Q&A: Andrew Yang on UBI and his US presidential run

Many Democratic politicians believe wealth inequality is a problem in the United States. Yet only Andrew Yang proposes giving every American citizen more money, regardless of their income. In fact, he’s running for president on a platform of giving every citizen, between the ages of 18 and 65, $1,000 a month.

The plan is known as Universal Basic Income, an economic concept that’s receiving increasing attention among for one main reason: the rise of robots (CNBC).

A former tech executive, Yang says he’s seen millions of jobs quietly replaced by machines that never need a holiday. He says once mass unemployment hits, there shouldn’t be a surprise when displaced humans lash out politically. 

“It’s easier to get angry at people that are different than you, than at machines,” Yang told WikiTribune, referring to his belief that automation is a hidden reason Donald Trump was elected to the presidency.

Yang says he isn’t against automation. He just wants to make it more palatable. He sees a UBI as the most efficient way of distributing wealth from those who own the machines to those who don’t. He plans on paying for the program by implementing a Value-Added Tax, a major revenue source for European governments that imposes taxes on the supply chain of goods.

According to Yang’s plan, people receiving traditional government assistance would have to choose between their benefits and a UBI paycheck. 

Yang acknowledges the implausibility of the current Congress establishing a historic wealth distribution scheme along with a new tax system to pay for it. But Yang is eager to start the conversation via presidential campaign, even if the run is mainly symbolic.

The following interview conducted by WikiTribune has been edited for clarity and brevity.

WikiTribune: In your book, The War on Normal People, you say “hard work” can only get you so far. Would society improve without the notion that everyone can become rich if they try hard enough?

Andrew Yang: I think it would be ideal if that idea were true. We have certain ideas that Americans hold very dear, but the institutions aren’t delivering. Right now, if you’re an American born in 1990, the chances of you being better off than your parents are down to 50 percent. Whereas in previous decades, that chance was closer to 90 percent. So, the American dream is decaying and disintegrating before our eyes and more Americans are waking up to that reality.

WT: Basic income is an old concept that’s become relevant to some people today because of automation. But do most Americans even see automation as a serious threat?

AY: The majority of Americans do now. I saw a survey that said 70 percent of Americans agree that technology is going to destroy more jobs than it creates … We’ve already automated away four million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin and other states, which helped lead to Donald Trump’s election. So, the economic displacement is already ripping through our society and Americans can see that for themselves.

You know what’s interesting, I actually think people have been waiting for someone to say this is the case (about automation) … There’s almost a sense of relief when someone says something they already knew on some level.

WT:  As you discuss worker displacement around the country, how often do voters bring up immigration? Do you ever feel compelled to have a platform that couples protecting the border with protecting the U.S. labor force?

AY: I have encountered some concern if immigrants are allowed to enter the country in large numbers that would be bad for American workers. The reality is we do need to secure our borders. Particularly, if one were to implement Universal Basic Income, because coming here would be more appealing. So, there is some truth to that concern. But if you look at the numbers, immigrants typically end up being very positive for the economy. Most end up above the national average by the second generation. Villainizing immigrants as job destroyers is not the right way to go because it’s factually incorrect.

WT:  What are common concerns and questions you hear from Americans when you talk about Universal Basic Income and widening inequality?

AY:  The top objections we hear are: how can we afford that? Number two is: would people stop working? Number three is: would it cause inflation? And number four is: won’t people use it on bad things, like drugs and alcohol? I think those are the four most common concerns that people have.

WT: Let’s talk about the second concern. A study in 1970, known as SIME DIME, found that “work effort response” is slightly compromised when basic income is introduced. Do you think those findings are applicable to today?

AY: I think that it’s the best, most recent data we have here in the U.S., but that’s going to change very soon. New data from Oakland will be coming out. If you look at the data (from the 1970s), it was quite promising where the majority of people that worked less were either teenagers who stayed in school and graduated from high school at higher levels, or new mothers who spent more time with their children. So, I think that 1970s data is very important, but it will be even better if we could have a study of that scale right now here in the U.S. to determine the impact across different groups.

WT: As for the potential for price inflation behind UBI … automation will bring down the prices for several goods and services, but not for housing. With most low-income Americans living in rental properties, are you concerned landlords may simply just raise rent knowing that every renter has at least an extra $1,000?

AY: It’s certainly going to be an issue, but there’s still going to be competition between landlords. If I’m a landlord, and I get greedy and try to stick it to people they can vote with their feet. People will be more mobile between different neighborhoods and even regions and communities because the Universal Basic Income goes with you. Whereas right now, most people need to live in certain places to be close to their jobs.

WT: Do you find that you have to avoid the term “welfare” when you talk about Universal Basic Income?

AY: People have a lot of built up associations with welfare programs. Universal Basic Income is distinct in that there’s no means testing, there’s no case manager or administrator checking in to see whether you still belong on the program. So it’s useful to start a new conversation. … I haven’t felt a need to use the term welfare because I do believe Universal Basic Income is a totally separate thing.

WT: Economist Karl Widerquist advocates for UBI to help children living in poverty, considering growing up poor can cause lasting trauma. Do you plan on adjusting UBI in the future depending on how many children one has?

AY: I think we need to tackle the issues in front of us right now. If you’re a single mom struggling to get by, getting an additional $1,000 a month would be a game changer. Knowing your child is going to receive $1,000 a month when they turn 18 would also be a game changer. Certainly, I’m eager to try and solve even more problems over time. The first step is trying to support the people that are currently in position to benefit the most.

A study in North Carolina showed children’s personalities actually became more conscientious and agreeable, which are two very positive traits for professional and personal success, when their parents started receiving monthly checks around a $1,000 level.

WT: The U.S. is not the only country dealing with widening inequality and automation. Should the U.S. adopt a Universal Basic Income if other countries don’t institute a similar program?

AY:  I think it would be an amazing sign of global leadership if America were to implement a Universal Basic Income. It’s the one thing I tell my supporters in various states is that we have a chance not just to advance our own nation, but we could advance our entire species.

It would make us much more competitive in terms of people’s perception of (the United States) because we would have built an economy that prioritizes human beings intrinsically instead of economic inputs into a system. That would be the most powerful statement we can make to the world.

WT: Are you concerned that a focus on the pernicious effect of automation might bring out the populists who want anti-innovation policies to combat the “robots taking your job” fear?

AY: To me, this is an inevitability if we don’t get our act together and do something. Inequality, which is already at record levels and continues to rise, will end up fueling instability and unrest. The best path forward is the distribution of the gains of automation to larger numbers of people.

To me there are two major ways this will go. One is the benign revolution, which I am doing all I can to speed up and lead. Then there’s the dark and ugly revolution where people seize the means of production and say, “Hey, that handful of people seems to have much more than we do …” History has shown that that doesn’t end well.

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