Adam Simpson,  June 24

Andrew Yang’s War on Normal People

The Silicon Valley populist wants a UBI—to crush class consciousness

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Some people have called me a futurist, and I say I’m a present-ist,” says Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, “because . . . our political conversations are decades behind the times.” It’s that kind of liberal dad-energy with just a pinch of grifter that makes Yang a futurist, in the sense that a true futurist is a rich person determined to help poor people without alienating themselves from other rich people. And like many other futurists, his primary fixation is a universal basic income (UBI), which he bills as “The Freedom Dividend.” Shockingly, for this 2015 Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship, the horizons of both freedom and the future are confined by the ideological bounds of the free market.

Partly, this is due to the constraints of a modern political discourse obsessed with “realism” as pre-defined by capitalism in the age of “facts and logic.” This is illustrated in the way Yang’s campaign fetishizes “Math,” which he has printed on hats for his supporters, who are prone to chanting about PowerPoint at his rallies. He has told audiences around the country that he’s “the opposite of Donald Trump”—“an Asian man who likes math.” Which of course, is very funny.

But as a businessman of dubious success with a fanbase overrepresented by 4Chan trolls, Yang has much in common with the president. Where Trump sought to capture populist rage against the machine and marry it with racism, Yang aims to marry it with reformism. His former career heading Venture for America is instructive: a project that sought to address economic depression in places like Baltimore and Detroit by sprinkling some innovation on them in the form of startups (VFA has fallen short of its goal to create 100,000 jobs by a margin of more than 96,000). Yang’s UBI operates by the same logic, on a larger scale: capitalism’s failures can be solved with more capitalism. He is Silicon Valley’s answer to populism, seeking to disrupt “economic anxiety” without any actual systemic change. While Yang might be a dark horse in the bloated pack of 2020 contenders, his policy agenda advances an accessible solution—however inadequate—to a legitimate, growing sense of economic precarity. And thanks to a viral campaign that easily got him over the threshold of 65,000 individual donors, he will soon share a platform at the Democratic Primary Debates with frontrunners and favorites and also Eric Swalwell.

He is Silicon Valley’s answer to populism, seeking to disrupt “economic anxiety” without any actual systemic change.

When asked about his broader political ideology by VICE contributor Alicia Menendez, Yang replied that he is “deeply pragmatic.” This tracks with the characterization of UBI as not left, not right, but forward, a slogan popularized by UBI-advocate Scott Santens and eventually adopted by Yang’s campaign materials. This conception of UBI is part of a prevailing, grotesque notion that policies and policymakers are preferable when they are devoid of politics. And that toothless type of politics-less-ness drives Yang’s support among reddit memelords, technocratic liberals, libertarians, and white supremacists (that, and his engagement on right-wing media platforms with Dave Rubin, Sam Harris, and Ben Shapiro).

The distinctions in how different people—particularly capitalists and leftists—define both the future as well as freedom become rather stark when respective UBI-proponents talk about the program. On the left, you’ll see it mentioned among a suite of utopian demands that call for the decommodification of labor, the affirmation of services like health care and housing as human rights, the abolition of poverty, and indeed the overarching system itself that requires poverty’s existence. For liberals, UBI is embedded within a narrow conception of welfare, focused on ensuring that the overall system remains untouched, its victims merely comforted as they are squeezed of agency.

That’s because the system itself is not the problem for Yang. What we really need is “human-centered capitalism,” by which he means we should keep this machine running, albeit with a host of new metrics—alongside gross domestic product—like “marriage rates and success,” “design and aesthetics,” and “cybersecurity.” If capitalism were a shitty PowerPoint presentation, Yang would say that all it needs right now is a few more slides, some pie-charts, and a different color scheme.

In progressive UBI proposals, the dividend is usually made up of tax dollars from the richest Americans, to be redistributed to everyone in the form of $1,000 per month. Yang’s UBI, on the other hand, would be funded by a 10 percent value-added tax on goods and services: a regressive burden likely to be disproportionately borne by the working class. A common refrain from Yang is that the Freedom Dividend is “trickle up economics,” but even if it were funded by progressive taxation on the rich, we’d still be left with the dilemma that seven white men own half of everything in the country; at the end of the day, the money is going to find its way back to their pockets.

I exaggerate, but only just. According to some of those very white men at Goldman Sachs, the top 1 percent of households in America owned 50 percent of stocks in 2018, up from 39 percent in the late 1980s. When we talk about stealing from the rich and giving it to the poor, under capitalism that means we’re just taking the long way of giving it back to the rich.

