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Andrew Yang interview: The 2020 presidential hopeful who plans to give every American $1,000 a month by taxing big tech

Andrew Yang, the 44-year-old former tech entrepreneur and self-confessed "math nerd", is a US 2020 Democratic presidential candidate
Andrew Yang, the 44-year-old former tech entrepreneur and self-confessed "math nerd", is a US 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Credit: Steven Ferdman /Getty

In a lakeside park in Seattle, Washington, where the ruins of an old gas works have been carefully preserved as a kind of industrial memorial, an unusual political rally is taking place that might just help decide America’s industrial future.

Andrew Yang, standing in the fading evening light with the city skyline behind him, explains how he plans to save the country from disintegration using the magic of statistics. “I’m going to be the first president to use PowerPoint!” he declares. “How do you feel about that?” The crowd, improbably, goes wild, and begins to chant: “PowerPoint! PowerPoint! PowerPoint!”

It is a truly bizarre thing to hear on the campaign trail, but it might not actually be the weirdest thing about Andrew Yang. In recent months, the 44-year-old former tech entrepreneur and self-confessed “math nerd” has gained a loyal following in the bewilderingly crowded Democratic primary, bringing in enough donations to qualify for this summer’s TV debates.

Now, on the doorstep of Amazon and Microsoft, which are based in Seattle – and with many of their employees around him – he expounds his central message: that Big Tech is screwing up the nation, and that only he can stop it.

“We know that AI is coming,” Mr Yang tells The Daily Telegraph, resting in his campaign office before the rally. “It’s going to displace hundreds of thousands of jobs in the most common categories: call centres and retail and food service and driving ... in the first industrial revolution there were mass riots that killed hundreds of people and caused the equivalent of billions of dollars’ worth of economic harm. Most experts predict that this industrial revolution will be two to three times faster and more disruptive.”

In fact, Mr Yang believes this has already started. He has looked at the numbers and found a “direct line” between the past automation of manufacturing jobs and support for Donald Trump. Almost half of those workers never worked again, unleashing a wave of suicides and drug overdoses that have driven the first declines in American life expectancy since 1993.

For eight years, as the chief executive of Venture for America, Mr Yang tried to solve this problem by investing in start-ups that created jobs in those areas. Finally, though, he concluded this was not enough, and that the only realistic option was to become president and give everyone $1,000 (£790) a month.

'Let's go get that money!'

The Yang campaign contains a dizzying grab-bag of proposals, from the profound (free healthcare for all) to the wonkish (abolishing the one-cent coin) to the bafflingly specific (empowering mixed martial artists to form trade unions). But its clear centrepiece is Mr Yang’s version of a universal basic income (UBI), which he calls the “freedom dividend” (“because it tests better,” he likes to say).

This no-strings cash dump, similar to the way Alaska has disbursed its oil money since 1976, would not only insulate humanity against the rise of the robots but boost consumer spending, liberate entrepreneurs, empower women and reorient the economy to value parents and caregivers. It is both an emergency measure and a permanent change which he believes will be so “wildly popular” that no politician would dare to remove it.

Andrew Yang speaks during a rally in New York Credit: Bloomberg

In that, Mr Yang is the avatar for an emerging conviction in Silicon Valley that radical action is required to protect society from its products. As he points out, UBI is not new; Thomas Paine and Martin Luther King were both supporters. But as incomes stagnate and AI destroys livelihoods, some believe its time has come. Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Richard Branson have all expressed support, while Mr Yang himself has received donations from Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.

All very well, but where will all this money come from? There are 327m people in the US, so paying them $12,000 a year each would cost $3.9  trillion (the entire US government spent $4.1 trillion last year). Mr Yang’s answer is that the money already exists in the enormous profits of tech giants.

