In little more than a decade, the American way of life will be swept away like so much historical debris. Automation will make the social order we now take for granted obsolete and along with it the working lives of millions of individual Americans. There is nothing we can do to stop this; our only recourse is to prepare for the inevitable. It’s not quite “Morning in America” but there you have the rather bleak vision animating Andrew Yang’s longshot bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential ticket, a surprisingly successful venture so-far that happens to be the most captivating show in American politics right now.
The son of academics who immigrated to America from Taiwan, Yang, now 43, graduated from Columbia Law in 1999 but quickly left the legal field for tech startups and eventually became a successful entrepreneur. Now he’s entered national politics with a promise and a threat. Yang won’t prevent the machines from conquering ever more of our economy and social lives—resistance is futile, he claims, and not necessarily desirable given the potential increases in productivity. But as the only politician who acknowledges that catastrophic change is around the corner, he’s the only one who will start building the ramparts. And therein lies Yang’s promise. As the best line of defense against automation, he’s offering voters cold hard cash.
Under a President Yang, every American citizen would receive a thousand dollars a month to do with as they please. Often known as “universal basic income,” Yang has repackaged this old idea as the “freedom dividend.” The dividend would produce an “enormous boost to tens of millions of Americans and put many into the middle class immediately,” Yang told the magazine Quillette, last year. “Consider a town of 50,000 people in Missouri or Georgia. With the Freedom Dividend, they would be getting approximately $60 million in spending power in that town. And so, the majority of that money would go into local businesses, car repair shops, restaurants, tutoring services for your kids.” It’s a message candidate Yang plans to spread via hologram by projecting a 3D image of himself to remotely deliver stump speeches.
If it all sounds a bit fevered, more like a sci-fi plot than a proper political platform, Yang’s demeanor and policies convey the opposite message. In interviews and media appearances, the former lawyer and healthcare entrepreneur comes across as sober, his message more cautiously optimistic than alarmist. Many of his policy proposals are downright thoughtful. In addition to more conventional planks like extending Medicare as a single-payer version of universal health coverage, Yang has a plan to repurpose thousands of malls across the country that Amazon is turning into ghost towns, and a proposal to make tax filing automatic.
The sales pitch is working and Yang has gone, in a matter of months from a virtual unknown with no background in politics, to an internet phenomenon boosted by an anonymous “Yang Gang” meme network, to his current position, as a ubiquitous media presence polling at 3%—which would appear to earn him a spot in the Democratic debates beginning later this year—and nipping at Elizabeth Warren’s heels.
Free money isn’t the only source of Yang’s appeal. Implicit in his campaign is the possibility of escaping from one of the drearier and more interminable aspects of modern American life: the endless culture war. Take his approach to universities. There are two ways of framing the problem with American higher education. Conservatives see academic inquiry under attack from ideologically driven administrations, activist professors, and fragile, censorious students. Progressives, meanwhile, criticize universities as profit-maximizing institutions that leave students burdened with crushing debt, while affirming the academy’s role in spreading progressive social values. The terms of the debate have been locked for decades. But Yang cleverly organizes an end run around the whole moldy problem. He suggests “a gradual phase-in of a desired ratio of administrators to students of 1 to 30 as a condition of public funding as opposed to the current 1 to 21. The ratio was 1 to 50 in the 1970s – if we can get back to that level then college will be much cheaper.” In other words, rather than dealing at all with the motives, whether ideological or profit-driven, or attempting to push for a final status victory for either side in the campus culture wars, Yang goes around the problem to get out of it. Force schools to take money away from non-essential administrative cadres that justify their existence by enforcing political edicts, and give it back to students. At the same time, “stipulate that any university that receives public funding cannot increase its costs by more than the rate of annual median wage growth the year before.” Who knows if this will work, but can anyone bear another decade of rehashing the same tedious arguments that have been on a loop since the 60s?
Yang’s very identity carries the implicit promise that he might be able to act as an Asian-American reconciler. Already, he’s been able to publicly acknowledge the social devastation experienced by out of work white men in parts of the country where the job market has collapsed, without being permanently tarred as a racist. In February Yang tweeted: “Deaths now outnumber births among white people in more than half the states in the country. Much of this is low birth rates and white men dying from substance abuse and suicide. Our life expectancy has declined for 3 years. We need to do much more.” And while the statement attracted cheers from white nationalists that he then had to disavow, it didn’t appear to seriously hurt his popularity or slow down his campaign. It might, on the contrary, have demonstrated his ability to occupy a middle ground of shared civic concern where he can mediate between different groups. One group that ought to be paying close attention to Yang is American Jews.
Most of Yang’s interaction with American Jewish life thus far has been oblique. He raised some alarms by coming out against male circumcision, suggesting an air of progressive anti-religious attitudes. But he’s clarified, most recently in an interview with Ben Shapiro, that his opposition is a personal matter and not something he’d attempt to regulate. Then there was the high profile support Yang received from Internet meme-makers associated with the anti-Semitic conspiracists of the alt-right. This was a media fixation but there’s not much to say about it given that Yang can’t choose his online boosters and has explicitly renounced the support of cartoon fascist communities online.