That’s not to say that cash wouldn’t do some good along the way. It might be used on health care services or new school clothes or any number of other commodities; but further entrenching such individual consumerist tendencies would do little beyond ensuring that the working class continues to have no power beyond their means of consumption. This is especially true for Yang’s proposal, which asks recipients to choose between their $1,000 stipend and their other welfare benefits. The only “freedom” that Yang’s dividend has to offer is the euphoric liberation experienced in a mall food court that has both Auntie Anne’s and Cinnabon.

Even when it comes to increasing consumers’ purchasing power, how long might that last? If you put $1,000 in everyone’s pocket, they’re likely to spend it—that’s the whole point of a basic income. And because most people spend most of their money on housing, that’s likely where you’d first begin to see signs of inflation. Consumers would be pitted against each other competing to get a better deal while landlords try to maximize their rent, knowing full well that Uncle Sam just gave everyone an extra grand.

Yang’s website claims that “in monetary economics, leading theory states that inflation is based on changes in the supply of money.” Which isn’t entirely correct. Equally important is the velocity of money, or how fast it circulates around the economy. A good example is one that Yang himself uses. During the 2008 financial crisis, the federal government used quantitative easing to increase the money supply by $4 trillion, but that money went directly into bank vaults. Once there, it made sure that the entire financial system didn’t shit the bed, but beyond that it didn’t have any impact on real, tangible commodities. That’s very different from putting $1,000 in working people’s pockets without effective complementary inflation controls, because working people, unlike banks, tend to spend their money on real, tangible commodities.

Unions can give working people power; the Freedom Dividend can only give them money.

The entire premise, though, of a neoliberal UBI is the notion that the working class isn’t a category to speak of, nor that it’s been systematically disempowered. They’re just a bunch of individuals who need a little extra folding money. You can view working people as individuals who need comfort, or you can view them as a class that needs power.

Beyond the Freedom Dividend, Yang is also fixated on automation, parroting a familiar line about how new technologies will disrupt the labor market with robots and artificial intelligence. To his credit, though, where most Silicon Valley types and robot enthusiasts completely mask the human agency behind such trends, Yang is much more explicit. He begins his book The War on Normal People with a straightforward analysis of power: “I am writing from inside the tech bubble to let you know that we are coming for your jobs.” He continues:

Right now some of the smartest people in the country are trying to figure out how to replace you with an overseas worker, a cheaper version of you, or, increasingly, a widget, software program, or robot. There’s no malice in it. The market rewards business leaders for making things more efficient. Efficiency doesn’t love normal people. It loves getting things done in the most cost-effective way possible.

In the war on “normal people,” Yang is on the side of the weirdos who harvest teen blood and plot doomsday escapes to New Zealand while strangling as much of the planet and discarding as much of humanity as their balance sheets will allow. He does not entertain for a moment the heresy that perhaps the people who hold the power over how new technologies are deployed, who they will enrich and who they will immiserate, should have that power challenged.

While Yang’s campaign website hosts an exhaustive list of policies—from universal free marriage counseling to a presidential surrogate for turkey-pardoning—there is little mention of unions or organized labor, save taking on union-busting in mixed-martial arts. However, his promise to reduce the federal workforce by 15 to 20 percent in the name of “efficiency” serves as a straightforward threat to the country’s union workforce, since the public sector is one of the last places where unions remain strong. Unions can give working people power; the Freedom Dividend can only give them money.

And there are already more radical proposals that actually confront how the system works on offer, from Elizabeth Warren’s co-determination proposals to Bernie Sanders’s worker ownership strategies. If you give a worker a fish, they eat for a day. If the workers seize the means of production, they feed themselves in perpetuity. And that’s really the heart of Yang’s grift here: to buy off workers away from more collective, radical demands by atomizing them as individual consumers.

Still, Yang uses all the right language when it comes to systemic analysis. In September 2018, he wrote, “It’s an emblem of what’s gone wrong with our society. You have the capital holders . . . operating to enrich themselves at the expense of human beings who are doing the work.” In another blog post, “Market-based thinking is so complete that conflicts revolve around basic human rights rather than any fundamental systemic changes.” However, when it comes to systemic change, Yang remains clearly disinterested, making the same mistake that many UBI-proponents make: money is not power, and it is not a substitute for power. The result of this faulty thinking is a campaign that co-opts populist disillusionment with the economy only to say that the machine, actually, is very good. It just needs a few minor adjustments.

Adam Simpson is the co-host of Future Left podcast and a program associate at The Democracy Collaborative’s Next System Project. The views here are his own.

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