In fact, he argues, the dividend will only be for adult citizens, and some of them will decline it due to incapacity or ideology. That brings the initial cost down to $2 trillion a year. Then factor in an estimated $800bn in extra revenue from a new federal VAT; $500bn to $600bn in increased taxes from citizens having more spending money; $100bn to $200bn from reduced burden on hospitals and prisons, plus another $400bn from people swapping their existing benefits for UBI. That gets you within striking distance of Mr Yang’s promise that the dividend will pay for itself. He has, after all, “done the math”.

This is Mr Yang’s catchphrase: whenever he shouts it at a rally, people cheer. He even sells baseball caps emblazoned with the word “math”. Five separate supporters tell the Telegraph that his focus on “facts” is one of the reasons they love him. Nor is this just a gimmick, because although it takes you a while to realise exactly how, Mr Yang really does speak quite differently from most other candidates.

The number of the beast

Instead of giving airy principles or sweeping moral statements, he explains in detail what he thinks a given policy will do and why he thinks it is the best option – explanations always punctuated with his infectious chuckle, which bursts out of him at the oddest of moments. Only Elizabeth Warren, the former law professor whose slogan has become “she has a plan for that”, speaks with similar detail.

“Once you listen to Yang, everyone else just sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher,” says Gael Zane, a 59-year-old fan. “They’re like, ‘Wah wah wah wah wah.’”

Take Mr Yang’s claim that laid-off truck drivers could soon become a disruptive social force. What does he mean? “Tens of thousands of truck drivers are ex-military; many own guns,” he explains. The trucks are expensive, so drivers take out loans to buy them. Some take out multiple loans and buy multiple trucks, becoming fleet owners.

“So then let’s say, hypothetically, I was a military veteran and I really like hiring military vets ... [my] life savings are on the line, and their jobs are on the line too.” There are 3.5m truck drivers in America, so if one tenth of 1pc of them get radicalised, 3,500 trucks could be mobilised in a protest, strategically blocking major roads. “That’s actually catastrophic,” Mr Yang concludes.

Why can’t we educate our way out of the problem? Why not universal retraining instead of universal income? “Well, mainly because it doesn’t work very well,” Mr Yang says, laughing. “It’s very popular to think we can transform truck drivers into coders. But only 8pc of American jobs right now are in STEM fields and it’s unrealistic to expect a 49-year-old former truck driver with a high school education to become an engineer...

“I know this because the success rates for federal retraining of former factory workers was 0pc to 12pc... as someone who’s spent time in truck stops in the Midwest, it’s difficult to imagine. They didn’t like school 30 years ago; there’s no reason why they’ll learn to love it now.”

Yang's supporters with 'Yang Gang' and 'Math' slogans Credit: Bloomberg

Underneath that detail is a tendency to think systemically, envisioning society as a flow of causes and effects. Mr Yang does not really talk about punishing public enemies but about creating good carrots and sticks, whether for medical doctors or for big social networks.

“If you go to a company like Facebook or Snapchat and say, ‘Hey, studies have shown that teenage girls are getting depressed using your stuff,’ they literally cannot lighten up because it’s going to decrease their quarterly earnings,” he says. “If they decide to prioritise teenage mental health over shareholder value, they’d probably lose their job.” He describes Mark Zuckerberg's recent call for stricter internet regulation as "essentially a plea for help". Don't blame the tech giants, he argues; blame the system that makes their current behaviour rational and worth the cost.

Similarly, one of his pledges is to increase the president’s pay from $400,000 a year to $4m, which sounds venal until he clarifies that he would also ban the president from taking speaking fees and board positions after leaving office. He wants public service to attract the best people, and for that to be their only priority.

There is an irony here, in that Mr Yang is a data-driven candidate who wants to free Americans from the tyranny of numbers. One of his big three policies, alongside free medical care and UBI, is literally to change a number – specifically, GDP, which he attacks with great gusto as a false measure of national wellbeing which is blinding the country to its own problems and must immediately be replaced.

“Right now we rely on the market to determine our own value, and the market is highly imperfect,” he says. “The thinking is that if you lose economic value then we must transform you into something that has economic value.”