Yet, Yang’s candidacy does have profound implications for the political future of American Jews. Only, the significance isn’t in Yang’s personal attitudes towards religious customs or his fictional ties to the alt-right but in the potential consequences if he’s right about the scale of change from automation over the next two decades—and he’s hardly alone or especially radical in his predictions. “All you need is self-driving cars to destabilize society,” Yang told The New York Times last year. It will be only a few years from now, he told the paper, before “we’re going to have a million truck drivers out of work who are 94 percent male, with an average level of education of high school or one year of college. That one innovation will be enough to create riots in the street. And we’re about to do the same thing to retail workers, call center workers, fast-food workers, insurance companies, accounting firms.”
Large-scale transformations in the instruments of commerce and communication technology are recurring features of modernity that, like capitalism itself, have always been linked to Judaism and the position of Jews in a society. Starting in 17th century Europe, David Nirenberg writes in his book Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, “figures of Judaism were proxies in an increasingly sharp struggle over what European economies should look like.” Later, in the mid-19th century, during the convulsive period of the first Industrial Revolution, “just when it became most necessary to perceive the differences between real Jews and figures of Judaism,” Nirenberg writes, “critical thought blurred them once again into one.” The results of this blurring varied with local custom and temperament: the Dreyfus affair; the pogroms; industrial murder; were among the forms it took. If we are really in the midst of a fourth Industrial Revolution, there is every reason to expect that the psychological mass manias that accompanied such episodes in the past will recur in some form with their essential character unchanged.
In style and substance, Yang is the first genuinely post-liberal figure in American political life. The evidence for this starts with the fact that his candidacy was launched in the same venue that turned Jordan Peterson into a global phenomenon, the Joe Rogan Podcast. Yang’s first major interview with The New York Times came in February 2018 but his real breakthrough would come a year later, when, this past February, he was launched into the public consciousness by the new media kingmaker. “Everything is up and to the right since the Joe Rogan Podcast,” Yang’s campaign manager later told The Daily Beast. “That was the key. That was the moment.”
“Human-centered capitalism” is the name Yang has given his political program. The other two Democrats who take capitalism as the subject of their politics, have very different attitudes toward it. Elizabeth Warren’s anti-trust initiative takes aim at the illicit basis on which the modern tech monopolies were formed and proposes to break them up, while Bernie Sanders campaigns on redistributing power from the owners of capital to workers, a group defined a bit differently since Marx’s time. Yang, by contrast, is promising to save capitalism by siphoning off its profits to subsidize the very people it’s making expendable, while investing in civic projects to jumpstart new areas for productive labor. Yang’s offer to American voters is basically that he’ll save us from the pitiless logic of techno-capitalism. His offer to the techno-capitalists is that by imposing a set of social Democratic limits on their technological efficiency, primarily through taxation, he’ll tamp down on the decades of riots, anti-capitalist agitation, and convulsive bloodletting that accompanied the last industrial revolution, and thereby allow them to consolidate their hold on power into the future.
The really beguiling thing about the elixir of attitudes and policies that go into Yang’s formula is that they maintain a residue of civic patriotism without any strong attachment to the actual components of American democracy. Noah Millman captures this point in an article for The Week reflecting on the political vision outlined in Yang’s book, The War on Normal People.
What kind of politics would such a world engender? It’s not likely to be a democratic one — and between the lines of Yang’s book he seems to recognize that fact. Yang’s solutions involve a substantial restructuring of the American economy without massive central planning. But someone will need to construct and maintain the networks through which the citizenry interacts. Someone will need to decide how much of a universal income is optimal, and from what perspective optimality is calculated. Implicitly, the vision is of a world where enormous power rests in the hands of the kinds of people who run firms like Google, and a lot of faith required that those people won’t be evil.
Deciding what is optimal is the language and logic of Silicon Valley and it proceeds from the premise that the optimizer already knows the desired outcome in any given situation—if they didn’t, what would they be optimizing for? One of Yang’s ideas is for a “Digital Social Credit,” a name that invites comparison to the Chinese government’s social credit system. The idea is spelled out in detail on Yang’s website: “In order to spur development, the government should issue a new currency – the Digital Social Credit – which can be converted into dollars and used to reward people and organizations who drive significant social value. This new currency would allow people to measure the amount of good that they have done through various programs and actions.”
In the event of any disagreement over how to measure units of good, or how to track the rewards for designated drivers of significant social value who take part in sanction programs and actions, we can count on there being algorithms to sort out such matters. And if some troublesome person should question how we determine a definition of good that’s suitable for all Americans, or who controls the algorithms that make such decisions, Yang’s bet, and he won’t be that last to make it, is that the promise of a thousand bucks a month, a truce in the culture wars, and a brake applied to the dizzying pace of change, will convince most people that they’d rather not push too hard looking for answers.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.