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The big Yang theories

The big Yang theories

Schenectady native Andrew Yang is having a moment
The big Yang theories
Andrew Yang
Photographer: Jordan Gale/New York Times

SCHENECTADY — Schenectady native Andrew Yang is having a moment. 

The Democratic presidential candidate scored a prime slot on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” last week, beaming his messages of the perils of automation and empowering residents with a monthly $1,000 dividend into millions of American living rooms. 

As the Democratic presidential primary campaign heads into fall, the entrepreneur has emerged from the sprawling pack and is now tied for fifth place, according to a Fox News poll. 

And last week, fueled by his passionate supporters known as the “Yang Gang,” his campaign reached 200,000 unique donors and crossed the polling threshold to become one of the 10 candidates to make the next round of debates scheduled for next month in Houston, a benchmark that has so far eluded U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Troy native, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ahead of Wednesday’s deadline.

HOMETOWN KID

Yang, 44, spoke to The Daily Gazette after spending the day in New Hampshire, where he opened two campaign offices and has been barnstorming the state in an attempt to get a toehold in the first-in-the-nation primary. 

“Some of the people that were the most excited about my campaign, early on, when frankly many other people did not see our potential, were the people in Schenectady,” Yang said. 

Yang, the son of a former General Electric employee, lived in the Electric City until he was 4, when his father landed a job at IBM and moved the family to Westchester County.

While his time in the Electric City was brief, he said, some of his fondest memories are from here.

“I love my hometown,” he said. “I remember driving around in my dad’s yellow Chevy in the 1970s.”

And he said his first summer girlfriend when he was 13 happened to be a Schenectady native. 

His father, Kei Hsiung Yang, generated 69 patents throughout his career as an engineer and researcher.

At GE, those included liquid-crystal displays — or the technology utilized in early-generation digital watches and contemporary flat-screen televisions — and X-ray technology.

Yang painted his father as somewhat of a visionary pursuing technologies other engineers weren’t interested in at the time. 

“When he got there in the 1970s, LCD was thought of as being kind of a marginal area of research,” Yang said. “As the technology got better, obviously LCD displays become became this very significant growth area.”

'WAR ON NORMAL PEOPLE'

After graduating from Brown University and earning a law degree from Columbia University, Yang worked at a series of startups and went on to form Venture for America, a fellowship program for recent graduates who want to work at a startup and create jobs in U.S. cities. 

While Yang has a policy position on just about everything imaginable — scrapping the penny, arming police officers nationwide with body cameras, lowering the voting age to 16 — his campaign's centerpiece is a foreboding warning on how automation is slated to upend the American economy by rendering certain jobs obsolete, therefore widening the gulf of economic disparity. 

Between 20 and 30 percent of U.S. jobs will be subject to automation by 2030, he said, citing studies from MIT, McKinsey and Bain Capital. 

One way to mitigate the aftermath, he believes, is to institute a universal basic income that would pay all Americans 18 and older $1,000 per month, a measure he calls the Freedom Dividend.

Adults who grew up in Schenectady’s Hamilton Hill neighborhood now live on an average of $21,000 a year, which would make an additional $12,000 a game changer there and in many other poor communities. 

“The Freedom Dividend would help the Tri-City area and Schenectady by putting economic resources directly into peoples’ hands,” Yang said.

He cited the closure of downtown businesses as a leading problem across the nation, in both cities and rural towns, and reserved particular scorn for Amazon, contending the e-commerce heavyweight pays “zero” in federal taxes. 

“I’m sure that people in Schenectady can see Main Street stores and malls closing around them,” Yang said. 

Universal basic income would help mitigate the blow, he said, especially for displaced retail workers.

“In some cases people are having a hard time moving because the property values might not have gone up,” Yang said. “And in some cases school taxes wind up going up for people who aren’t able to afford the changes.”

COMING FULL CIRCLE

But while the candidate beats the drum on the perils of technology — his book “The War on Normal People” warns against a dystopian “hyper-stratified society like something out of 'The Hunger Games' ” —  he is not against technological progression, and tech innovation occupies a central plank in his campaign platform, such as regulating artificial intelligence, for instance.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that Yang is a supporter of the “Smart Cities” concept that seeks to deploy sensors, Wi-Fi and data collection to refine how local government delivers services. 

Schenectady has fully embraced the concept and is rolling out an ambitious suite of technologies designed to do everything from tracking snowplows to logging pothole complaints to downloading footage from police cars and providing code inspectors real-time data while in the field. 

“It makes sense to me that Schenectady would be trying to lead the way,” Yang said. “Schenectady has been an intellectual and research and development hub for so many years. I’m a big fan of those technologies and think they’ve got a wealth of potential.”

As the candidate crisscrosses the country and ramps up his schedule — he’s due to release a new climate policy in New Hampshire on Monday — he frequently says he draws strength from a visit to his hometown last January, when his campaign was still in its embryonic stages.

“It was incredibly touching and invigorating, and I saw little kids that reminded me of myself,” Yang said. "Seeing how far that I’ve come over the past number of years since leaving Schenectady, it felt like I was coming full circle, and I’m very appreciative of all the support that I got.

“Schenectady was an early-adopter Yang Gang."

Gazette intern Brenton Blanchet contributed to this report.

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