The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for ease of reading.
David Kirkpatrick: Okay, we’re going to bring Andrew Yang and Rich up here right away. Andrew Yang, presidential candidate, we’re happy to have you here.
Andrew Yang: Thank you all.
Kirkpatrick: Somebody gave me this in the men’s room, but I think it’s appropriate for this purpose. Andrew is a long-time friend of Techonomy, he created Venture for America, and among other things, we work so closely together that at one point we talked about sort of jointly doing a conference in Detroit. And this is at least the third time you’ve spoken here, including last year at this event when your presidential candidacy was probably viewed by some as quixotic, it is not viewed that way now.
Andrew is a serious contender for the President of the United States, he’s included in the debates coming up. He’s raised an astonishing amount of money, what, $6 or $7 million dollars now?
Yang: On the way to that, a little bit—give me a little bit of time to hit that number.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, but you’ve got a lot of money coming in and there’s like a Yang gang of particularly younger voters who are really excited about his candidacy. And I want to also introduce Rich Benjamin who many of you may recall from this stage last year and also our stage in Half Moon Bay. He’s a long-time journalist, expert in politics which is why I asked him to join me here on stage. Author of a great book called “Whitopia,” in which he lived in the whitest counties in America and wrote about his experience in doing so.
Yang: That’s so fun. How long did you do that?
Rich Benjamin: Two years.
Yang: Wow. That’s tough duty, am I right?
Kirkpatrick: He puts it—he really is out there getting the pulse of America, he was recently at a gun show in Florida for a project he’s doing.
Kirkpatrick: So Rich is on top of what’s happening. I’m a tech more oriented person, he understands politics. So Andrew, what would you say as why you’re running in a Techonomy context?
Yang: Well, most of the people here in this room know that we’re in the midst of the greatest economic and technological transformation in the history of our country. What experts are calling the fourth industrial revolution. But most people outside of our bubble do not understand that. They actually have a vague understanding because they’re living it. To me, the reason why Donald Trump won in 2016 was that we’d automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs that were centered in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Iowa. And if that list of states sounds familiar, those are all the swing states he needed to win and did win. And if you look at the voting district data, there’s a straight line up between the adoption of industrial robots in a voting area and the movement towards Trump, it’s one of the strongest correlations that anyone can find.
Now, this is not a conversation that our country is having, our conversation, unfortunately, is veering towards Russia and Facebook and FBI and things that are relatively marginal in terms of their explanatory power of why Donald Trump won in 2016. So what we have to do is we have to take what we all know here in this room and convey it to the American people as quickly as possible, that it is not immigrants that are causing economic dislocations around the country. If you go to an Amazon fulfillment center, it’s not immigrants working there, it’s robots. And we need to accept the fact that we are now pushing more and more Americans to the sidelines and then spread the bounty as quickly as possible and have meaningful solutions or else we’re going to become increasingly polarized and divided. But worse than that, we’ll actually see a disintegration of our way of life which we’re seeing in the numbers right now.
Benjamin: Yeah Andrew, you bring a certain expertise to this campaign that really distinguishes you differently than the other Democratic primary candidates. Beside that expertise as you campaign, what are you learning from voters that you didn’t know already?
Yang: You know, voters are really smart. And they defy the categorizations that much of the media places on them. Where there’s almost this caricature of like white working class, the media is like, “How are you going to communicate with the white working class?” And then you go and hang with the union workers in Ohio or Iowa and they get it. They’re savvy and they defy monolithic caricatures of who they are and their motivations.
And so you know, I appreciate your characterizing me as distinct from the field in this way. But when I talk to Americans around the country about the fact that their malls and stores are closing and why is that, they say, “Amazon, clearly.” Like, they understand what’s happening. And when you say, “It’s not immigrants, it’s technology,” I have yet to have a single American actually contest that in any meaningful way. It’s like as soon as you say the truth, they’re like, “Oh, yeah, that’s right.” And I’ve had hundreds of Donald Trump voters come up to me and say, “Everything you’re saying is right, it makes sense.” And one person actually said, “You’re what I hoped for when I voted for Donald Trump in 2016.”
Kirkpatrick: Wasn’t that quoted in Time Magazine? I think I saw that quote. But that’s—
Yang: I’ve read that several times now.
