Staff Columnist

Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang pitches big ideas to Iowa

Democrat running for president proposes universal basic income

voting booth
voting booth

In the battle between socialism and capitalism, Democrat presidential hopeful Andrew Yang says he doesn’t have to pick a side.

Yang, 43, is a New York tech entrepreneur who visited Iowa this weekend as part of his 2020 presidential campaign. He’s putting forth a vision for what he calls “human capitalism,” while also calling for a long list of policy reforms championed by socialists.

“People see capitalism and socialism as at odds with each other. The truth is we need them both in certain arenas. I’m someone who wants to evolve capitalism to its next stage for the fact that we’re dealing with unprecedented technologies,” Yang told me last week.

Yang is founder of Venture for America, a nonprofit supporting entrepreneurs which he claims has launched dozens of companies and created 2,500 jobs. He’s also the author of the new book “The War on Normal People.”

Many candidates for office intentionally keep their policy positions brief, especially in the early stages of a campaign. It’s a strategy meant to minimize political baggage on contentious issues. Yang has a radically different approach. His campaign website boasts a list of 72 wide-ranging policy points, most with substantive explanations.

At the center of Yang’s campaign is a proposal for a universal basic income, a guaranteed $1,000 monthly payment to all American adults. It’s an idea he gleaned from technologists and labor leaders alike, who believe automation will make millions of American jobs obsolete in the coming decades.

“People’s labor is less and less central to the economy, and it’s one reason people are angry and they’re suffering. They just can’t make ends meet. I want to redesign our economy in a way that will enable Iowans and Americans to flourish and prosper and lead fruitful careers and provide for their families,” Yang said.

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Some, like Yang, say such a system of wealth redistribution will be necessary in a world with far fewer available jobs. Others, including even some right-wing policy analysts, argue cash assistance is more efficient and beneficial than existing government-funded welfare programs.

Universal basic income has become a hot topic in recent years among some circles of economists and welfare advocates. Finland is near the end of a two-year experiment in giving no-strings-attached payments to about 2,000 people, and the government has decided not to extend the project after its deadline early next year. And government leaders in Ontario, Canada recently decided to end a basic income experiment before its deadline.

Yang says the lukewarm response to those experiments should not be the end of the discussion.

“The tricky part is a lot of the trials we hear about aren’t genuine basic income trials. They tend to be small cash transfers to people who don’t have jobs. It’s not universal, everyone in the community, it’s a subset of people who meet certain criteria, typically for a number of months. Current trials often are tough to glean useful data from,” Yang said.

He’s right. Universal basic income is untested on any significant scale, and it’s impossible to foresee the consequences of such a massive shift in government assistance, both positive and negative. Still, big ideas are worth vetting.

Yang’s scattershot approach to taking stances ensures everyone will find at least a few things to like. For my fellow libertarians and conservatives, he offers legalizing marijuana, automatically sunsetting old laws and simplifying tax filings. I doubt he’ll earn many of our votes, but he could give voice to those views among liberal audiences.

However, Yang’s platform in whole would represent an unprecedented expansion of federal and executive power. He calls for many things the federal government is not authorized to do, like increase teacher salaries, prop up failing shopping malls and “punish” those who spread misinformation. The Ninth and Tenth Amendments may be null and void in Yang’s America.

Yang admits, “Some of the policy briefs are meant more as goals and designs because there are at least a couple that aren’t naturally within the execution of the federal government.”

With little previous government or political experience, Yang is no doubt a long shot to be a major party nominee for president. Yet he’s putting forth some big ideas which, right or wrong, deserve to be debated in influential first-in-the-nation Iowa.

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“I have a more firm sense of the problems that are affecting our society than any of the other candidates. It’s difficult for someone who was born in the 1940s to have a natural understanding of these problems,” Yang said.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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