On Wednesday, former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang entered New York City's mayoral race, releasing a campaign launch video directed by Darren Aronofsky and featuring details for his platform if elected mayor. And hot dogs. Lots of authentic New York City hot dogs.
The video, first and foremost, is littered with assurances that Yang is a New Yorker, not the latest in a long line of millionaires swooping in while it’s convenient. He grew up an hour north of the City, moved to Morningside Heights, saw New York Knicks forward Larry Johnson's legendary four point play in person, loves the Mets but is disappointed by the Knicks, his wife is from Queens, his kids were born St. Luke's Hospital in Morningside, you get the point.
Part of the need for this soft rebrand is that Yang has long associated himself with Silicon Valley culture. He led startups in the early 2000s and founded a nonprofit called Venture for America in 2011 with the mission to convince cities that more startups could solve their problems and create jobs. It didn’t exactly succeed. His 2020 presidential bid was characterized by strong support from tech workers and diverse corners of the internet including what we were still then calling the “alt-right.” His supporters wore shirts emblazoned with “MATH” (Make America Think Harder) and he supported policies such as a basic income that were popular with tech executives. His reasoning: robots are slowly but surely supplanting humans on the job.
All of this led to Yang being branded as the “Silicon Valley candidate” in 2020, and his new campaign video seems designed to try and shake that creative-destructive California ideology. But his platform shows that Yang is still pushing Valley ideas, including a neutered version of a universal basic income and a pledge to support TikTok hype houses in the city.
Take his currently rather bare-bones plan for housing, called “An Affordable City.” It hits the right notes when simply stating the facts about New York City’s ongoing housing and affordability crisis, as well as its neglect of the New York State Housing Authority and the city’s public housing. The nod towards Community Land Trusts, their prioritization, and requisition of unused land all sound nice. But then he pivots to invoking a WeWork-ified vision of New York: "Embracing co-living and allowing for single-room occupancy (SRO) living spaces will allow individuals to find housing that works for their lives and their budget."
Co-living has time and time again proven to be a way to destroy legal barriers between landlords and even greater rent extraction from tenants. At best, it’s a distressing statement on the affordability crisis rather than a solution. It’s also not sustainable, as it has been just over a year since WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann, was overthrown as chief executive after closer scrutiny revealed his global co-living empire was just a well-capitalized time-bomb. Discussing co-living while a global pandemic has made the prospect of continued proximity to other people a real health risk also comes off as tone deaf.
In his plan for "Culture, Society, and Nightlife,” Yang states his administration would look at "numerous technological solutions" to tracking and showing vaccine status using a "safe and secure standard." In other words, surveillance. During the pandemic, we’ve seen cities like Los Angeles make similar fraught promises, only to end up choosing partners like Citizen—a vigilante crime-reporting app with a dubious commitment to privacy and security.
Yang's plan to attract "content creator collectives'' like TikTok hype houses (wherein numerous aspiring or actual TikTok stars live and meme under the same roof) not only resembles his VFA strategy but raises even more questions for his vision of culture in the city. While subsidizing housing for artists would be a great initiative, zeroing in on TikTokers is pretty ridiculous. In the middle of a pandemic and eviction crisis, in a platform that addresses housing affordability, it beggars belief.
All of this brings us to Yang's radically scaled back UBI plan. Yang's presidential platform centered on a "Freedom Dividend,” a $1,000 a month stipend available to every U.S. citizen over the age of 18 "regardless of income or employment status, free and clear and no jumping through hoops." For his mayoral run, Yang has come up with a wildly unambitious plan that does not meet the most basic criteria for being considered a basic income.
Yang’s plan for New York City is a means-tested program that will give the 500,000 poorest New Yorkers an average of $2,000 per year (just $166 dollars per month) that will not supplant any other assistance someone is receiving. A little bit of extra money will no doubt help people, but it’s in no way an income that could result in, say, securing housing. In this way, it resembles universal basic income tests across the world and past few years that have essentially been set up to fail because they were narrowly targeted and delivered payments too small.
Notably, Yang envisions that this “basic income” will be funded at least partly by charity. Expansions to payments can be funded through donations from “public and philanthropic organizations.”
The $1 billion plan will also be used to further build out Yang's vision of a People's Bank of NYC, another vision scant on details beyond eventually enrolling everyone with a municipal bank account but also re-investing public funds "directly in our public and our communities."
It's a bit difficult to get a full read on Yang's candidacy with so many questions and half-formed policy prescriptions, but the website promises that "full plans to address the economy, jobs, and labor will be shared in the coming weeks." But until we have those, it’ll be hard to shake the feeling that he’s trying to solve New York City’s problems with Silicon Valley’s prescriptions.