Hey Liberals: Andrew Yang Isn’t Listening

Let me immediately preface this by saying that this is less about Andrew Yang and more about the worldview and kinds of people he represents. In an election cycle that is so much about cultural issues, general unrest, and hearing the voices of those traditionally under-represented (at least on the left), there are a lot of people whose instinct is to moderate that, to tone it down, to borrow the language without committing to the core ideals. This is a cautionary tale against half-changes and against people who talk without listening.

A few years ago, a good friend of mine reached out and said, basically,

“Hey, have you heard of Andrew Yang? You might really like him. I think he’s the only guy who really understands the larger macroeconomic trends that are happening that have contributed to the societal and political upheavals that got trump elected. His whole thing is UBI and getting money back into the hands of regular people!”

He urged me to listen to an interview he did with Joe Rogan. When I was done, I encouraged him to listen to an interview with Rhiana Gunn-Wright, the policy architect of the Green New Deal. While both people are seen in American politics as fairly leftist, and both push similar-sounding ideas, at least on paper, I find the contrast in their approach to be striking. And more than that, I think it’s perfectly illustrative of the differences between Liberals and Leftists. I don’t want to just dunk on Andrew Yang here. I think he has more or less diagnosed the problems correctly – an increasing unease with the direction of the economy among the vast majority of us in the lower echelons, paired with creeping job loss and a general sense of disenfranchisement. But there’s a lot he gets wrong. A lot.

While I don’t want to lean on identity too much, I feel this is a place where it definitively matters. Yang is a wealthy, liberal tech CEO full of big ideas and lots of details. He is a hard “quantitative over qualitative” kind of guy. He seems to enjoy throwing around factoids and he sees the world as a place that is very tweakable. To borrow the language of tech, Yang wants to release a patch update for the US of A, because in his experience it still largely works. Key words there: “in his experience.” I don’t think people experience the world in the clean, segmented way he talks about it. That’s why I bring in the example of Rhiana Gunn-Wright: she’s much more a qualitative-type person who emphasizes the messy and interconnected ways that government interfaces with people’s lives. If Yang is moving from version 1.2 to 1.3, she’s gunning for America 2.0.

Who gets to do the measuring, Andrew?

Here’s my fundamental argument against a quantitative-heavy view of the world like Yang’s and for a qualitative perspective like Gunn-Wright’s: Yang says that as a CEO, you realize that you only make what you measure. If you’re not paying attention to something, you’re probably not making progress on it. I agree with that. But I’m really worried about the dark side of that – the availability bias, where we measure and quantify and work on the things we can see or measure easily. Yang can point to sociological studies and polling data until the cows come home, but at the heart of his arguments is a fundamental distance: “those people over there, when surveyed, said X was bad.” He is not one of them, and his experiences of them are largely mediated by professionals and statistical models. Gunn-Wright seems much more attenuated to people’s experiences of policy, not just to the measurable outcomes. That’s what I want to contrast: not their specific policies, but their ways of pursuing policy.

The opioid crisis is a good example of how Yang’s approach can go very wrong. You can reduce the drugs in circulation, you can reduce overdose deaths, and you can declare victory on all measurable fronts. But if you’re not very very careful (and we have not been), there are a thousand ways that spills over and hurts real people. My wife had surgery a couple years back (fairly minor, but still surgery), and the doctor refused to prescribe her any pain medication for it out of fear of being seen as a pill-pusher. Unsurprisingly, that surgery hurt like a bitch, and so she was just taking fistfuls of aspirin and experimenting with different mixes of Kratom because that’s what we could get our hands on. It was miserable, but it was also not being measured or recorded anywhere. Some of our friends are chronic pain sufferers, and they have to supplement their intake with dark web, black market drugs so that they can even think of functioning because nobody will prescribe them enough to make it through the month.

And those aren’t unique experiences, either. Take a second and read that first-hand account I just linked to. Really sit with it, and ask yourself what kind of fucked up society does this to people in pain, and then accept that sadness when you realize that’s us. That it’s you, it’s me, and anyone else who has complained about how we need to curb this epidemic without sparing a thought for the reasons people might actually want opioids in their life. But the thing is, we’re not measuring for this kind of experience. We’re still talking about people who work, take care of their kids, and make ends meet. By those metrics (labor force participation, woot woot!), everything is chugging along great. But their lives are hell in all the unmeasurable ways. They slip through the cracks.

