Andrew Yang: the 2020 candidate warning of the rise of robots
Andrew Yang: the 2020 candidate warning of the rise of robots
The entrepreneur says Trump won the 2016 election because the US automated away jobs – so he wants to become president to do something about it
Donald Trump won 2,584 counties in the 2016 presidential election; Hillary Clinton carried only 472. But the Democratic nominee’s accounted for nearly two-thirds of America’s economic output, according to a study by the Brookings Institution.
This is one vivid illustration of America’s great divide. Glittering coastal cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Washington are becoming richer and more influential, attracting more jobs, better hospitals and schools, and technology. Small towns and rural communities are falling further behind, feeding a sense that, to paraphrase LP Hartley, the coasts are a foreign country – they do things differently there.
Andrew Yang, a New York and Silicon Valley entrepreneur and David taking on multiple Goliaths in the Democratic race for the White House in 2020, is here to tell you that it’s about to become much, much worse – and that is why he is running for president.
Yang, 44, is the founder of Venture for America, a national public service fellowship that places recent graduates in struggling communities. “I would fly between St Louis and San Francisco, or Michigan and Manhattan, and I would feel like I was traversing dimensions and ways of life rather than just a couple of time zones,” he told the Guardian in Washington this week.
“The two historical time periods that are comparable to where we are now in terms of polarisation and division are the French Revolution before the revolution and the United States before the civil war,” he said.
Few pundits are taking Yang’s candidacy seriously but he certainly is, with multiple trips to Iowa and New Hampshire so far. He has raised $250,000 from 14,000 donors in the past week. According to his campaign team, “Yang Gang” chapters have sprung up in more than 35 states.
He has no doubts about the gravity of his mission. Life expectancy in the US has declined for the past three years for the first time since the flu pandemic of 1918 because of a surge in suicides and drug overdoses, both of which are at record highs, Yang notes.
And like a time traveller from the future, Yang has a warning about more to come: the rise of the machines – robots that will put millions of more people out of work. As it happens, it is an army of automatons conceived and created by tech firms on the coasts and unleashed on middle America, potentially spurring a deepening us versus them mentality. Yang has written: “I am writing from inside the tech bubble to let you know that we are coming for your jobs.”
Yang wants to become president so he can do something about it. He asserts that Trump won the election because the country automated away 4m manufacturing jobs in the critical swing states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri and Iowa.
“Now we’re about to do the same thing to millions of retail jobs, call centre jobs, fast food jobs and, most destructively, trucking jobs in the coming years … When I talked to other mainstream political candidates, no one seemed to want to focus on the enormity of the reality that’s ahead for America.”
Like it or not, self-driving trucks are coming, Yang is certain. Truck driving is the most common job in 29 states in America, according to census data, and a demographic that includes many ex-military servicemen and many Trump voters.
Yang, armed with a battery of statistics, says: “There are 3.5 million truck drivers, 94% male, average age 49, average education high school or one year of college, and they make about $46,000 a year. It’s one of the highest-paying jobs for non-college graduates in the US. It’s a very demanding, punishing job, but it’s also one of the surest ways to a middle-class income for a huge number of men.
“On the other side you have some of the smartest engineers in the country working on automating away that job. The financial incentives to do so are massive: $168bn a year in estimated savings, not just from labour costs but equipment utilisation, fuel efficiency, fewer accidents. So if you foresee that the truck driving jobs are going to start getting automated away in the next five to 10 years, that’s going to have massive ramifications not just for this 3.5m trucker population but also the 5 million-plus Americans who work in truck stops, motels and diners that rely upon the truckers stopping every day.
He goes on: “So the hollowing out of the interior of the country is going to be amplified many times over by the automation of freight. I was just in Davenport, Iowa, at the country’s largest truck stop, Iowa 80, and they proudly state that 5,000 people stop there every day. So you can imagine what’s going to happen when that number starts to dwindle. It’s going to be disastrous for many Americans and many communities.”
In an age when many are tired of celebrity politics, no one could accuse Yang of lacking big ideas. Under his administration, the government would provide a universal basic income of $1,000 a month, or $12,000 a year, for all US citizens between the ages of 18 and 64, paid for by a new tax on automation. Before you suggest he is mad, Yang contends that Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King, Richard Nixon and Milton Friedman all endorsed similar ideas, and oil-rich Alaska has paid an annual dividend to citizens for the past 37 years with great success.
“If you put $1,000 a month into people’s hands it gets their heads up and it helps children become healthier and stronger and graduate from school at higher rates,” he said. “It makes people mentally healthier and improves relationships, it would reduce domestic violence and hospital visits, it would help empower women to improve their situations if they are in exploitative or abusive jobs or relationships.”
The question, naturally, is how are you going to pay for it? Yangs wants a change in the tax code so that tech giants such as Amazon and Google pay a value added tax, generating hundreds of billions of dollars. He also believes that it would pump money back into the economy, for example in the form of tutoring and food for children, car repairs, trips to the hardware store, the occasional night out, and create 2m jobs.
“This is the trickle-up economy from people, families and communities. It would actually work, unlike the trickle-down economy which was sold to us,” he said.
Yang was born in Schenectady, New York, the son of Taiwanese immigrants; his father generated 69 US patents for GE and IBM over his career. “I’m very proud of being Asian American and there are many Asian Americans who are excited about my candidacy,” he said.
Yang is fond of referring to “the numbers”. Dispute them at your peril. He tweeted this week: “Sometimes a journalist will say to me: ‘You’re polling at 1%’ as if it’s a bad thing. I respond: ‘That’s right. And that’s when most Americans have never heard of me. We are only going to grow from here.’”