Kirkpatrick: It must be—they found somebody saying it to them. But you know, weren’t you shocked, like so many of us were, in the last presidential campaign that these issues of a digital society were literally never raised in the debates? I don’t think once was there a good question from any of the journalists conducting those debates either in the primaries or the—maybe in the primaries there was one or two glancing references. But we are in a fundamental social transformation because of technology that has essentially been disregarded in American politics.
Kirkpatrick: Is that why you’re running in effect?
Yang: That is why I’m running. And that’s one reason why my campaign is catching fire. I’m at 7% to win the nomination according to the internet. And that’s people betting real money.
That’s not just opinions. So if you want to make some money, you can go, right now, Andrew Yang is at 7%.
But yeah, if you look at the media and the debates, you don’t see any of this discussion. You don’t see any discussion of the fourth industrial revolution or automation of millions manufacturing jobs or 30% of malls and stores are going to close and retail is the most common job in this economy still. The average retail worker is a 39-year-old woman making between ten and eleven dollars an hour. So if 30% of stores and malls close, what’s her next move? Like, no discussion about that. We’re just talking about these sideshows and Americans know it and they’re angry about it and they’re disgusted by it. And our media is doing us a massive disservice. It’s one reason why I love gatherings like this at Techonomy where we can talk more frankly about what’s happening.
And the most offensive thing to me is I go on mainstream news programs and I talk about these facts and like no one cares about the facts. It’s such a—you know, there’s like a whole other language going on out of a lot of the political media, in particular.
Benjamin: Speaking of this language, do you disagree with Elizabeth Warren? Would you go on Fox News to get your message out better?
Yang: I do disagree. I mean, how can you win general elections if you don’t go on Fox. The numbers, I’m a numbers guy, more Americans watch Fox than CNN and MSNBC combined. So if you want to reach Americans and win general elections, you probably need to go on Fox. And you can take issues with the programming choices and certain of the people there but that, to me, should take a backseat to communicating to as many Americans as possible.
Benjamin: But, to push back on that, to play devil’s advocate in her defense, there’s two reigning theories, one, is you can have a technocratic, problem-solver, numbers person like yourself or the moment could require a brass knuckles, progressive brawler who could stand up to Mitch McConnell and the Congress. Pick your issue, which of these devise or which approach do you think is best given the moment?
Yang: Well, to me, it’s just about trying to improve the way of life for as many Americans as possible. And so I, personally, think that there’s a ton of middle-ground because when I talk to folks around the country, they’re just looking at how to move themselves forward. What I’m saying to folks is it’s not left, it’s not right, it’s forward, that’s where you have to take the country. And so I disagree with Elizabeth Warren’s take that we should be somehow boycotting a network that communicates to millions, tens of millions of Americans.
Benjamin: But, as a practical governing matter, not just a matter of campaigning, where do you take on this idea of bipartisanship in technocratic competence versus a really partisan person who is going to go brass knuckles and go out for people who want blood, actually.
Yang: Well, let me say I’m a fan of Elizabeth Warren. Like, I think she’s got tremendous values, like, she’s trying to improve the lives of many Americans. And I think that the folks that are trying to fight for a better way of life, I’m aligned with anyone who wants to improve our way of life. I do think that if you’re going to get something done in a polarized Senate that saying, “Hey, I’m not going to talk to your people or work with you,” is probably not as effective a way to get things done. But, you know, I would respect people who take another perspective of it.
Kirkpatrick: Andrew, you know, the freedom dividend has been sort of the central characterizing element of your campaign, maybe you can say whether you wanted it that way or not, but which is to give $1,000 dollars a month to every American over 18 and to do that, in part, because of automation and what it’s doing to society and some of the issues you mentioned at the outset. I guess, first, I’d just invite you to say anything about that that maybe we might not already know. I mean, I don’t want to overemphasize it because it is pretty well-known about you but I have a follow-up to it too.
Yang: No, if you’ve heard anything about me, it’s that there’s an Asian man running for President who wants to give everyone $1,000 dollars a month, am I right?
