EXCLUSIVE: Andrew Yang Tells DPR Why He Should Win the Presidency in 2020

Andrew Yang at the Ecosystem Summit in 2018. (Stephen McCarthy/Collison)

Andrew Yang at the Ecosystem Summit in 2018. (Stephen McCarthy/Collison)

The 2020 presidential election will perhaps be one of the most significant in United States history; shifting voter demographics, widespread cultural anxiety and a crowded candidate field are just a few factors that have transformed the political landscape in recent years. With Donald Trump’s potential impeachment on the horizon, 2020 will, regardless of the outcome, mark an indelible schism. On one side of 2020 is a continuation of Trump’s America, and on the other is the cusp of a new America -- one defined by reduced inequality, reformed prisons, renewed ally relationships and revitalized efforts to curb climate change.

Twenty-two major Democratic candidates (and counting) have now thrown their hats into the race. Andrew Yang, Columbia Law educated entrepreneur and possible dark horse, is among them. Yang, 44, is best known for his proposed solution to mass unemployment and automation. While more popular candidates, such as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, share experience as elected representatives and plan to combat economic inequality through expanding existing social security programs or making public colleges tuition-free, Yang wants to level the playing field by implementing Universal Basic Income (UBI): a monthly $1,000 check for each American citizen aged 18 and older, no strings attached.

UBI is not a new concept. As early as the sixteenth century, scholars have advocated for individual citizens to be granted a certain state-supplied, guaranteed income. Over the past four hundred years, UBI has only gained more traction. In the early 1970s, a form of UBI was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives twice before being halted by the Senate. Today it is supported by Marxist sociologists, business leaders, and economic scholars across the political spectrum, from Nobel Prize Laureate Christopher Pissarides to business magnate Elon Musk to former President Barack Obama. Its endurance is indicative of its potential and widespread interest. UBI is not a new concept, but Yang has arguably revitalized it.

In an interview with the Davis Political Review, Yang contended that this regular income could effectively eradicate impoverishment by lifting every American adult up to the poverty line of around $12,770. When I questioned him about the logistics of implementing his interpretation of UBI, the Freedom Dividend, he emphasized that UBI may be easier to introduce than it appears since it has some bipartisan support.

“I’m happy to say that many Republicans are very excited about this because what they really dislike is a large bureaucracy making decisions. They really like the idea of more economic freedom and autonomy in Americans’ hands. So we’re getting a lot of support from Republicans, Independents, and Libertarians.”

Yang also argued that the government already has a developed infrastructure for directly supporting the incomes of citizens through state and local government outposts. The roll-out program would be staggered throughout the month, with individuals electing either a direct deposit into their bank accounts or a mailed check.

“Existing welfare programs have various administrative qualifications and monitoring which [the Freedom Dividend] would not.” For example, under the UBI platform he designed, the federal government would simply “verify [citizenship] with a social security number and verify one’s address… as long as [one opts] in, they would start receiving the Freedom Dividend and there doesn’t need to be much administration or monitoring after the fact.”

Yang’s Freedom Dividend is self-described as a twenty-first century form of welfare reform; he points out that many current government support programs can carry negative incentives -- if one earns more money, they may receive lower levels of benefits. The Freedom Dividend is independent of income, consistent, and automatic. Yang says the only caveat to its universality is that it’s restricted from people who are incarcerated or undergoing treatment for substance abuse via state funds. He argues that UBI could actually reduce recidivism rates, as citizens would have $1,000 waiting for them upon their release from jail.

According to Yang, UBI would go beyond ensuring basic needs are met by revitalizing rural and less prosperous areas. Since $1,000 can go further in these parts of the country, Yang suggests that the dividend would strengthen both the consumer and mainstream economies. People might move out to rural areas with their freedom dividends where the cost of living is lower. Others might migrate to cities like San Francisco or New York, since UBI would make them more affordable.

UC Davis Economics Professor Marianne P. Bitler agrees that UBI could offer advantages that existing welfare programs do not. Professor Bitler, an expert in public economics, studies how government safety net programs affect disadvantaged groups.  According to Professor Bitler, “less than one-hundred percent of people… who [are] eligible [use] every program.” For example, only 70 to 80 percent of eligible Americans receive the Earned Income Tax Credit, which supplements poor families’ incomes. She says that this results from people feeling “embarrassed or maybe wrong to take it” due to the stigma associated with public money. Professor Bitler suggests that UBI could reduce stigma surrounding government benefits, which would lead to more people receiving the help they need.

