Night two of the first Democratic presidential debate will feature a lot of familiar faces: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris.
It will also feature someone even few political junkies had heard of until very recently: Andrew Yang.
Yang, a startup veteran and founder of the nonprofit Venture for America who has never run for elected office before, has made a $12,000-per-year basic income for all American adults the centerpiece of his campaign. He averages 1 to 2 percent in public opinion polls, but as of this writing, he’s surged on prediction markets, with bettors giving him better odds than Beto O’Rourke or Amy Klobuchar.
Some of that momentum can be traced to his appearance on comedian Joe Rogan’s wildly popular podcast (the above YouTube clip of his appearance has more than 2 million views). After his appearance on the show, small donations started to stream in. As of early March, Yang had exceeded 65,000 donors, thus clearing a threshold the Democratic National Committee has set for eligibility in the first two debates.
Was considering celebrating hitting 65,000 donations by flossing but found out it wasn’t cool anymore. Thank you all for getting us this far! pic.twitter.com/7j7aAm6tvS
— Andrew Yang (@AndrewYangVFA) March 11, 2019
His campaign manager, Zach Graumann, told the Daily Beast that the campaign had already obtained at least 200 donors per state in at least 20 states, clearing another DNC threshold. “Everything is up and to the right since the Joe Rogan podcast. That was the key. That was the moment,” Graumann told the Beast’s Sam Stein and Will Sommer.
Achieving mass popularity through interview podcasts — Yang has also appeared on Sam Harris’s show, Freakonomics, and Vox’s Ezra Klein Show — is not a traditional path to a successful campaign. Nor are appearances on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program the norm in a Democratic primary. But as was seen in the 2016 election, a lot can happen when an unexpected person does well in a debate. Exceeding expectations — whether on a debate stage or a podcast — can build name recognition and can help candidates who are strikingly different from the rest of their field (like Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders) stand out.
And successful or not, Yang is a fascinating cultural phenomenon. He blends a traditionally left-wing platform (a mass expansion of the safety net and a big new value-added tax, or VAT, to pay for it) with massive appeal to the young, predominantly male, and, in their unique way, socially conservative audiences of people like Joe Rogan and Sam Harris. This meme, showing an angry, MAGA hat-wearing Trump supporter transforming into a blissful, basic income-enjoying Yang backer, is a good illustration of how certain Reddit/4chan denizens think Yang’s message will penetrate on the right:
Indeed, Yang is already winning the 2020 meme wars by a wide margin, and on the strangest accounts:
For instance, I have seen this video compilation of pro-Yang memes set to Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality” and now you have to as well:
4chan is a particularly prominent hotbed for the Yang Gang, which could cause his campaign some problems given the site’s popularity among some white nationalists; one backer posted an innocuous tweet from Yang about the opioid crisis with the caption “Andrew Yang cares about white people.”
Yang, of course, totally rejects support from white nationalists. But the mainstream Yangsters who make memes? He’s a fan.
“If you excise any racist white nationalist, bigotry leanings, I find the whole thing hysterical,” Yang told me in a phone call, audibly laughing. “You know what I mean? Imagine seeing your face on dragons and whatnot. The whole thing is funny.”
He continued, “I wish I could just jump up and down about how funny it is, but obviously there’s an element of it that’s intertwined with some terrible beliefs. Anyone who spends, like, five seconds looking into me or my background or my beliefs or my platform would be like, ‘This guy is the least white nationalist dude ever.’”
Message received! So what does Yang stand for — and what does his online success mean for the 2020 race going forward?
Meet Andrew Yang
Yang, 44 and the son of Taiwanese immigrants, worked as a corporate lawyer (“for five unhappy months,” he told Klein) after Brown and Columbia Law, before going into startups. His first one was called Stargiving and aimed to “raise money for celebrity-affiliated nonprofits,” Yang writes in his book Smart People Should Build Things, a kind of unofficial manifesto for his nonprofit Venture for America, which places recent grads of elite schools in startups in cities like Detroit and Baltimore. “It was extraordinarily difficult. My company failed spectacularly, but I recovered,” he writes.