Instead he wants currently unpaid work – such as that of his wife, a former marketing executive who is currently at home in New York City looking after  their two sons – to be more highly valued. He thinks UBI would help artists and carers as well as budding business owners.

Drones, cannabis and a bald eagle

In private, Mr Yang is measured and a little detached. On the stump, however, he is exuberant and passionate. His speech in Seattle is a freewheeling mixture of jokes, profanity, digs at Jeff Bezos, audience call and response, detailed economic statistics and references to marijuana. He draws a raucous crowd of 2,500, bigger than Joe Biden’s first rally.

“Now I know some of you work for Amazon,” he says. “How much did Amazon pay in federal taxes again last year?” (“Zero!” the crowd shouts.) “That's right! And it's not even Amazon's vault that they're paying zero taxes, that's also their job!. But it's our fault if they're paying zero. Like, we must have messed up if we've designed a system where a trillion dollar tech company can pay less in federal taxes than everyone here in this park tonight.”

He pauses. “ So the Amazon employees are like 'oh sh--, is Jeff watching  me right now? Should I cheer for this? It's cool, it's cool! Jeff's looking at some rocket to Mars right now, he's not paying attention to this park. He'll pay attention to it later when I'm in the White House.”

Drones, appropriately enough, hover overhead, joined at one point by a bald eagle which Mr Yang hails with the joyous cry: “It’s a sign! Oh, mighty eagle... come to my hand! Snatch this cap off my head!”

Earlier, when the Telegraph encounters him by chance on his way to the rally, he is interrupted in the street by a bystander who asks: "Hey, are you Andrew Yang?" This man is not aware of the rally, but recognises him anyway. Mr Yang shoots the breeze with him, then notices a poster with his face on it plastered to a nearby lamp post – apparently nothing to do with his campaign or with the bystander. 

Even so, there are some things that Mr Yang is shy about. He talks about his “friends in Silicon Valley”, but will only name those already listed as donors on his website. He gives a politician’s answer to a question about his religion: “I was brought up in a secular household, but I married a woman who is Christian and am now bringing up my boys in the church. So all I'd say is that, to the extent that I have a relationship with God, it's still developing.”

His campaign has embraced conservative podcasts and Democrat-leaning hip hop radio shows, and he seems to speak both languages with equal comfort. So what are his instincts? Why is he in this race?

“I’m in this because my country does not understand what is happening,” he says. “We are scapegoating immigrants for a set of economic dislocations that immigrants have very little to do with.” That has the peal of truth: as the child of two Taiwanese professors, this is something he has mentioned repeatedly and without prompting across all manner of interviews and speeches..

But probed on his personal morality – on what lies beneath his political beliefs – he says only: “I’m guided by what I think are the best practical solutions to the problems of our era ... I don’t know if you can consider pragmatism an ideology. I consider myself a humanist, in that instead of trying to talk yourself into abstractions you just have to pay attention to how people are doing.”

This pragmatism, of  course, is part of his appeal. He boasts at his rally of getting support from “independents!” (cheers), “libertarians!” (more cheers) and “Trump voters!” (fewer cheers). He starts his pitch by mocking other progressives, and CNN, for blaming Mr Trump’s rise on “Russia, maybe Facebook, maybe the FBI”. He scorns the distinction between socialism and capitalism, even while pitching arguably the most Left-wing policies of any recent campaign.

One of his acknowledged Valley friends is Eric Weinstein, a doyen of the “Intellectual Dark Web” of conservative and contrarian thinkers (though Mr Weinstein defines himself as a “progressive”). And  while Mr Yang’s actual policies are robustly anti-racist and pro-LGBT, he does not emphasise them much in his rhetoric, which mostly refrains from culture-war themes despite the intense pressure on Democrat candidates to prove their bona fides.

Why is that? “I think we should be laser focused on solving the problems that got Donald Trump elected,” he says, levelly. “And so if I thought doing something would be helpful in that regard, I would do it. But I don't think engaging in certain arguments actually moves the needle. And this is one reason why some Americans are drawn to my campaign, because they can sense that I have a low interest in those kind of conversations.” 