And I don’t mind the association at all. Because for political figures to talk about problems and this is another point of frustration, like, how many times have you heard a politician being like, “Here’s the problem,” and then just ignore the solution, it’s like walk away. That’s actually standard political procedure. Now, in this case, if you accept that we’re in the greatest economic and technological transformation in the history of our country, which we are, and that McKinsey, Bain, and MIT all project that between 20–30% of American jobs will be automated in the next 11–20 years, which they all do agree, and that our labor force participation rate right now is where together is at 63%, a multi-decade low, and the same levels as Ecuador and Costa Rica in year 10 of an expansion.
Like, these are all facts. And so instead of saying, “Hey, this is the backdrop, don’t know what we’re going to do about it,” instead it’s like, “This is the backdrop, let’s put $1,000 bucks a month in the hands of every American.” It’s going to grow the economy by 2 million jobs, it’s going to make children and families stronger, healthier, better educated, mentally healthier. It would help millions of Americans do the kind of work that they want to do, including people like my wife who is at home with our two boys, one of whom is autistic. And right now, her work would count as zero in both GDP and it has a market value of zero and we know that’s messed up and perverse.
So this $1,000 dollars a month dividend is steeped in American history. Thomas Paine was for it, Martin Luther King was for it, Milton Friedman was for it. Jamie Diamond just came out for it last month. How was that not front-page news? Jamie Diamond, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase said, “We should have a negative income tax in the United States,” which is guarantee of an income level. And so we are past the time for idle chatter about what might be happening.
Our life expectancy has declined for the last three years due to surges in drug overdoses and suicides which have both overtaken vehicle deaths for the first time in American history. You know the last time our life expectancy declined for three years in a row? The Spanish flu of 1918. We are in Spanish flu territory and we are cheerleading this phantom GDP number. It’s garbage. We are better than this. We are smarter than this. And we need to get our shit together.
So if you do accept the backdrop, then you also have to start saying, “Okay, we need meaningful solutions.” And the solutions that people like us tend to present to people are, “We need to educate and retrain people, we need to train people in coding and engineering.” But the reality is that 8% of American jobs are in STEM, 92% are not. It is impossible to take 92% of the population and somehow turn them into the other 8%, particularly when you’re talking about a population of 3.5 million truckers, average age 49, 94% men. These men did not like school 30 years ago.
Kirkpatrick: So you can see why he’s taken off.
Kirkpatrick: I’ve got a follow-up. So on this stage yesterday, our final speaker was Mark Bertolini who you may know, a great thinker about healthcare, former CEO of Aetna. And one of the things he was complaining about as the CEO of Aetna was that he was unable to invest in his people because the tax laws prevented it, but you could depreciate hardware.
Yang: That’s true, you can’t depreciate the investment of people.
Kirkpatrick: But you cannot depreciate the investment you make in people even though you can document the productivity benefits of it. Do you think that aside from the UBI kind of approach, which is clearly logical in many ways, that we need other forms of tax reforms so that people will be encouraged, big companies can be encouraged to invest more in their human capital?
Yang: Oh, yeah, completely. I spoke to a group of 70 CEOs and I asked them how many are considering having AI replace thousands of back office workers, these were big company CEOs. Guess how many hands went up out of 70?
Kirkpatrick: All of them.
Yang: All of them. And you know maybe two of them were just like raising their hand to be cool like their buddies, “Oh, everyone raised their hand.” But, still, it was all of them. And why is this? It’s because that’s what their financial incentives are. If I come to you with a fancy AI program and say, “Hey, I can replace 1,000 of your call center workers,” you can literally be fired for not using AI. So that’s what their financial incentives are. And so if we want people to invest in their workers or give them healthcare or do things that benefit various stakeholders, then we have to actually change their incentives. Right now, brow beating executives to do the right thing and then compensating them for capital efficiency makes no sense. Of course they’re going to do what benefits their stock price, they have a job to do. I’ve been a CEO, like, I know what it means to serve the bottom line and so what we have to do is we have to actually change what the bottom line is and that would include giving them some sort of benefits for investing in people or giving them healthcare or treating them in other ways that we want.
Benjamin: Andrew, can you round out the rest of your economic policy as a CEO beyond the UBI, universal basic income? We have this so-called trade war with China, we have wealth declining in some instances of the equity market. What’s the rest of your—in terms of protectionism versus free-trade policy? What does the rest of your economic policy look like beyond UBI?