“I went to work for a mobile software company, Crisp Wireless, and then a health care software company, MMF Systems, over the next five years, eventually becoming the CEO of a test-prep company, Manhattan GMAT, in 2006,” he continues.
Manhattan GMAT is now known as Manhattan Prep, and has expanded from offering prep for the GMAT (the standard business school admissions test) to offering GRE and LSAT prep as well. A few years after Yang took over, the test prep giant Kaplan (owned by the then-named Washington Post Company) bought Manhattan Prep.
In 2011, Yang started Venture for America (VFA), an effort to try to prevent elite colleges and universities from funneling graduates toward safe options (like jobs in finance, management consulting, or big law) by enlisting teams of fellows to move to cities across America and work for local startups.
As detailed in a 2013 New York Times profile, the group offers recent graduates a five-week boot camp on entrepreneurship, and then sets them up with startup jobs at companies that “must be less than 10 years old and employ less than 100 people. Starting salaries are $33,000 to $38,000.” The target fellows are people from selective schools who could easily be making six figures at other jobs straight out of college.
The profile, by Hannah Seligson, paints VFA as a darling of wealthy startup founders like Tony Hsieh of Zappos (based in Las Vegas, a VFA city) and Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans (based in Detroit, another VFA city). And if you read Smart People Should Build Things, that cultural milieu shines through. It’s not the work of a radical socialist firebrand. It speaks the language of startup founders and TED talk speakers, and directly targets an audience of fellow elite college grads in service of trying to spread economic growth more evenly across the US.
“We’re using educational attainment as an imperfect proxy for ‘smart’ and talking about people who get tracked, sorted, and aggregated throughout their adolescence into various universities and courses of studies,” Yang writes in the introduction. And, unsurprisingly given his organization’s name, “Venture for America,” the book largely equates creating value in overlooked parts of the US with starting businesses there. Examples Yang touts include Kickboard, a VFA partner company “that provides a software application to help teachers track student performance,” and ShapeUp, which “helps individuals promote health and wellness through social networking and goal measurement.”
“People and companies around the country are solving real problems right now,” Yang concludes, and those kinds of firms are what he means.
The Freedom Dividend: Yang’s universal basic income plan
The centerpiece of Yang’s campaign is his call for a universal basic income (UBI) that he calls the Freedom Dividend (he told Klein, in a bit of characteristic bluntness, that he calls it that because it “tests better” as a term than “universal basic income”).
The Freedom Dividend, outlined in Yang’s second book The War on Normal People, is a $1,000-per-month (or $12,000-per-year) check mailed to every adult American age 18 to 64, no strings attached. It’s a pure universal basic income, with no phaseouts for top earners or work requirements. For Americans currently benefiting from cash or cash-like programs like Social Security Disability Insurance, food stamps, or Section 8 housing assistance, Yang would offer a choice between the existing welfare state and the Freedom Dividend, in hopes that no one would be left worse off.
Yang, like many entrepreneurs who have become attracted to UBI, embraces the policy as a way to cope with automation. “Truck driving alone is the most common job in twenty-nine states with 3.5 million drivers — 94 percent of them male — and an additional 12 million workers supporting them in truck stops and motels across the country,” his website proclaims. “What happens when the trucks start to drive themselves?”
“Humanity First” is among the Yang campaign’s most prominent slogans, and he frames his main financing mechanism for the Freedom Dividend — a 10 percent values added tax (VAT) — as a way to prevent big companies like Amazon and Google from “funnel[ling] hundreds of billions in earnings overseas. VAT makes it impossible for them to benefit from the American people and infrastructure without paying their fair share.” It would, he claims, “capture the value generated by automation in a way that income taxes would not.”
