While Andrew Yang thinks the word "entrepreneur" is hokey, he's hoping the American people will elect him president based on his resume as one.
Best known as the founder of Venture for America, a New York City based non-profit that helps place recent grads at companies in economically depressed cities across the country, Yang is one of 23 Democratic candidates currently in the running to be the next U.S. president. Born in Schenectady, New York, he's the son of Taiwanese immigrants and has zero political experience. But the Columbia law school grad and serial entrepreneur thinks his ideas about how to make America great will be enough to convince voters to give him the job. At the very least, if his proposals are any indication, he's aiming to be the boldest of the bunch--and should inspire lively debate with his views about one of the biggest potential headwinds facing businesses today: when automation and machines take over.
"This is not an us-and-them thing. This is an everyone thing," Yang told Inc. during a recent stopover at his campaign headquarters in Manhattan's Garment District. "Our government has not been attentive to the needs of the people for a very long time."
Here's a look at the presidential hopeful's plan, and how it might affect businesses.
Besides founding Venture for America, Yang is the former CEO of Manhattan Prep, a test preparation startup, which Kaplan acquired in 2009 for an undisclosed sum. He is, unsurprisingly, campaigning on a platform chock-full of business-focused policies. Some of the ideas are more fringe than others.
He would unionize mixed martial arts fighters, prevent airlines from kicking passengers off planes, and eliminate the penny. He would also legalize marijuana at the federal level, rebrand Tax Day as "Revenue Day," and he'd give out free "Democracy Dollars" for citizens to contribute to political candidates. His infrastructure team would be called the "Legion of Builders and Destroyers," and he'd hire a "trucking czar" to oversee the successful transition of truck drivers as self-driving trucks become more common. Yang's signature policy--his "Freedom Dividend"--is a version of Universal Basic Income, which would give every U.S. citizen 18 or older $1,000 a month, no questions asked.
Yang further proposes rethinking how the U.S. measures economic vitality to focus on how citizens are faring. For instance, as President, Yang would give greater weight to measures of health-adjusted life expectancy, average income and affordability, childhood success, mental health, and substance abuse rates, rather than stock market prices or even Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is currently the gold standard for measuring U.S. economic vitality.
These metrics for America feed into Yang's overarching ideology, which he calls "human-centered capitalism." When managing a private business, you generally optimize for profitability, but that's inhumane when operating a country, says Yang. "We're not just going to pretend that profitability and well-being are the same thing."
That message hits home with Rich Porter, a 34-year-old Yang supporter in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who works as a product manager at a major technology company. "Yang is the only candidate that is seeking to address the rapidly approaching tsunami of economic disruption." Porter adds that he has seen firsthand, through his job, how human intellectual labor is being automated away. "I observe just how much money and effort is going into automating work," he says. "The natural end result will be that there will be large swathes of people who become not just unemployed, but unemployable."
Behind the buzzwords.
Yang insists his position isn't just political bluster. In recent years, the entrepreneur has become increasingly preoccupied with the notion that automation and artificial intelligence will replace human muscles and minds. And he's betting it's an issue that will transcend political divisions.
"There are things core to the human experience that, right now, the market will undervalue, or not value," he says. While Yang focuses on trucking as a prime example of a bygone profession ceding to automation, he says the trend will also rattle numerous now stable industries like accountancy, law, and medicine.
A growing number of social scientists agree. In a Brookings report from January, researchers predicted that given the current pace of adoption, automation and artificial intelligence would critically affect 25 percent of U.S. jobs in the coming decades--and that almost no occupation will be unaffected.
One solution Yang proposes is paying all citizens a Universal Basic Income, a concept that's gained increasing support in entrepreneurial circles. He says it's an idea he has studied for many years, in part by reading The Second Machine Age, by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, and Rise of the Robots, by Martin Fordagree.
It's designed to help workers facing displacement make ends meet. In the long term, the hope is for the money to kick-start the economies of local communities, generating new opportunities. He's somewhat vague on how this might work, though he suggests entrepreneurship is one possibility. Silicon Valley has already latched onto the concept; this year, startup accelerator Y Combinator said it plans to roll out a study on Universal Basic Income by doling out free cash to 3,000 participants in two unannounced states.
Of course, UBI is far from a proven idea. Finland has already tried the experiment, giving 2,000 participants €560 ($625) a month for two years. The result? People reportedly felt happier and less stressed, but it didn't lead to higher employment rates. A similar program in Ontario, Canada, was canceled midway by a new incoming conservative government, and a study in Utrecht, Netherlands, has had trouble launching ever since its proposed start date of 2017.
UBI is sure to be a tough sell among certain voters who value the all-American ethos of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. Porter, who does not work for the Yang campaign, admits that people in his town "usually recoil" when he introduces the plan. He says Yang's idea of renaming the program could help make it more palatable. The "Freedom Dividend" suggests it's a deserved disbursement for every worker who's contributing to the economy. "We are all owners of America, and owners are entitled to dividends," Porter says.
"A major candidate."
Like Porter, a growing number of voters think Yang's policies have potential. Eighty percent of the candidate's campaign donations, which clocked in at $1.7 million in the first quarter of 2019, have come from individual donors giving $200 or less. He is currently polling on a par with Senators Kristen Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) and Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), according to a Morning Consult poll. In March, FiveThirtyEight's data whiz Nate Silver declared: "Andrew Yang has crossed the threshold where we consider him a major candidate." In April, Yang qualified for this summer's Democratic debates, having met the criteria of 65,000 individual donors and one percent in poll averages.
Whether Yang's offbeat platform will help him win the presidency remains to be seen. His performance in the debates could help clear a path--provided he can pitch the American people successfully on his ideas.
"Right now, we have this sacrifice of humanity at the altar of market efficiency," says Yang. "Taken to an extreme, it's going to become more and more punishing for more and more people."