Yang: Well, I think this trade war is the wrong move. This is going to sound very politiciany but I was just with a farmer in Iowa [LAUGHTER] and he said to me, he spent six years building up a trade relationship that now got tossed aside because of the tariffs and the trade war and he felt very betrayed. And as someone who has run a business, I’d be furious if I had invested based on a particular price and then you change the price on me? I mean, they have to fire workers over this price change.
So there are huge imbalances between the U.S. and China in terms of the trade relationship, piracy of our intellectual property that amounts to tens of billions a year. But this trade war, to me, would be the last resort. And the problem, and this applies to both technology and globalization, is that many Americans feel like they’re not included in whatever prosperity or gains developed. And so if we spread the gains more broadly, then both technological progress and globalization could be something that more Americans are excited about. In the absence of a genuine sharing of the gains, and I would actually completely accept an American who says, “Hey, this is actually not working out for me.”
Kirkpatrick: A similar related thing, and I want to hear audience questions, but there is a view that we are very close to a potential war with Iran right now. How do you come down on that kind of foreign policy challenge? What would you do right now vis-à-vis Iran, for example?
Yang: Well, to me, we made the wrong move by pulling out of the pact that would have them deescalate their nuclear development in return for lifting various sanctions and economic considerations. So the first thing I would do is I would—I mean, can you imagine, when I’m President in 2021, the world is going to be, “Oh, my gosh, like, America is back open.” And so then I can hopefully diminish the tensions with Iran and get us back on a tract towards both them reducing their nuclear arms and us feeling like we don’t necessarily need to escalate military activity in that area.
Kirkpatrick: Do you have anything because—
Benjamin: Yes, one question that I’d like to pose to you. I keep hearing the resonances of the future, problem solving, which really resonate. But on the other hand, we have a slogan that says, “Make America Great Again.” And, this, we are in a cultural moment, we are in a culturally retrograded moment. Alabama just passed this—
Yang: I saw that.
Benjamin: So how will you deal—
Kirkpatrick: To make sure everybody—a law that essentially bans abortion that will force to take challenge in the Supreme Court for Roe v. Wade, which could be the opportunity now that we have Kavanaugh there. They’ve been looking for a way to take that challenge to the Supreme Court.
Benjamin: Even in the cases of rape and incest, we should add. And so this cultural moment that we’re in, that people want to take the country backward, how do you deal with these issues that don’t necessarily have empirical and fact-based matter. How are you going to deal with culture in this country?
Yang: So first on women’s reproductive rights, I think it’s inappropriate for a male legislature to have that sort of power. So as a guy, I would just leave the room and let women determine your own reproductive rights. I have a feeling I know how you’d come out on it. But, in terms of the cultural response, so there was the Make America Great Again hat. The Yang gang has its own hat, it says, MATH, on the top. [LAUGHTER] Because the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math. [LAUGHTER] But it also stands for Make America Think Harder. And that’s actually the cultural movement we need. There needs to be like the revolution of rationality. And so there’s a lot of appetite for that kind of movement. And that’s one reason why we’re getting tens of thousands of donors around the country.
Benjamin: And I asked that question because I think a lot a lot of Democrats, Barack Obama being a prime example of a technocrat, really got caught flat-footed. And I guess underestimating the value that these issues have in terms of A) governing, in terms of policy, in terms of media, in terms of getting his message out. But, you say you’re different, you’ve got your Yang Gang going.
Yang: And, again, when I talk to voters in various communities, they understand what’s going on around them. And then when I say, like, “Look, I understand too, and let’s try and find a way forward together,” like, I’m being met with open arms wherever I go. So to me, the danger right now is that in a culture of scarcity, where 78% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck and 57% can’t afford an unexpected $500 dollar bill and they’re looking around and seeing their ways of life disappear, then you become subject to very, very negative ideas. Including ideas around culture, around race, around gender.
There is a study that showed that if you have a mindset of scarcity, it reduces your functional intelligence by 13 IQ points or one standard deviation. So if you think that America is getting less rational and nastier, we probably are, just by introducing pervasive financial insecurity into the population. And that’s what you’d expect. And so if you get the economic boot off of people’s throats, you get their IQ up 13 points or one standard deviation, and then you’ll see that the conversations in the culture will improve.