This is a strange claim. VATs are basically sales taxes levied at each stage of production (when a lumber company sells wood to a paper mill, when the paper mill sells paper to Dunder Mifflin, when Dunder Mifflin sells paper to you), and as such, economists generally believe that consumers bear most or all of the cost of increased VAT rates. Recent empirical studies confirm this: While decreases in VATs are often captured by businesses that pocket the money as increased profit, businesses are savvy about passing on increased VAT rates to their consumers.
Corporations would probably bear some of the burden — for one thing, VATs would reduce the value of corporate profits by making all the stuff profits can buy more expensive — but it’s mostly a consumption tax.
And Yang understands this. In his interview with Klein, he justifies the regressive nature of the tax by noting that the highly progressive nature of the Freedom Dividend offsets it. He concedes we’d need to implement a policy for seniors on fixed incomes, who’d see their purchasing power fall substantially.
Besides the VAT, Yang would finance the Freedom Dividend with savings from other welfare programs that beneficiaries opt out of; a projected decrease in spending on social maladies like crime, incarceration, and health conditions because of reduced poverty; and economic growth, citing a Roosevelt Institute estimate that a basic income, especially if not accompanied by tax increases, would substantially increase GDP by boosting consumption.
The rest of Yang’s platform
His agenda doesn’t stop there — the Yang 2020 policy page is a smorgasbord of ideas from the mainstream Democratic (Medicare-for-all, paid family leave, legal marijuana) to the Extremely Andrew Yang ($100 vouchers for all Americans to donate to nonprofits, an American Journalism Fellows program to revive local news, an American Mall Act to find new uses for shuttered shopping malls, geoengineering to fight global warming, hiring a White House psychologist to “monitor the mental health of employees serving in the executive branch”).
A bunch of Yang’s proposals fall into the category of “more popular among liberal political bloggers than most politicians,” like reviving earmarks to make bills easier to pass, or automatic filing of income taxes.
Then the platform veers into stranger territory (thanks to Jeremiah Johnson, host of The Neoliberal Podcast and a Yang skeptic, for flagging these to me). Yang calls for a 15 to 20 percent reduction in the federal workforce, saying he will “hire a management consulting firm to identify areas of inefficiency in the federal workforce.”
That’s an odd pitch, especially to Democratic primary voters. Under Barack Obama, the federal workforce fell to its smallest level as a share of the total workforce since FDR. Fewer people work for the federal government now than did under Ronald Reagan, even though the population has grown by some 100 million people since then. The low pay of the civil service has led to traditional federal government jobs being supplanted by private contractors, who are typically paid substantially more for similar work. And in any case, causing massive layoffs at an institution that employs 2 million Americans hardly seems compatible with a “humanity first” approach.
When pushed on this, Yang retreated somewhat.
“I’m not arguing that too many people work for the federal government writ large,” he told me. “We should hire many thousands of people for public works projects and making our infrastructure more sustainable and resilient, but that does not mean you would not also want to scrutinize the organization that you currently have.” He definitely does think the government could use some streamlining in existing departments, and some additional automation.
He adds, “One of the proposals I have that I think would be a huge win is something suggested by one of your colleagues: to move several agencies out of DC, because Washington is a very expensive area with lots of traffic and development. … The costs would be lower and the jobs and energy would be higher, and the culture of the departments would shift to be closer to the needs of the people.”
Yang also wants to establish a news and information ombudsman at the Federal Communications Commission to fight fake news, with the power to impose “penalties for persistent and destructive misstatements that undermine public discourse.” You don’t have to be a First Amendment absolutist to see how that could go wrong, but Yang thinks the risks of overreach are manageable. “The real problem is that no one can agree on anything and there are foreign actors laughing their asses off while they’re tampering with our democracy because no one can tell fact from fiction,” he says.
