Interview: Presidential campaign brings ‘new crowds’ to basic income
Interview with Democratic Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang
By: Jason Burke Murphy
[Note from Jason Burke Murphy. This interview took place on June 11th, 2018. Yang took time out of one of his presidential campaign rallies and fundraisers to speak with me. I describe the rally in US Basic Income Guarantee Network’s blog. After I stopped recording, he expressed his hope that supporters of basic income would get behind his campaign early. Andrew Yang was then, and still is as of this writing, the only announced candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination.]
Murphy: How did you first hear about basic income?
Yang: I think I heard about it first for sure from Martin Ford’s book Rise of the Robots. I heard about it before then in articles but Martin Ford’s book made an impression. Andy Stern’s book Raising the Floor cemented the idea while coming from a different angle. Martin is a technologist and Andy is a labor leader. Stern’s book clinched it for me. I found myself coming to the same conclusion. Now basic income could no longer just be about technologists over-hyping the near-term progress of automation. Stern is someone who has a firm grasp on the labor market in the US.
Murphy: How did friends and family react to your decision to run for President?
Yang: Oh, my parents were initially anxious and worried about it. Friends had a range of reactions. One cried tears of joy and has been immensely helpful. Others were skeptical. I will say now that support is very strong with friends and family. When you tell someone about a decision, they might react one way but when the decision is made in public, then they have a different attitude and stance.
Murphy: Joseph Biden, a possible candidate, has explicitly rejected basic income. It seems like other presumptive candidates have stayed quite distant. Why do you think that is the case?
Yang: I think in Joe’s case—and I read his comments—he is stuck in this framing of a subsistence model in which value is tied to showing up at an hourly waged job. His explicit argument for why basic income is a bad thing is that people need work. What he doesn’t realize is that universal basic income is pro-work. It is pro doing work that people actually want to do. Joe is stuck in an era when we thought that, if someone had a certain amount of money in their pocket, they would want to do nothing at all. That is an old welfare-era framework that I think was never true. [Laughs.] In Joe’s mind, that relationship is still there. Other Democrats are going to resist making commitments in this direction because they are afraid of being painted as “socialists” or economically unsophisticated. In truth, it requires a degree of economic sophistication to understand basic income and to see how it would be great for our economy and our people.
“Other Democrats in my opinion are not sophisticated enough to understand the impact a basic income would have in the economy… They do not realize that we would be channeling money back into our economy through the hands and the decisions of our citizens.”
Murphy: Do you think as people hear about basic income, they are going to think more about economics?
Yang: What happens right now is that people are stuck in this scarcity mindset in which they ask how we can afford it. Won’t it cause rapid inflation? Won’t it make purchasing power go away? None of that is true! [Laughs.] So, other Democrats, in my opinion, are not sophisticated enough to understand the impact a basic income would have in the economy. They are stuck thinking that the money would be “gone” and we would need to “go get more of it.” They are not realizing that we would be channeling money back into our economy through the hands and the decisions of our citizens. The vast majority of the money would be spent in our regional economy every day. The Roosevelt Institute’s estimates that it would create four and a half million new jobs and grow the economy by two and a half trillion.
Murphy: I really liked that paper. For one thing, it is methodologically very cautious. For another, I liked basic income before I knew it would be that good.
Yang: Yeah, their projection was based on it coming from deficit spending and they posited a lower impact if it was paid for by taxes. Whereas, I am very confident that, simply by shifting money to the hands of the people most likely to spend, you would induce economic growth. One thousand dollars a month in the hands of a really wealthy person does absolutely nothing. It just becomes a line item somewhere.
Murphy: Money in the hands of the wealthy, if spent at all, goes into the streets that are already looking pretty good.
Yang: It just stays in someone’s account. When money goes to anyone in the bottom half of the US population then it will be spent on things that will manifest themselves in local businesses in the community.
Murphy: One of the reasons I support a basic income is that I grew up in Arkansas. A region like the Delta is invisible politically. I just know that very few other approaches are going to get anything down there.
Yang: That’s right. Virtually nothing else.
Murphy: If someone has a big plan for education and job training, I am not against those, but I doubt it will actually get to the neighborhoods I worked in there in Arkansas.
Yang: You are right.
Murphy: How are you looking to fund a basic income?
Yang: The main way we need to fund it is through a value-added tax. A VAT is an efficient way to raise revenue, it taxes consumption, which is what we ought to be taxing instead of something like work and labor. We are the only industrialized economy that does not use the VAT. We would be harvesting the gains of automation and new technologies much more effectively than income-based taxes.
Murphy: There are a few other proposals like a carbon tax or a tax on income above the one percent. What do you think of these other proposals that pop up?
Yang: I think some proposals try to finesse something that cannot be finessed. We try to find a way to fund a basic income without causing any pain or friction. I support taxing carbon and we will tax rich people. But we are talking about re-organizing the way that value is distributed in our society. So we can’t think that we can do that in some elegant way that leaves most people untouched.
