Josh Brown believes in the power of data. The 36-year-old software engineer and father of two lives in San Francisco, where he automates tasks for other engineers. Basically, he makes it possible for things to get done more quickly, a project that he’s been working at more or less since he was 18 and automating the installation of operating systems on servers. But as automation becomes more common across the industry, IT workers might find their skill sets are obsolete; they could even lose their jobs. As Brown told VICE, “This is something that ten years ago was unthinkable, that one person with some open-source tooling could generate a tool that literally reduced a process from days to minutes.”
With this in mind, Brown did some heavy googling back in November when he was looking for presidential candidates to support. “I realized that the only one I actually aligned with was Andrew Yang,” Brown said.
It would have taken some real heavy googling to find Yang. Even by the standards of the already-crowded 2020 Democratic primary field—which includes obscure congressman John Delaney and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg—Yang is on the fringe. (When a poll recently found he had 1 percent support nationally, Yang tweeted out the news triumphantly.)
But he appealed to Brown, who was looking for big-picture approaches to the country’s problems—a key one being the displacement of jobs, which is being propelled by the tech industry he belongs to. Brown found the “objective and data-driven” candidate he’d been looking for in Yang, whose platform centers on giving every adult a “universal basic income” (UBI) of $1,000 a month.
Yang is a 44-year-old entrepreneur who had stints at a healthcare software startup and the test prep company Manhattan Prep before founding the nonprofit Venture for America, which placed college graduates in startup and venture funding roles in cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh. It’s not the most traditional profile for a presidential candidate—and Brown acknowledges that he’d prefer to support a candidate with actual political experience. But in explaining why he volunteers for Yang, working on things like Twitter memes and Discord chats, Brown expressed the breathless anxiety of young voters who want to think big: “The problem is that no current leader is preparing for the next four to eight years when trucking is automated, the climate is killing people, AI can deepfake our leaders, and autonomous vehicles start to cause disruption to vehicle manufacturers, insurance agencies, and all the things that rely on them around the United States.”
Yang sees automation as inevitable and even beneficial, with medical AI leading to improved patient coverage, for instance, and self-driving cars leading to fewer crashes. Some of these proposals might sound outlandish; will many couples want an AI life coach to handle their marriage counseling? But Yang believes in the power of government to nudge this along. He writes in The War on Normal People, his 2018 manifesto for a living-with-automation world, “There is no other way to make these changes and manage through the loss of jobs than to have the federal government reformat and reorganize the economy, particularly using technology to serve human needs.”
Rather than resisting our robot replacements or counterparts, Yang wants to restructure the economy for a future where they prevail. “I love technology, I love innovation, I love progress,” Yang said in an interview. “What I don’t love is an economy that’s going to kick millions of Americans to the curb, and make it so that a relatively small handful of companies and individuals enjoy the benefits of all of this innovation.”
Enter UBI, which has become a popular idea in both left-wing and tech circles, and is intended to alleviate some of the damage done by our current precarious era of capitalism. In Yang’s view, $1,000 a month—roughly the federal poverty line for a single-person household—is enough to scrape by, but not enough to lure people away from work. He calls it a “Freedom Dividend.” Yang is stumping up his own money in demonstration, offering a year of payments to one family in New Hampshire and one family in Iowa.
Yang’s preoccupation with tech—both its promise and its downsides—sets him apart from most politicians. Doanld Trump is a noted technophobe who last year eliminated a key cybersecurity role on the National Security Council. And other politicians from both parties are often strikingly clueless about tech, as demonstrated by a 2018 Senate hearing with Mark Zuckerberg in which senators seemed to be confused about the difference between Twitter and Facebook and whether emails could be sent within WhatsApp. “It was truly embarrassing how uninformed many of our legislators are,” Yang said. “I would say that legislators are less informed on technology issues than probably the average American at this point.”
“The people in power are technologically illiterate,” agreed Yang volunteer and UBI activist Philippe Chabot. He’s frustrated with political neglect of what he sees as our core existential problem, which is that technology is making work increasingly obsolete. Chabot used to be a graphic designer, until design bots and software became mature enough to replace people like him. From automatic coloring to 3D modeling of humans, AI can now complete certain design tasks nearly instantly. Chabot feels invested in the Yang campaign even though the 33-year-old is a Canadian; he moved back in with his parents, in the suburbs of Montreal, after losing his game development job. “I got the feeling Andrew Yang is a catalyst for UBI,” he told me. “Even if it’s not in my country, it’s a worthwhile pursuit.”
Yang’s platform has its critics, even among progressives. UBI is apparently too out-there for Bernie Sanders, who tends to hem and haw when asked whether he supports it. And while Hillary Clinton flirted with the idea, she ultimately considered it economically infeasible. No other candidate for 2020 has embraced UBI, though many Democrats back a plan to give cash to working-class families. Some leftists have argued that a jobs guarantee—like the one contained in the Green New Deal—is preferable to giving people money for nothing. But Yang worries that creating “a new underclass of government employees who are doing make-work” could be, at worst, “a dystopian nightmare.” Chabot, like Yang, is worried about the proliferation of “bullshit jobs.” And Almaz Zelleke, a political science professor at NYU Shanghai, said that the effects of a jobs guarantee wouldn’t be as sweeping as for UBI.
“It’s clear from lots of data, lots of evidence, and lots of historical practice, that giving income to families is the best way to give them economic security, and to eliminate poverty,” she said. “That can’t be matched by a jobs guarantee, because a jobs guarantee isn’t going to reach everybody that it needs to reach—and, in particular, it’s not as effective in dealing with the poverty or economic insecurity of single-parent families.” Zelleke added that she was excited about having a basic-income focused presidential candidate, but disagrees with the specifics of Yang’s plan. For one thing, she said, it’s key to include children, and she favors funding it through a wealth tax rather than a 10 percent value-added tax (VAT) as Yang proposes.
But Yang’s youth-friendly techie platform isn’t solely about UBI (or even his rather vague proposal to reduce student loan debt, partly by eliminating governmental profit from student loan servicing). One aspect that’s attracted some controversy is the idea of digital social credits—a kind of virtual currency that people rack up by doing socially beneficial thing like volunteering. An app would keep track of everyone’s points, and local communities would decide how these points would be rewarded. Yang is basically attempting to gamify civic-mindedness—which has been likened by some to the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive,” where every human interaction is numerically rated and composited into a personal score. Others critics leapt on comparisons to the Chinese social credit system. (The Yang campaign has gone from calling it “Digital Social Credits” to “Modern Time Banking.”)
Yang is defensive about this policy, saying that critics “misunderstand what I’m proposing. Because what I’m suggesting is something more akin to American Express points for good, administered by local nonprofits and NGOs, than the Chinese top-down, somewhat intrusive system to maintain social order. So they’re just very, very different things, that happen to sound somewhat similar. And because I look Chinese, that people just sort of lumped in what I was suggesting with a Chinese system, across the world.”
Realistically, this policy is unlikely to be taken up far and wide; even a supporter like Brown refers to it as political poison. But the proposal is more of a thought experiment than something that’s close to becoming reality. Yang’s vision for Modern Time Banking is a metaphor for his presidential candidacy: a blend of science fiction and politics that inspires some, makes others think, and will likely be ignored by most.
Christine Ro is an editor for the International Institute for Environment and Development and a writer for, well, just about everyone.