On November 6, 2017, businessman and philanthropist Andrew Yang announced his run for the presidency with a plan for universal basic income (UBI), a policy that would give every adult in the United States $1,000 a month with no strings attached. At first, he was a caricature, parading his identity as an Asian-American math nerd in lieu of a personality. His policy announcements read like an internet stream of consciousness, from an opposition to circumcision to cryptocurrency asset regulation. But over the last year and a half, he has built a movement preaching the gospel of UBI.
With his UBI-centric platform, he has garnered a cult internet following: the “Yang Gang,” a grassroots fundraising operation that has netted nearly $2.5 million to date, and a prized podium placement next to Joe Biden at tonight’s Democratic primary debate.
Yang’s campaign pitch is that he will make capitalism work for the 70 million “normal people” who will lose their jobs to automation in the next ten years. Yang considers this an existential crisis that can only be solved with UBI. The monthly stipend, which Yang dubs the “Freedom Dividend,” is intended to ameliorate economic insecurity, wealth inequality, and the other symptoms of social malaise stemming from capitalism.
But there’s a problem here: his conception of UBI will not improve, reform, or revolutionize capitalism. His UBI plan would replace existing social welfare benefits rather than build upon them. There are progressive cases for UBI, but Yang’s version isn’t one of them.
Yang’s UBI won’t set Americans free — it’s in the vein of free-market economist Milton Friedman’s conception of the policy, used to weaken the welfare state rather than strengthen it. And his vision for social change is more about benevolent elites like him handing down the policies that average people need than building a grassroots movement to change society.
Andrew Yang correctly identifies many social issues stemming from capitalism and wealth inequality. Poor citizens face worse health outcomes, negotiation positions with employers, educational attainment, a sense of personal fulfillment, and other problems. He acknowledges that capitalism is the problem.
But his policy responses to this fact won’t even substantially reform capitalism, much less upend it. Yang gives a vision of “human-centered capitalism” that will prioritize the well-being of average people and maximize social welfare. But his version of UBI does nothing to weaken capitalists’ power.
Yang himself often points out that $12,000 a year is not enough to survive; recipients will obviously need additional income. That’s not necessarily an argument against UBI in any form. But he seeks to fund his program in part by carving out social-welfare programs, leaving beneficiaries to fend for themselves with just their UBI stipend. This problem is compounded by his plan to implement a value-added tax (VAT), a consumption tax that is regressive at its worse and reduces UBI’s efficacy at its best.
Andrew Yang’s philosophical approach to UBI mirrors Milton Friedman’s thinking: individuals are better suited to fund their personal needs than the government. This version of UBI abandons a society-wide effort to address large-scale social issues, relying instead on individual, personal choices that play out in a free market. His program reduces the power of the state to intervene in the market and thus its ability to curb the deleterious effects of capitalism.
Capitalism is a banal, dispassionate evil. Instead of some personal desire to hurt or antagonize workers, the owning class’s actions are systemically compelled by the market’s demand for owners to outcompete their rivals. These social relations are ingrained within capitalism. Yang himself alludes to this fact in his book, The War on Normal People, writing, “There’s no malice in [replacing workers with automation]. The market rewards business leaders for making things more efficient. Efficiency doesn’t love normal people.”
Yang understands that the economic displacement of the working class is simply what happens when capitalism is functioning — not the unique result of a twenty-first-century blend of robots, automated intelligence, and automation. But his proposals don’t get at the root causes of those problems. Yang isn’t proposing redistribution of private property, land ownership, or other resources used to exploit workers, and his version of UBI does not alter the imbalance of power in capitalism. Instead, Andrew Yang believes in UBI because he believes in the benefits of capitalist social relations. He identifies the problems that are inherent to capitalism, yet somehow believes that the same market forces that create those problems can also fix them.
A Special Man for Normal People
Andrew Yang’s desire to save capitalism should not come as a surprise. Capitalism has worked out well for him Yang’s parents were well off and could afford to send him to boarding school at the elite Phillips Exeter Academy. He attended Brown University and Columbia Law School. He briefly worked in corporate law before taking executive positions at various start-ups. He made millions from the sale of his GMAT tutoring company and used some of the proceeds to found his nonprofit, the imaginatively named Venture for America.
But when he goes on to describe “normal people,” the victims of capitalist efficiency, his vision of normal America turns grim. He says the economic insecurity brought on by automation will lead to Luddite riots, portraying these “normal people” as uncivilized, uneducated savages in a Hillbilly Elegy fever dream. Yang cites a Princeton study to demonstrate that financial insecurity makes people “more impulsive, less creative, and angrier,” implicitly justifying the noblesse oblige behind his UBI plan.
Even Venture for America, his nonprofit, was about harnessing smart — not “normal” — people from elite universities and using their knowledge and education to transform the country. Yang’s vision for VFA was to create 100,000 jobs through training a cohort of Ivy League–educated innovators who would take their talents to grow existing companies and build their own start-ups. Much like its namesake, Teach For America, these aspirations play into a theme of elites saving the country (while ultimately failing to deliver on its mission).
Yang’s paternalistic instincts are those of a man who believes that the John Galts of the world will provide our economy with enough innovation and excess profits to sustain the non-elite workers who are innovated out of a job. Capitalism might be exploitative of “normal people,” but benevolent entrepreneurs like Yang will take care of them.
For A Real Political Revolution
Andrew Yang’s top-down approach to social change is precisely why his vision for UBI will continue to reproduce capitalism’s problems. Without a popular, broad political movement unifying people to guarantee a progressive agenda, we will remain at the whim of political and business elites.
Republicans and moderate Democrats have formed a political alliance to dismantle the welfare state over the last few decades, and we have no countervailing popular force to demand the gaping holes in our social safety net. It’s the task of a truly transformative candidate to build that popular force. This is not what Yang is trying to do.
On the contrary, Yang’s catchphrases are cribbed from past centrists and independents who sought to moderate change rather than accelerate it. Whether it comes as recently as from Michael Bloomberg’s aborted presidential run or as far back as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr’s appeal to liberalism, Yang comes back to the idea that both the Left and Right have failed, so we must make a different path forward. But his reforms are intended to sustain capitalist social relations rather than fundamentally alter them.
Many of his supporters take a “great man theory” approach to political change, in which Yang is UBI’s great champion. But that is not how politics works. As a certain senator from Vermont points out, millions of Americans are disenfranchised in the sense that they believe their political institutions are not responsive to their needs. Right now, the state is responsive to elite interests. To counter that, the working class must be mobilized into a broad coalition under a common cause to take on these elite powers.
Andrew Yang’s approach falls short of the type of disruptive effort needed to get any kind of transformative reforms across the line. Without a popular and radicalized movement, the outcomes of his UBI program will be limited by what political and business elites deem palatable to their interests.