U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand isn’t the only native of upstate New York running for president.
Andrew Yang, a 44-year-old tech entrepreneur born in Schenectady to Taiwanese immigrant parents, is also seeking the Democratic nomination.
And while Yang might be a long-shot, there’s a strong chance we’ll be seeing more of him, and hearing more of his unconventional yet intriguing ideas. (More on this in a bit.)
Last month, Yang announced that his campaign had surpassed the 65,000 unique individual donors needed to qualify for the Democratic National Committee debates later this year.
He also made a splash last weekend, when he appeared on the news program “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” and he’s been written about by a number of high-profile national publications, such as Time magazine and the Washington Post.
Media attention and a strong grassroots following haven’t turned Yang into a household name … yet.
But he’s gaining momentum at a time when other candidates are struggling to gain traction.
As The Cut, an online news outlet geared toward women, observed, “When Yang first launched his 2020 presidential bid in late 2017, no one took him seriously. But today, some polls and pundits are giving him better odds than candidates like Gillibrand and congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard.”
It’s no secret that Democratic voters have a plethora of options this election cycle.
Which raises the question: What’s making Yang stand out from the pack?
The answer is simple, if somewhat difficult to believe, given the media’s tendency to focus on personality and polling over policy: Yang has interesting ideas.
Even if you don’t agree with those ideas, they’re different from what other candidates are offering, and they’re generating discussion.
The centerpiece of Yang’s platform is what he calls the Freedom Dividend: a universal basic income of $1,000 a month, or $12,000 a year, for every American citizen over the age of 18.
Universal basic income is not a new idea, and it has supporters on both the right and left of the political spectrum. (One prominent fan: Martin Luther King, who wrote about it in 1967.)
But it’s still a fairly obscure concept, more likely to generate think pieces in niche publications such as The Nation and Reason magazine than generate headlines in the New York Times.
By building his campaign around it, Yang is undoubtedly introducing voters to a new concept, and maybe even making it more mainstream. As Time magazine noted, in a piece on Yang’s unlikely candidacy, the Freedom Dividend “has drawn some surprising support.”
In Yang’s 2018 book “The War on Normal People,” he makes the case for UBI as a solution to job-killing automation and artificial technology.
In a recent interview with Boston.com, Yang made it clear that he sees the job losses caused by automation as key to the rise of President Donald Trump — and that addressing this economic upheaval requires a radical solution.
“The most proximate cause of Donald’s Trump’s victory in 2016 was that we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin,” Yang said. “And we’re about to do the same thing to millions of retail jobs, call center jobs, fast food jobs, truck driving jobs, and on and on through the economy.”
I’m not quite ready to advocate for a universal basic income, but I do think it’s an idea with some merit and I give Yang credit for pushing for a larger discussion of it.
Certainly, there’s a case to be made that providing people with cash, no questions asked, could take the sting out the massive job losses that Yang expects to result from rapid technological change.
But UBI is expensive — Yang has proposed a value-added tax on corporations to pay for it — and some supporters have proposed doing away with all other social welfare programs and subsidies. This could be problematic, as $12,000 is not nearly enough to live on.
Christopher Faricy, an associate professor of political science at Syracuse University, told Time that doing away with the entire social welfare state and replacing it with UBI could leave lower income Americans even worse off.
“In that case, the population that might be helped most by [a UBI] would actually be hurt because then you’re leaving the poor to pay for things like health care and child care.”
Yang has become known for his candor and his willingness to stake out positions on almost every topic under the sun, from whether NCAA athletes should be paid (Yang says they should) to a single-payer health care system (Yang’s for it) to the penny (Yang says get rid of it).
Yang has never occupied elected office.
He served as CEO of Manhattan Prep, a test-prep company acquired by Kaplan, and later founded the non-profit Venture for America, which trains college grads interested in entrepreneurship to work for start-up companies in cities such as Cleveland, Baltimore and Detroit.
Frankly, I would be shocked if Yang emerged as the Democratic frontrunner.
But I’m glad he’s in the mix, putting provocative and challenging ideas out there.
He’s definitely made the race for president more interesting — and I look forward to seeing how he performs on the debate stage.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]