Let’s be honest with ourselves, shall we? We’re in the midst of the most significant shift in our society since at least the Gilded Age – a tectonic reshaping of economic systems, social mores, and political institutions. Some even argue our current transition to a post-digital world, one in which technology has lapped our own intelligence and automation may displace the majority of our workforce within our lifetimes, is the most dramatic change to ever occur in recorded history. And that’s before we tackle a few other existential threats, including global warming – which is inarguably devastating our environment and driving massive immigration, drought, and famine – or income inequality, which has already fomented historic levels of political turmoil.
Any way you look at it, we’ve got a lot of difficult intellectual, social, and policy work to do, and we’ve got to do it quickly. Lucky for us, two major political events loom before us: The midterm elections this November, and a presidential election two years after that. Will we use these milestones to effect real change?
Given our current political atmosphere, it’s hard to imagine that we will. I fervently hope that the midterms will provide an overdue check on the insane clown show that the White House has delivered to us so far, but I’ve little faith that the build up to the 2020 Presidential election will be much more than an ongoing circus of divisive theatrics. Will there be room for serious debate about reshaping our fundamental relationship to government? If we are truly in an unprecedented period of social change, shouldn’t we be talking about how we’re going to manage it?
Andrew Yang currently labors in near obscurity, but he is one of only two declared democratic candidates for president so far, and he’s been spending a lot of time in Iowa and New Hampshire lately. Yang is smart, thoughtful, and has the backing of a lot of folks in the technology world. He’s the founder of Venture for America, a program that trains college grads to work as entrepreneurs in “second cities” around the country like St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. He’s in no way a typical presidential candidate, but then again, we seem to be tired of those lately.
If you have heard of Yang, it might be as the “UBI candidate,” though he rankles a bit at that description. Yang is a proponent of what he calls the “Freedom Dividend,” a version of universal basic income that he argues will fundamentally reshape American culture. To get there, we’ll need to radically rethink our current social safety net, adopt an entirely new approach to taxation (he argues for a European-style value added tax), and get over our uniquely American love affair with the Horatio Alger mythos.
Can a candidate like Yang actually win the Democratic nomination for president, much less the presidency itself? I’ve not met a political professional who thinks he can, but then again, much stranger things have already happened. Regardless, it’s critical that we debate the ideas his campaign represents during the build up to our national elections in 2020, and for that reason alone I’m supporting Yang’s candidacy.
I met Yang two weeks ago at Thrival, an event that NewCo helps to produce in Pittsburgh (the video of that event will be up soon, when it is, I’ll post a link here). For nearly an hour on stage at the Carnegie museum, I grilled Yang about his economic theories, his chances of actually becoming president, and his agenda beyond the Freedom Dividend. I do a lot of interviews with well known folks, and I must say, if the reaction Yang got from the Pittsburgh audience is any indication, the man’s platform resonates deeply with voters.
For anyone who wants to get know Yang better, I recommend his recently published book The War on Normal People. But read it with this caveat: The thing is damn depressing. Yang lays out how structurally and fundamentally broken our society already is. He persuasively argues that we’re already in the midst of a “Great Displacement” across tens of millions of workers, a displacement that we’ve failed to identify, much less address. Echoing the recent work of Anand Giridharadas, Rana Foorohar, Edward Luce, and Andy Stern, Yang cites example after example of how perilously close we are to social collapse.
It’s hard to win a presidential election if fear is your primary motivator. But we live in strange, fearful times, and despite the pessimism of his book, I found Yang an optimistic, genuine, and actually pretty funny guy. He calls himself “the opposite of Trump – an Asian man who likes numbers.”
For Yang to actually shift the dialog of presidential politics, he’ll need to poll at or above 15 percent by early next year. That’s going to be a long shot, to be sure. But I for one hope he makes it to the debate stage, and that as a society, we will seriously discuss the ideas he proposes. We can no longer afford politics as usual – not the politics we have now, and certainly not a return to the cliché-ridden blandishments of years past. The time to traffic in new ideas – radically new ideas – is upon us.