In another interview, with the African-American YouTuber Tim Black, he was more blunt: “I’m convinced that identity politics has been set up to distract us from the money. Let’s go get that money, and then after we get that money we can talk about whatever else!”

'Challenge f---ing accepted!'

In this fight, Mr Yang has more in common with Mr Trump than a first glance might suggest. For one thing, he is trying to meme his way to victory by using his opponents to bring him exposure. He says that joining in the Democratic debates will expose him to people who have no idea who he is, by which they will encounter his arresting $1,000-a-month promise.

A group of secondary students from Puyallup, a small town south of Seattle, told the Telegraph that they found him in exactly this way. They first heard his name as an ironic joke spreading virally through their school, only to research him and find that they agreed with his policies.

Oddly, his campaign also initially attracted support from former Trump partisans in the online alt-Right, including favourable words from neo-Nazis. Some praised his dividend as a boon to jobless young men, a kind of subsidy for their video game habits, while others appeared to back him semi-ironically as a way to at least make some money from the alleged decline of the West.

Mr Yang strongly disavowed them, saying: “We do not want your votes. You are not welcome in this campaign.” The mood has since soured, and alt-Righters have mounted online harassment campaigns against his chief of staff Carly Reilly.

Mr Yang’s true Trumpiness, howeber, lies in his self-description as an outsider fighting a system too stupid and blind to save itself. Like Mr Trump, he makes much of his background in business: during a recent interview with the eccentric podcast host Joe Rogan, he used the word "entrepreneur" 11 times in one hour.

And, while he also identifies himself  in his book The War On Normal People as one of America’s “elites”, having graduated from the Ivy League into corporate law, it’s true that he is not a career politician. Listen to how he talks about Washington DC:

"There was one guy there who did me this immense favour. He said 'Andrew, you're in the wrong town. No one here is going to do anything about these problems because this is not a town of leaders. Washington DC is a town of followers.... the only way that we will try to solve these problems is if you were to create a wave in other parts of the country and bring that wave crashing down on our heads.'"

He pauses to let the cheering subside. "And what I said to him was: challenge f---ing accepted!"

Over the next year, then, Mr Yang will truly test what Americans really mean when they say they want an outsider. Are they really crying out for a “nerd” who makes arguments from data? That question makes Mr Yang laugh more than usual.

“Well, you can only be yourself,” he says. “I communicate the way I communicate. I think it is compelling to a lot of Americans, because they've lost faith in our political establishment to solve these problems. And if somebody says ‘Hey, this is horrifying but here’s something we can do about it’, I think they find that refreshing.”

It works, he happily admits, “phenomenally well on some people” and terribly on others.

Perhaps Mr Yang will not get far. The online forecasting market PredictIt thinks he has a 6pc chance of success, which is higher than the likes of Cory Booker and Beto O'Rourke far below Mr Biden (at 25pc) and Mr Trump (42pc). He tends to poll around 1-2pc, firmly in the middle of the table (though perhaps that is impressive for someone with little name recognition).

FiveThirtyEight, the polling news website set up by election savant Nate Silver, says that Mr Yang polls is likely to appeal to millennials, Hispanic and Asian Americans and the hard Left, but not so much to black voters and “party loyalists”. 

“Because of his lack of political experience, narrow coalition and niche platform, Yang remains a long shot for the Democratic nomination,” wrote the site. “But we can no longer say with confidence that he is any more of a long shot than several other candidates; that’s an accomplishment in and of itself.” 

But none of that may matter if Mr Yang is able to influence the public debate about UBI. The idea is not going to vanish any time soon, and neither is the threat of automation. While Mr Yang is the first to make them central to his campaign, he will not be the last. It is possible that even if he crashes and burns in 2020, history will remember him as a trailblazer.

Meanwhile, he seems to be having a whale of a time. As the interview wraps up before the rally, he smiles: “Isn’t that fun?”