[Note from Murphy: Yang’s platform also includes a financial transactions tax, which we did not discuss. There is also a call for an end to the current favorable tax treatment for capital gains and carried interest. That is not listed as funding for a BI.]
Murphy: Thinking of that, sometimes supporters present basic income as a reformist measure and sometimes others present it as a very radical transformation.
Yang: You can put me in the “radical transformation” category.
“Fifty-nine percent of Americans can’t afford to pay a surprise $500 charge. Our life expectancy is declining due to a surge in suicide. Seven Americans die of opiates every hour. Americans are starting businesses, getting married, and having kids at record low level or at the lowest in multiple decades. So, society is disintegrating and even very sick.”
Murphy: You are the first candidate [for the Democratic Presidential nomination] to announce. This is giving you access to curious people. I saw an article in which you were meeting with New Hampshire Democrats. That is a new crowd for basic income. How are these meetings working for you?
Yang: They are interested in what I have to say. Most of what I have to say revolves around the fact that we are going through the greatest technological and economic shift in human history. That is objective. That is data-driven. People find it very resonant. They sense that this is true. Most of our conversations are around what is happening with technology and labor and the economy and job polarization—all things that we are experiencing right now. One of the dangers of basic income right now is that it can seem like we are debating different versions of utopia. When we turn someone’s attention to the depth and breadth of our current social problems, we can talk about what can actually make a difference. The situation you saw in Arkansas is becoming more and more true for more and more Americans. May I give some of the stats that I feature in my book and in speeches?
Yang: Fifty-nine percent of Americans can’t afford to pay a surprise $500 charge. Our life expectancy is declining due to a surge in suicide. Seven Americans die of opiates every hour. Americans are starting businesses, getting married, and having kids at record low level or at the lowest in multiple decades. So, society is disintegrating and even very sick.
Murphy: We often use words like “self-employed” and “side hustle” for people who are…
Yang: Who are being exploited by a billion-dollar tech company that says “be your own boss” but pays you nickels on the dollar.
“We need to quit measuring everything based on GDP and profitability at the expense of human values. We should direct our energy towards thing that improve lives. The concentration of gains in the hands of a few is a toxic way to move forward.”
Murphy: Not long ago, we would hear people say that we need to choose between universal health care and basic income. Your platform simply has both. It seems like we are having a similar moment with a jobs guarantee. We keep hearing that we need to pick one or the other. It seems like many good people think that basic income crowds out something they are very concerned about.
Yang: That is an unproductive approach. We should not get lost in dueling utopias. If you are for universal health care, you should think about how much one thousand dollars a month will open up access to health care. If you care about gender equality and you want to see women avoid abusive workplaces and domestic situations—a thousand dollars a month could be vital. Let’s start with the cash because that will be the easiest thing to get done.
Murphy: Your platform has multiple issues alongside basic income.
Yang: Definitely. I am all for single-payer health care and we can certainly do better with health than we are at present. That said, even after I win the Presidency, giving everyone cash will be easier to execute than universal health care. Andrew Stern points out that the government is terrible at many things but it is excellent at sending cash to many people promptly and reliably.
Murphy: Any ideas on how a basic income would affect foreign policy?
Yang: In the end, I think basic income will rationalize our spending, make us more optimistic, and smarter about our resources. Our citizens may end up less likely to want to lose a trillion dollars on military interventions worldwide.
Murphy: You call your worldview “Human Capitalism”. For some people “capitalism” refers to markets. For others, it refers to the domination of wealthy people.
Yang; First, I would agree with those who think that our current version of capitalism and corporatism is why our disintegration is happening. I am not a fan of continuing down this road. We have to reverse course as fast as possible. Reversing course, however, does not mean abandoning the things that have made capitalism effective. The problem is that our measuring sticks are all wrong. There are more effective ways to do things. Markets can help find the effective ways. We need to quit measuring everything based on GDP and profitability at the expense of human values. We should direct our energy towards the things that improve lives. The concentration of gains in the hands of a few is a toxic way to move forward. This is bad even for the so-called “winners” in society. Studies have proven that the winners in an unequal society are more anxious and depressed than the winners in a more equal society. This is enlightened self-interest. I can sympathize with anyone who thinks that “capitalism” is a dirty word. The first line in the description of human capitalism on our website is “Humans are more important than money.”
Murphy: Thank you for speaking with me between events. Is there any last word you want to make to readers?
Yang: I am hoping to get support soon from the basic income community. I have been campaigning for about four months. We are drawing from their ideas. We hope we can see them sign up because we need their support.
You may disagree with some item on my platform but I hope you can see that the direction and the spirit are right and that we can push a genuine conversation about basic income. We could really use their passion. We need a movement that recognizes that our community is disintegrating and that basic income is an essential answer. I hope that basic income activists can believe in this campaign.
[Note from Murphy. Some portions of this interview were edited slightly for clarity as we moved from spoken word to written word. No content was altered. Thank you to Andrew Yang for taking time out of his campaign to speak with me. Thanks to Tyler Prochazka for proofreading.]