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Last evening, I attended a rain-soaked rally in New York City for long-shot Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, a 44-year-old entrepreneur who is running on a platform based on three main ideas: a universal-basic income (UBI), Medicare for All, and what he calls "human-centered capitalism." He's funny, smart, and forward-looking. Although he has effectively zero chance of becoming president (then again, who thought Donald Trump would ever win?) and his vision is built upon flawed premises (more on that in a moment), the conversation he's trying to start is worth taking seriously, if only because his fear of a jobless future resonates with many people.
Although Yang's campaign said that over 5,000 people RSVPed to the rally, held at Washington Square near New York University, there were maybe a few hundred people in attendance. The rain, heavy at times, doubtless depressed turnout, but the mood was ebullient, with followers holding up signs that said everything from "Math" (a nod to the idea that the candidate's numbers on his policies check out) to "Foreskin for the Win" (the Taiwanese-American Yang told The Daily Beast that he's skeptical of routine circumcision of male babies).
Over about 20 minutes of comments, the candidate hammered home his main themes. "How did Donald Trump become our president in 2016?" Yang asked at one point. "The explanations go something like Russia, Facebook, the FBI, maybe a dash of Hillary Clinton thrown in there. But I looked at the numbers…and Donald Trump is our president for one simple reason: We automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa, all of the swing states that Donald Trump needed to win."
Anxiety over an increasingly jobless future is the motivating concern of Yang's campaign. He thinks his version of a UBI, which would give every American between the ages of 18 and 64 $1,000 a month in cash, will provide people enough of a cushion to alleviate the stress and anxiety of economic dislocation without undercutting the desire to work and be productive. Indeed, he says that having basic needs met through a UBI and tax-provided health insurance (Medicare for All) will actually spur people to be more creative and entrepreneurial without reducing their zeal for employment. The jury is out on all of this, especially since the one existing program he keeps pointing to is Alaska's Permanent Fund, which gave residents there just $1,600 for the entire year of 2018. Alaska simultaneously boasts the second-highest labor force participation rate and the nation's highest unemployment rate, so go figure. Given the lack of truly relevant, long-term experiments, it's far from clear what the outcome of a UBI might be.
That said, it will be costly—around $3 trillion a year (the current federal budget is $4.4 trillion). Medicare for All is also expensive—around $32 trillion over 10 years—and it's not immediately clear how Yang would pay for all this. His campaign website talks about eliminating some federal spending, instituting a value-added tax (VAT) of 10 percent that would squeeze big tech companies more. He also says that his UBI would "permanently grow the economy by 12.56 to 13.10 percent," which seems precisely like the sort of exact-sounding rosy scenario that doesn't pass the smell test. Whether Yang's budget math adds up it's at least slightly heartening that, unlike, say, Bernie Sanders, he at least makes a gesture toward paying for his governing vision (Sanders resolutely refuses to explain in any detail how he's going to pay for his version of Medicare for All).
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