Andrew Yang: promising or placebo?

Daniel Walker

Potential Democratic challengers to the presidency have sprung forth from all corners of the country. Some have disappeared just as quickly as they materialized, while others have managed to hang in there. Beto O’Rourke switched his branding strategy from Democrat Who Skateboards to Democrat Who Says Cuss Words, new-age guru Marianne Williamson briefly accrued memetic infamy, and Joe Biden’s eyeball almost exploded in public. But out of all the candidates, none have surged from anonymity to popularity quite as quickly – or quite as significantly – as Andrew Yang. 

Yang is a former tech executive and entrepreneur whose campaign mostly centers on two issues, both of which are influenced by his career in the tech industry. The first is automation, which Yang wants to greatly curb because he fears that widescale automation of labor will lead to mass unemployment. The second is less of an issue and more of a sweeping policy proposal: Yang proposes that every American over the age of 18 should receive a monthly stipend of $1,000, commonly described as a “universal basic income” or “UBI” for short.

At first glance, Yang and his campaign seem almost too good to be true. A plucky underdog, not a career politician, who values creating jobs and distributing wealth in a way meant to tangibly improve people’s lives? But, as bitter old people are fond of saying, when something seems too good to be true it usually is. For all his earnest concern about automation and its potential impact on the national economy, Yang is still an ex-asset of Silicon Valley, that arm of the private sector run by nu-yuppie tech bros who are committed to reducing every last American to a flash drive of sellable data. There have also been critiques of UBI from the left: Alyssa Battistoni of “Dissent” points out that funding a mass UBI program would more likely than not require “cannibalizing existing welfare programs and imposing regressive consumption taxes.”

I want to like Yang: he seems like a fundamentally good guy on the surface, and according to his Spotify profile he’s a big fan of The Cure and Depeche Mode. But something about his campaign stinks of the clean-cut utilitarian centrism that haunts startup offices from here to the West Coast. One of Yang’s central selling points is that he’s an entrepreneur, not a career politician. But, personally, if there’s one group of people that I trust less than career politicians, it’s entrepreneurs. I saw “The Music Man,” people – I’m no dummy. According to the above-mentioned “New York Times” profile, Yang’s personal campaign motto is “not left, not right, but forward.” And I’m all for forward, lord knows we could use a little forward in these times, but, y’know … wouldn’t LEFT be nice, too?