Meet Andrew Yang, a 2020 US presidential hopeful running against the robots

The UBI President.
The UBI President.
Image: Yang2020
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Andrew Yang doesn’t mince his words: He doesn’t think the robots are coming; he knows they are already here. And he wants to take his concerns about this all the way to the White House.

“I’m Andrew Yang, and I’m running for President as a Democrat in 2020 because I fear for the future of our country,” reads the first sentence of the website for his long-shot campaign.

Yang is worried about a future where the automation of jobs leads to “the disintegration of our society.” And he has a very specific solution to stop that from happening. He wants to give every adult US citizen $1,000 a month, no questions asked. He isn’t the first presidential hopeful to endorse the idea of a universal basic income (UBI)—even Hillary Clinton is a fan—but he is certainly one of the most outspoken for why we need it.

As a former corporate lawyer and founder of Venture for America, a fellowship program to help entrepreneurs start businesses in cities like Detroit and Cleveland, he brings a jobs-first approach to tackling many of the country’s social and economic problems. UBI isn’t the only tenet of his campaign. There are more than 70 policy recommendations on his website, including ideas like hiring a White House psychologist to closely monitor the mental health of White House staff and creating a “digital social currency” to reward (and gamify) altruistic behavior.

Yang chatted with Quartz about robots, UBI, and the stakes if we don’t take automation seriously. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Quartz: Why are you running for president?

Yang: I’m running for president because I’m convinced that we are in the third inning of the greatest economic transformation in the history of the world. And the third inning has brought us Donald Trump. He’s our president because we automated away 4 million factory jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and the other swing states he needed to win and did win. My friends in Silicon Valley know that we’re about to do the same thing to millions of retail workers, call center workers, fast food workers, truck drivers, and on and on through the economy. So I’m running for president to wake up America to the fact that it’s not immigrants or globalization but this technology that is transforming our way of life. We need to make big, dramatic moves as a society to move forward.

What do you consider the first two innings?

The first inning was the deregulation of the financial services industry, which led to a cascade of winner-take-all economics. The second inning was the elimination of millions of manufacturing jobs. Now we’re going into the third inning, which is the disruption of brick and mortar retail, which will include 30% of American malls and main street stores closing in the next four years.

What’s your worst-case scenario if we don’t take this problem seriously?

The worst-case scenario is the disintegration of our society. You can see the red flags right now. Our labor-force participation rate is down to 62%, the same level as El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. Right now is year 10 of an expansion and one in five prime working-age men haven’t worked in the last 12 months. Our life expectancy is declining for the last three years, with eight Americans dying of drug overdoses every hour. And our political and social dysfunction is only worsening. So the worst case scenario, unfortunately, is chaos, violence, and a disintegration of our way of life.

So, what’s the best-case scenario?

The best-case scenario is that we evolve to a better, more sophisticated, more human definition of both work and value.

What does that look like from a policy standpoint?

Well, the single biggest change we would need to make would be to add a universal basic income. My plan is for every American adult between the ages of 18 to 64 to receive $1,000 a month, free and clear, no questions. This would improve Americans’ nutrition and health, mental health, relationships, stress levels. It would create millions of jobs around the country. It would be a catalyst for entrepreneurship and creativity. It would compensate women for work that is too often unrecognized and uncompensated or under-compensated by the market. It would help provide people who are in marginalized groups more meaningful access to economic opportunities.

One example I use is that my wife is at home with our two young boys, one of whom is autistic. And right now GDP values her work as zero and the monetary market also values her work at zero. UBI would help balance the scales for people who are doing some of the most important work in our society which right now is getting ignored.

How would you expect to pay for a UBI?

It’s much more affordable than most people think. A basic income would generate wealth for tens of millions of American families. But the trap that we are in right now is that the big winners from artificial intelligence, big data, autonomous vehicles, and robotics are going to be the biggest tech companies who are great at not paying a lot of taxes. Google’s move is to say it all went through Ireland. Amazon’s move is to say we didn’t make any money this quarter—no taxes necessary. And so the American public is in a trap because more and more work and value is going to get soaked up by a handful of mammoth companies, and the public is going to be looking around wondering how to pay for anything.

What’s a common misconception people have about the robot apocalypse?

People don’t think if their local mall closes that it’s the result of robots and AI. But the fact is, that mall is closed because of Amazon soaking up $20 billion in commerce every year. And you better believe that Amazon is investing billions of dollars in robots, automation, and AI to have a package on your doorstep the next day. So the biggest misconception is that we’re going to see [the apocalypse] coming because some robot is going to walk into your office, and until the robot walks into your office, we’re still just talking about some speculative future.

Some critics have said that you’re an alarmist. How would you respond?

One thing that I find very interesting is that many people look up and say, “Yes, Bain, McKinsey, MIT, the White House—or at least the Obama White House—all agree and are correct that this is the greatest economic and technological transformation in the history of the world. We need a Marshall Plan-scale set of solutions to help manage this transition.” And then when you look at their solution set, it tends to be a bunch of hand-waving and fantasies about retraining and re-skilling Americans for the jobs of the future.

To me, that’s the confusing element: If you agree we’re dealing with historic, nation-scale problems, then you would need historic nation-scale solutions like universal based income. I find it frustrating when someone else is like, “Oh yeah, he’s right about the problem, but the solution is too big,” and then they don’t offer any alternative.

Some people have called me a futurist, and I say I’m a present-ist because it’s 2018 and these things are all real, and it’s just that our political conversations are decades behind the times. It’s not useful anymore just to have a conversation about it as if it’s an abstract exercise. If anyone wants to make a more evolved, human-centered economy real, we’re going to have to fight for it.

If you had the choice between becoming president and universal basic income being passed, which would you choose?

I’m running for president to solve what, to me, are the biggest problems of this time, and if I generate a ton of energy and attention towards meaningful solutions, I’m going to be thrilled. I think becoming president will be the fastest way to make things happen, but if I help speed these things up and don’t become president, that is certainly something I’d be very excited about.