsel bestowed from on high to the masses, who would not, under the new policy ultimately be in a better position to challenge existing structures of inequality and power. For someone who thinks our version of capitalism – with its perverse incentives and market failures – is failing us catastrophically, he doesn’t seem particularly interested in fundamentally challenging its premises. The focus on tone and rhetoric might seem flighty, but this isn’t itself the problem, because it is also kind of all we have to go on to judge the guy’s instincts. For a piece I wrote about the New Hampshire family to which Yang, in a publicity stunt is personally giving one thousand dollars per month, I interviewed Kathi Weeks, who wrote a book advocating for a living-wage UBI on Feminist-Marxist grounds. She said the key question for lefty-oriented folks regarding Yang is whether his proposal is framed as a kind of groundwork for broader political transformation, or whether its’ just kind of “blithely” pitched as a “solution” per se that allows us to retain existing structures and economic norms. Nathan Robinson made a good case in Current Affairs that Yang, if his rhetoric is to be taken seriously, understands UBI in terms of the latter vision (for one, it would be paid for with a probably regressive tax, and by giving people a choice regarding whether to keep their current benefits or take the UBI).
But that Yang doesn’t actively speak with a certain progressive lexicon doesn’t necessarily mean his politics don’t engage with progressive moral imperatives. If the contours on which our political divisions are conceived in the mainstream media are mostly nonsense; if as far as ordinary people go, the power dynamics – and thus the lines on which bonds of political solidarity can or ought to be established – in fact have very little to do with someone’s voter registration – which is mostly a reflections of the milieu from which a person emerged – and a lot to do with a person’s education, race, class, gender, legal status, etc. then the eclectic following Yang has forged is worth taking very seriously.
To cast automation as the bogeyman has, for Yang, proven to be an effectively apolitical (in the sense that it does not provoke traditional “political” divisions) rhetorical move, implicitly establishing a new common ground in the form of a collective dark fate to which most working class, and eventually, middle class people will, the story goes, be subjected. That Yang is not actively speaking the language of socialism could then be beside the point: the delineations are clear enough: inequality will dramatically increase as the owners of said automatons scurry off with the loot, leave the rest to of us to our desolate fates.
That in the process of making this point he doesn’t make a moral judgement on the looters, who he says are just doing what any other human in their position would do, is an important aspect of his political sensibility. Some might find it unpalatable – many humans do in fact carry on their lives and negotiate their power without actively fucking over everyone else – but it is also central to his broad appeal. This amoral style is also operative in regards to Yang’s reluctance to employ rhetoric that addresses distinct, non class-based political identities like race or gender: he (not to me, but in other contexts) has said this would not be an effective rhetorical tool by which to win an election, because on its cue – its legitimacy notwithstanding – he thinks a lot of people who honestly mostly share a similar set of goals lose their shit and get all riled up despite being on the same team where the rubber meets the road.
Yang reminds me of the friends of mine who are into econ but are not tools: I tolerate their occasional displays of intellectual arrogance, and appreciate their refreshingly good-faith political arguments. Yang wants to apply cold logic to a purely humanistic end, a utilitarian mindset that aims to rise to see the forest, that is more interested in ends than means. And take it a step further, and the resulting tension – of having a basic moral vision but not worrying about the rhetoric that gets you there – actually colors the supposedly objective logic that undergirds his policy proposals with an endearing touch of naiveite, operating as it is out of the implicit assumption that in fact the world works in terms of any logic at all.
Of course, the dark side of this naivete would be the sort of oblivious, baseless, master-of-universe self-confidence endemic to the consulting/tech/econ major milieu with which Yang is so often simplistically grouped. Yang tells a clean story about a messy world. But is it too clean? But does it leaves all of us off the hook? The poor economic circumstances we find ourselves in are, in his telling, almost platonic, entirely detached from the people who largely bear responsibility for creating them. For folks on the left, politics is a messy game, and it leaves everyone – though some far more than others – dirty to the bone. Yang’s vision sounds substantive in theory; but critics argue it lacks moxie, that the notion of rendering corporations irrelevant by working around them becomes absurd upon contact with the material world in which corporate interests abide, that what sounds like cold-blooded pragmatism in fact pales in its fortitude to the broad-based, hard-nosed, vaguely utopian visions espoused by the most prominent and dynamic figures on the left, who refuse to concede unchecked corporate power as a given. Yang’s proposals are certainly big, but they might stand to be a little more ambitious.
“I think people find me interesting in that I contain certain contradictions,” said Yang as the interview was wrapping up. Now just coming off his second debate on the national stage, and poised for a third as his improbable ascension continues, he believed at the time that he could clarify his case to skeptics, that his sometimes flippant amoral rhetoric belied a fertile common ground of concern for capitalism’s dehumanizing impulses. He took pains, in our interview, to present himself as an (innovative) friend of labor. But he says in regards to the labor movement’s prospects, that “no one gives a shit about your point of view, because our country has now been dominated by market-based thinking. And if you are pro-labor, pro-union, you are trying to preserve some inefficient labor practices that belong in the past and have no place here in the 21st century.” He spoke admiringly of the moral high ground on which he believes labor folks often stand, but he thinks that, in the current state of our economy, moral-standing is irrelevant. “We need to keep fighting, but we need to change the rules of the game,” he said. “We need a game changer.”
Well, here he is. He said he really wants – and needs, he acknowledged at the time – to reach folks in the left. “We are aligned,” said Yang. I may not look and sounds necessarily like the people are used to.” He paused. “But I want the same things. And I’m convinced that I can add a loooot of value.”
Yang told me the origin story of his campaign (which may well be a Mangoprism exclusive, because I have not read it anywhere else, and all of the articles about him say same thing, so it doesn’t seem to be part of his standard well of anecdotes). He and Andy Stern – the former Service Employees International Union president – met for breakfast in New York to talk about the automation problem that they believe will destroy the American working class.
I imagine this as one of those cool lunches Yang recounts sharing with this or that person in the know, who gave it to him straight, no bullshit, and he as a candidate is here to convey the candid message. He and Stern are talking UBI, and the automation problem, which they see as being grossly underrepresented in mainstream discourse. Per Yang’s telling: Yang says “whose running on this” and Stern says “absolutely nobody,” and Yang says, “then I’ll run.
“Which I knew going in because I’d met with other people I’d thought might run and none them were going to do it,” he said. “And then I knew, given that Andy is the foremost voice on this issue, that he would know if anyone was running or not.” So going in to the lunch Yang says he was thinking, “’well if he tells me someone else is gonna run on it, then great: I don’t have to drop everything and do it myself.’ I kind of expected him to say ‘nobody’ though, because I understand how the world works. Like most of the time nobody does shit. And then you have to do it yourself. That’s just the way the world works, most of the time.” ▩
Andrew Schwartz is a journalist and a basketball player.