And then there’s the Legion of Builders and Destroyers, the real name of Yang’s signature infrastructure proposal. He proposes siphoning off:
10% of the military budget — approximately $60 billion per year — to a new domestic infrastructure force called the Legion of Builders and Destroyers. The Legion would be tasked with keeping our country strong by making sure our bridges, roads, power grid, levies, dams, and infrastructure are up-to-date, sound and secure. It would also be able to clear derelict buildings and structures that cause urban blight in many of our communities and respond to natural disasters. … The Commander of the Legion would have the ability to overrule local regulations and ordinances to ensure that projects are started and completed promptly and effectively.
You may be thinking you read that incorrectly, but you did not. I asked him how far this power would extend — could the Commander of the Legion decide to build a freeway through downtown Manhattan whether or not residents liked it?
“Obviously, there would still be a need for some kind of consensus and agreement. You wouldn’t have some autocrat making decisions that would end up doing something that would be inefficient or negative for a given community at a high level,” he explained. “But we have to face facts that the US has gotten terrible at building things because everyone’s gotten their hands tied with bureaucratic processes that have gone overboard in many cases.”
He added, “I’m glad you like the name because who wouldn’t want to join the Legion of Builders and Destroyers?”
The Yang Meme Gang
If I had never heard of Andrew Yang before and you asked me, “Who is the natural base for a candidate running on establishing a Legion of Builders and Destroyers?” I would say, “Obviously, memelords on Reddit and 4chan.” And the prophecy has been fulfilled.
“Over the past few weeks, Yang has been the topic of frequent positive 4Chan threads, normally a stronghold for Donald Trump’s most racist supporters,” the Daily Beast’s Stein and Sommer write. “Yang’s UBI proposal has been especially appealing to 4Chan users who embrace the shiftless ‘NEET’ lifestyle (‘Not in Education, Employment, or Training’) and would rather play video games all day than have jobs. 4Chan posters have admiringly started to call Yang’s Freedom Dividend proposal ‘NEETbux.’”
Indeed, a cursory look at /pol/, 4chan’s political discussion forum, reveals several Yang threads, including this one making Paul Bunyan-esque claims about Yang, infused with a big dose of Orientalist stereotyping (“Yang is said to have 215+ IQ, such intelligence on Earth has only existed deep in Tibetan monasteries & Area 51”).
But not all pro-Yang 4chan posters are benign NEETbux fans. My Verge colleague Russell Brandom notes that some white nationalists have deluded themselves into believing that Yang is on their side; one backer posted an innocuous tweet from Yang about the opioid crisis with the caption, “Andrew Yang cares about white people.” At least one prominent alt-righter with a big platform — Richard Spencer — has voiced sympathy for Yang’s campaign.
Yang completely rejected any support from white nationalists like Spencer in a statement to Brandom:
I denounce and disavow hatred, bigotry, racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and the alt-right in all its many forms. Full stop. For anyone with this agenda, we do not want your support. We do not want your votes. You are not welcome in this campaign.”
So far, Yang’s remarkable online following has gotten him on track to participate in televised debates. But as Brandom notes, the perception of support from some of the internet’s most noxious quarters risks damaging the campaign’s reputation, and doing so unfairly. There are plenty of valid reasons — his inexperience in government, some of his more out-there platform items — to not back him, but a fear that he’s associated with the alt-right is not among them.
To build the Yang Gang going forward, Yang will have to find a way to harness the enthusiasm for him on sites like Reddit without its worst elements tarring unfairly him by association.
But his mere candidacy, and presence on a debate stage, matters. In a super-crowded field, candidates need signature ideas that stand out. That’s why Julián Castro is trying to become the pro-reparations candidate, why Pete Buttigieg wants to be the court-packing candidate, and why Jay Inslee wants to be the climate candidate.
And Yang’s signature idea is arguably the boldest and most surprising of the bunch. That could help Yang break out from the pack — and it could help UBI become an even more mainstream idea.
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