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Opinion

Opinion: Are Andrew Yang and his Freedom Dividends a blip, or the future of progressive politics?

Andrew Yang
Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang speaks at the Polk County Democrats’ Steak Fry in Des Moines on Sept. 21.
(Associated Press)

Ever since I had the pleasure of participating in The Times editorial board’s extended interview with Andrew Yang this past summer, one thought has been spinning away at the back of my mind: Andrew Yang is either a Terminator-esque soothsayer sent back from the future to save us from dark days ahead, or he’s an eccentric dude with a serious misunderstanding of history.

It may take a half-century, but one day we’ll eventually know the answer to this nagging question: Is Andrew Yang — and his concept of universal basic income — a blip in history, or the future of progressive politics in America?

Yang, who suspended his campaign Tuesday night after failing to make a dent at the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, centered his entire platform around a gloomy vision of the American future: artificial intelligence is coming for our jobs. All of our jobs. And there’s nothing we can do about it. (I, for one, welcome our new AI overlords. May they never learn to blog.)

As Yang sat with the board, he laid out the minefield being planted as technology advances. It’ll start with out-of-work truck drivers with no interest in “learning to code” taking to the streets with fire in their eyes and rage in their hearts. Soon, the rest of us will join them. AI will take over more complex occupations such as oncology (AI could certainly detect and suggest treatment for cancers), civil engineering (AI could certainly detect and redesign structurally unsound bridges) and law (AI could certainly — as former lawyer Yang likes to point out — conduct document review). Or so he contends.

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His solution to our looming uselessness? Universal basic income, a program that would guarantee $1,000 a month in the bank account of every American who wants it. Not long ago, UBI as a concept was relegated to wonky thought exercises blogged out by Ezra Klein and the like. Now, a 2020 candidate for president ran with UBI as his central policy platform.

I must admit, as I sat there listening to him, Yang had me almost reaching for the red pill. Maybe it’s because I’m easily convinced by darkest-timeline futurists, or maybe it’s because I’m mostly broke and fresh out of college with nothing but a bachelor’s degree in journalism, but the idea of giving every American $1,000 a month sounded pretty rational to me. The editorial board members sitting with me — thank God — are much smarter than I, and far more cognitively nimble. They poked a hole right in his apocalyptic theory: Every industrial and technological revolution in human history has created more jobs, not fewer (despite the dire warnings of plenty of Chicken Littles).

Yang, who has certainly heard that proposition before, parried quickly: The looming AI revolution is the first technological advancement in human history that will replace not just physical, manual or repetitive labor, but cognitive and complex labor, too. But the riposte is rather simplistic: You never know what new jobs future technology will create, and history says whichever jobs are eliminated will certainly be replaced with something new.

And that’s the thing with Yang. Either he’s dead-on and we’re all foolish not to heed his words, or he isn’t, and, like all of human history, people will find a way to exploit and benefit from new technologies more so than not.

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Contemplating UBI is sort of like watching the current iteration of the Houston Rockets, who play without a center and almost never set screens. The math of hoops dictates that three points are far more than two, so the Rockets simply field a roster of 6-foot-6-inch shooters and bomb away from deep. At some level, it’s easy to believe that the future of the NBA is Rocketsball. But then you look at other teams and see 7-foot monsters tearing it up, and wonder why the future of the league would really look that much different than the past.

Even if you reject the central premise of Yang’s campaign, or simply look to the present to see why a completely unqualified citizen with no experience in government should not sit in the world’s most powerful chair (to be clear, I came to both of these conclusions), there are still aspects of his campaign worth marveling over.

I’d love to hear progressives such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) echo Yang’s sunny outlook of “human-centric capitalism.” That we’re all worth more than we produce is one idea many Americans would find resonant, and Yang thoughtfully conveyed the message via his own family life. His wife stays home to raise two children, one of whom is autistic, yet by the economic metrics we rely on today, she creates zero value. Maybe there’s something a little wrong about that. As Yang likes to point out, GDP was never intended to be used as a measuring stick for the health of a country, or even an economy.

He made a mockery of the “learn to code” Band-Aid, and suggested we must find an even more compassionate solution for those inevitably left behind by advancements in technology or by necessary and forward-thinking climate policy. For a technocrat, he seemed to have a beating heart. For a man with a doom-and-gloom vision of the future, he seemed genuinely cheery and optimistic about life.

And somehow, perhaps most astonishingly, the man with the most liberal proposal for Americans to redistribute income attracted a shocking amount of support from independent, libertarian and ex-conservative voters, suggesting that with the right packaging, Americans might be more ideologically fluid than we all expect. (With a tongue planted firmly in his cheek, Yang attempted to lure these voters with a purposeful rebranding of socialism as the star-spangled awesome “Freedom Dividend”).

After all, it wasn’t long ago that single-payer healthcare was a pipe dream of a policy proposal. Now, “Medicare for all” is the central debate of the Democratic primary, and could be an election away from the business end of the bully pulpit. Even opponents — I’m thinking of former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg here — seem to understand that single-payer is the final destination; they just believe we need to limp our way half-step by half-measure to get there.

If nothing else, it’s worth wondering if universal basic income is any different.

Then again, UBI may just be no wackier an idea than the call by former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) to abolish the Federal Reserve or Donald Trump’s demand for a physical wall across the entire southern border of the United States (including Colorado!).

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Time will tell if Yang was nothing more than a flash in the pan in the 2020 election. In the meantime, for more information on the possibility of a robot apocalypse, just ask Siri.


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