However, UBI may be more untested and complex than it appears in popular political culture. Although it could provide financial relief to most Americans, a lack of experimental evidence on a large enough scale combined with an uncertain source of funds makes it difficult to envision.

Proponents of UBI for America often cite recent studies with promising results. The Alaska Fund pays long-term Alaska residents a portion of the state’s oil revenues in the form of an annual dividend. The amount varies by year but usually amounts to around $1,000-- a fraction of what Yang proposes. Analyses of the program have found no significant effect on rates of employment or violent crime. Another is Finland’s basic income experiment, in which 2,000 randomly selected unemployed citizens were paid around half ($635) of Yang’s proposed Freedom Dividend every month; results suggested that although employment rates did not meaningfully change, aid recipients became happier and more trusting.

The results in Alaska and Finland were positive yet underwhelming -- they do not show a demonstrable change in employment rates. They increased wellbeing, but at a cost that’s hard for a political candidate to quantify and stand behind. Yang’s Human-Centered Capitalism platform reasons that UBI will transform the economy, yet it lacks direct supporting evidence.

And even though trial runs have been promising, they have all been done on a small scale. None have drawn definitive, widely applicable conclusions. UBI, if implemented, would be given to millions of Americans every month, and its effects are perhaps impossible to predetermine.

Maybe what’s most important here is not what UBI will do, but how it would be possible in the first place. The age-old government question of who will end up footing the bill could be the deciding factor in UBI’s outcome.

Yang plans to pay for UBI through a value-added tax (VAT), which is incremental, on goods and services, and paid by both residents and corporations. The vast majority of countries worldwide already have some form of a VAT. The means to pay would also come from consolidating existing welfare programs and new economic growth from UBI. Yang predicts that once implemented, UBI would grow the economy -- since more disposable money would be in Americans’ hands -- and also ultimately save the government money by improving public health and incarceration rates.

Professor Bitler says that according to some UC Berkeley economists, UBI (even with a VAT) “would cost more than twice as much as we’re currently spending on social security, Medicare, and Medicaid” -- it would be more expensive and difficult than Yang lets on. Only about half of the money for Yang’s Freedom Dividend exists right now -- the other half would need to come from taxes. Taxes would likely have to increase dramatically across the board and might greatly burden middle-class families.

It’s difficult to determine exactly how feasible UBI is when it hasn’t been implemented on a large-scale in any country for a long period of time and when its cost is debatable. Yang’s push for it is therefore even more meaningful.

Yang is an outsider to the race. Although he secured a spot in the Democratic National Convention’s first presidential debate through individual donations, the major media publications familiar with his campaign have called him a longshot candidate. Yang is facing candidates who have decades of experience in elected office and national name recognition.

“You know, I think there are many positives to it. Where Americans have unfortunately lost faith in our government to address some of the problems of today, I know excellent people who have gone into government service and a lot of them feel like their fly is stuck in amber. So I think that my coming out from the outside has an upside to many voters where there’s an instinct that if you’ve been in government for a while, your ability to make helpful changes may be lower over time.”

Yang certainly wouldn’t be the first president who hasn’t held a prior office. And his solutions to issues, while unique, aren’t far-fetched. Yang’s foothold in the tech world has given him a perspective other candidates perhaps missed out on. “I think that most of [the other candidates] don’t understand the gravity of the situation we’re in in terms of technology’s impact on the economy, but the other thing is that most politicians are afraid to attach themselves to bold proposals... ”

And isn’t this the time to be bold? Regardless of Yang’s outcome, his campaign has brought awareness of challenges related to automation and unemployment to the forefront of the political stage.

By continuing a conversation about universal basic income, Yang has paved the way for further inquiry and development. The U.S. might not adopt UBI anytime soon. But maybe America will initiate UBI on a smaller scale or consolidate welfare programs. Maybe it will be through another Democratic candidate who adopts some of Yang’s ideas.

In the meantime, though, we can explore what Yang’s policies could do on a smaller scale for college students, many of whom are millennials. His appeal to younger voters emphasizes how precarious the current job market is, and how the economy doesn’t work how it is intended to -- or how it used to.

“I want people who are reading this at UC Davis to think: how could 1,000 dollars a month improve your life? And why can’t we make that happen? We are the richest and most advanced society in the history of the world. Our economy is up to 20 trillion dollars. We can easily afford a dividend of 1,000 dollars per adult. And I want to make that happen for you all as president.”