Taking the “Basic” out of Universal Basic Income

This takes us to the Freedom Dividend, Andrew Yang’s rebranding of Universal Basic Income. Yang keeps saying that his $1,000/month stipend would “smooth things over” or “soften the landing” for people that lose their jobs to automation. This, of course, just continues an old tradition of using big, dramatic language to pat ourselves on the back for the woefully insufficient ways that we take care of poor, disabled, and unemployed people in America. For all the energy and time that we spend worrying about the cost of the welfare state, have you ever stopped to ask how much it actually pays out, per person per month? Disability (officially called Supplemental Security Income) caps well below the poverty line. Taking the Freedom Dividend would be an improvement, at least. That would land you riiiiiiiiiight at the poverty line, give or take a little bit. How does that sound to you?

Sounds kinda shitty when you put it like that, right? 12.3% of Americans live in poverty as of 2017, and I personally happen to think that number should ideally trend down, not up. The poverty line, in my understanding, was supposed to be the line below which your living conditions become unacceptably bad. Unacceptable is a relative term, though, and seems to be held stupidly low by people who won’t ever approach it. Whoever draws the poverty line, this line of unacceptability, has defined it in ways that, I’m sure, work out very well on paper. But I wonder if that perspective would change, should they actually live in poverty themselves or listen to people who do. People who can’t afford their insulin or painkillers probably disagree with their definition of “acceptable”. Because when I hear predictions that, for example, 38% of current jobs could be automated away by about 2030, that suddenly feels a little more dire, given our history of failing the least among us and making it feel ok with numbers. Because that’s the core proposal of the Freedom Dividend: the government will hold you at the poverty line, but the rest is on you. Again, it might sound crazy, but I would prefer if half of Americans didn’t live in poverty. Just a personal thing.

Hard work won’t save you

And in case you were thinking “I’m frugal, I could make that work,” try this on for size: from what I can tell, kids aren’t included in the Freedom Dividend. That seems like a big gap – kids still need to eat, but if they’re under 18 they (or their parents on their behalf, I guess) don’t get diddly squat. Andrew Yang talks about his work in Detroit a lot, so we’ll use that as our second example. The average rent in the poorest neighborhood in Detroit is around $450/month at the time of publication. You now have $550 left over for EVERYTHING ELSE. Gas. Food. Electric, sewer, water, heat. Do you own a car? What happens when the mechanic tells you it will cost $700 and take two days? Can you afford to Uber to work for two days? Do you need prescription medicine for any chronic conditions? I hope not. People make it work, but that’s more of a testament to human determination than a glowing endorsement of poverty. If Andrew Yang has listened to people, if he has thought much about the ways this plan works or doesn’t for some people, he certainly doesn’t talk much about it.

Capitalism won’t save you, either

Let’s face it: the labor force will look drastically different in 20 years. You can argue scale, but here is no denying that change is coming hard and fast. Andrew Yang wants to keep the culture of workism and the capitalist structures that support it largely intact place as we make this transition. He wants to make underwhelming, surgical strikes at individual symptoms of capitalism. But I think he under-estimates the scale of the problems people have to deal with, and leaves a lot of cracks for people to fall through by not addressing the root problem. Not everyone will find a new job when this all collapses. The young, educated, able-bodied, and frankly white people among us will inherit Andrew Yang’s earth. As jobs become more scarce, companies won’t have to hire anyone other than those they perceive to be the “best” candidates according to the values we hold as a society. You don’t see that on a graph. You see that by listening to the people Rhiana Gunn-Wright calls “frontline communities,” who have to deal with the fallout of whatever decisions are made by faraway people like Yang.

There is cause for optimism

I personally hope that UBI and automation will usher in a hard change in the way we conceptualize work, our insistence on the need for work, and how we relate to our economy. This could be the tipping point into revolution. As the jobs change and start to go away, I hope we can interrogate things like the assumed need for the 40-hour work week and employer-sponsored healthcare, and even the need for a college degree. This could be a cultural renaissance for disabled people, for chronic pain sufferers and neurodivergent and mad people. This could be the moment where we as a society find the time to spend with family and friends again, so that we finally shake the loneliness we all report feeling. But no, Yang’s solution, at least for now, is that those people will all become entrepreneurs and sell things to each other.

That’s what appeals to me about Rhiana Gunn-Wright’s Green New Deal: it’s a harder lift on the legislative front, but she and her compatriots are willing to question so much more of our culture, our society, our structures and rules, and they’re listening to people’s actual experiences, not just their reported stats. If we’re going to do this, I want to do it right. I want broad solutions, not just patches. I’ll be keeping my eye on the Democratic primary, and I’d encourage you to as well. Pay attention to the details; just because someone says “Medicare for All” doesn’t mean they really mean all, and “Universal Basic Income” isn’t necessarily universal OR basic. And most importantly, pay attention to who is talking and who is actually listening.