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Taking lessons from the unusual presidential candidacy of Andrew Yang: James E. Miller

Posted 2/19/20

Andrew Yang wisely ended his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination after garnering no delegates in either the Iowa caucus or New Hampshire primary. Although the Taiwanese entrepreneur joins …

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Taking lessons from the unusual presidential candidacy of Andrew Yang: James E. Miller

Andrew Yang
Andrew Yang

Andrew Yang wisely ended his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination after garnering no delegates in either the Iowa caucus or New Hampshire primary. Although the Taiwanese entrepreneur joins the heap of has-been Democratic hopefuls in bowing out, his presence in the dwindling field will be missed.

Yang’s campaign, unlike the 200 or so other interchangeable Democratic campaigns, wasn’t based on foaming Donald Trump hatred. It was, to use a phrase from Pollyannaish poli-speak, genuinely ideas driven, almost to the point of eccentric savantism.

As columnist Matthew Walter put it, Andrew Yang was Ross Perot for millennials, without the homespun, Stetson-topped populism.

The “policy” section of his campaign website was something out of a “Jeopardy!” champion’s doctoral thesis. Yang had proposals for everything from reducing packaging waste to algorithmic trading and fraud to making sure America’s postmodern landscape isn’t dotted with abandoned malls. An enterprising lawmaker, irrespective of party, would do well to enter the policy pages into the Congressional Record, if only to preserve for posterity what a thoughtful presidential campaign looks like.

Policy chops are one thing, but Yang had the added benefit of being the least humorless of the field. His spontaneity, from crowd surfing to performing the Cupid Shuffle to spraying whipped cream down the gullet of his supporters, helped him come across as an everyman unbeholden to consultants. He embraced his racial heritage and its attendant stereotypes (“the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math”), whereas his corporately contrived rivals used their own non-pallid skin pigment and sexual preference to bolster their “woke” legitimacy.

He even had a Trumpian sense of humor, instructing his boosters to knock potential caucusers insensible and carefully prop them up among other Yang Gang members to pad his delegate count. It wasn’t quite boasting about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue, but Yang’s occasionally indecorous argot was the kind that makes “Morning Joe” panelists spill their creamy macchiato.

He also mimicked the most successful gimmick of Trump’s 2016 campaign: kitsch. The Yang 2020 store offered a variety of madcap paraphernalia the candidate didn’t shy away from wearing, including a plain baseball cap emblazoned with the single-syllable science “MATH” and an American flag scarf. His headwear was even available in an olive-green pro-cannabis shade — a sartorial conjunction as strange as a butcher wearing a PETA shirt.

Fun as they were, tacky merch and didos were secondary to Yang’s appeal. Despite the unexpected outsider’s sunny demeanor, Yang’s message was dark, almost Jeremiahan. Like the Old Testament prophet, the tech financier foresaw an economic declension, with hordes of autophagous unemployed drones wandering the desolate horizon.

Yang’s bête noire: automation. “We have to stop denying the effects of automation on our people and focus on 21st-century solutions to these problems,” Yang wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “Self-driving trucks will be great for the GDP; they’ll be terrible for millions of truck drivers.”

Yang’s focus on automation, what he called the fourth industrial revolution, was the fulcrum of his campaign. His signature policy — the “freedom dividend,” a personal subvention of $1,000 a month, regardless of employment — was supposed to militate the massive job loss caused by automating an increasing number of skills. The dividend, he said, would “allow people to transition through this difficult time” of artificial intelligence-absorbing menial industry. It would set a circular multiplier in train, “supercharg[ing] local economies” by giving every sentient person “more money to spend at bakeries, tutoring for their kids, car repairs, or the occasional night out.”

The logical foundation upon which Yang’s one-grand grant rests is outdated to the point of being tumbledown. Passing out checks so everyone has spare change to get swozzled at the local watering hole isn’t a silver bullet for the commercially disruptive force of automation, nor is it an actual solution.

The Keynesian demand-concentrated surge Yang invokes is a falsity. Wealth isn’t built by dialing up the rotation of exchange. All the same, as Murray Rothbard elucidated, “we may ask ourselves what would happen if, overnight, some good fairy slipped into pockets, purses and bank vaults, and doubled our supply of money. …[W]ould we be twice as rich? Obviously not.”

A direct deposit of a $1,000 would provide a nice serotonin boost, but would ultimately be illusory. “We may feel twice as rich for the moment, but clearly all we are doing is diluting the money supply,” Rothbard concluded.

Yang’s dividend was the perfect political ploy: ameliorative in a superficial sense, meretricious in overall result. It was so good, he used it as an excuse to purchase voter loyalty, giving 10 families a one-time payment of $120,000 out of campaign funds.

But, just as Yang couldn’t buy enough votes to secure the nomination, his plan to pay off automation’s demoralizing effect was also a failure. The old cliché holds true: Money doesn’t buy happiness. Just look at the materially abundant yet spiritually void lives of impeccably tanned celebs on Instagram.

What does provide happiness is providing for one’s family by dint of your own effort. Thirty-plus years of automatizing or outsourcing labor-intensive work has deprived the working class of remunerative job opportunities. Now even more cerebral tasks are being sacrificed to the almighty algorithm. This will only lead to more alienation and atomization, as we detach further away from one another and the mastery to shape our own future.

Yang spoke to the fear of dispossession. And while his solution was inadequate, perhaps even counterproductive, at least he acknowledged it. Trump won the Midwest by doing the same, albeit in the language of foreign job theft and “American carnage.” The remaining Democratic contenders may want to plumb the depths of this despair and offer an actual solution, if, that is, they want to be in the Oval Office come 2021.

James E. Miller, a native of Middletown, lives in northern Virginia with his wife and daughter. He is the author of the novel “To Win And To Lose.”