It’s very hard to influence culture but you know what’s really easy to influence, capital flows. If the majority of Americans get together and say, “Hey, dividend is a good idea, $1,000 bucks a month,” do you think that would improve American’s receptivity to, for example, immigrant communities? Do you think it would improve their receptivity to the concerns of women? And one thing I say is that the Democratic party talks about empowering women all of the time. But we know that there are millions of women in America exploited over abusive jobs or relationships that would be improved by getting $1,000 dollars a month. We can either talk about empowering women or we can do something about it. And I say we do something about it and that is culture.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, let’s get the lights up. And I want some very pointed audience questions. Okay. I know you ask good questions.
Kenaday: Hi, Konguey Kenaday, SAP. If you were to win the election in 2020 and had to pick a vice-president who is a candidate now, who would you pick and why?
Kirkpatrick: What a good question. It’s just the kind I wanted.
Yang: Well, first let me say, one of the joys of running for President is that you get to meet many of the other candidates, including John Delaney, who I think is right behind me. Is John in the room yet? Hey, John. I guess you can’t see John but somebody just pointed to him. So I want to wait until I meet the other candidates because I haven’t met some of them. But I will say that virtually everyone in the field, like John, is an earnest patriot who wants to do the right thing. I could work with any of them, I’d be thrilled to work with them to solve these problems.
But I just can’t answer that because I haven’t met everyone yet. And, like, you have to figure out who you have some sort of—
Kenaday: You’ve seen them on TV.
Yang: I would never hire someone based upon what I saw on TV.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, let’s have another one. Another one as good as that. Okay, back here.
Audience 1: I read an article last week in which this morning’s speaker, Doug Rushkoff, actually said that UBI was, I think I’m going to quote here because I don’t want to get it wrong, I think it’s, “The plan is a gift to the masses to keep people spending.” And so there’s a fundamental disconnect with the idea of UBI being essentially a handout, which some people seem to actually resent as well. An alternative that I’ve heard that’s actually been foisted perhaps with no better chance of actually becoming reality is to create some kind of liquidity assets that can be accessible to all, create massive access to liquidity assets.
So I’m curious, both from a political standpoint at the macro level of how you describe this as not a handout and as a guarantee of universal basic income versus this idea—so that’s the macro level, how it’s not a handout. And then at the micro evel, why isn’t an opportunity focused effort to create broader distribution of liquid assets a better solution?
Yang: So we tested out a number of ways to frame the freedom dividend and we landed on the freedom dividend because Americans loved the idea of getting a dividend on our collective progress. And the thought is that— it’s your money. It’s our wealth. We’re the richest and most advanced society in the history of the world, up to $20 trillion dollars, we can easily afford $1,000 dollar dividend for every American to enhance your economic freedom. And many Americans love that framing, as soon as you say it’s a dividend then they get it because they’re like, “Oh, I buy Coca-Cola, I get a dividend, I’m sort of a shareholder in the United States of America, I get a dividend.” And so that’s this economic empowerment idea that helps break people from this mold of, frankly, like a welfare framing that has been very negative and destructive in various ways. And inaccurate, as most of us know.
In terms of creating a liquid asset pool, that’s what Alaska did to great success where Alaska has had a dividend for almost 40 years where everyone in the state gets between $1,000 and $2,000 dollars a year, no questions asked. It’s wildly popular, has created thousands of jobs and improved children’s health. And they love it. So that’s a deep, Red conservative state too. So this is not a—if you were to say, “Hey, do you like handouts,” they’d be like, “No.” And it’d be like, “Do you like the dividend,” and they’re like, “Yes.” You know, it’s just in a way like language is very powerful. So I would love to create some sort of asset pool that the American people could use to share this dividend but the fastest way there is to put the dividend in place and then build up the wealth through innovations and other things and like help Americans feel like stakeholders in it rather than, frankly, find something like—I’m for a data tax and I’m for a data dividend as an example. But if you had a data dividend right now, it would amount to a relatively trivial amount of money for most Americans like distributed around the population based upon current business parameters.
So we start with a dividend and then we can very, very quickly close on a set of collective assets that we’re excited about, including carbon data, AI, automation, and everything else.
Kirkpatrick: That’s good. One of the other things Mark Bertolini said yesterday was a problem he felt when he was CEO of Aetna was that he couldn’t—he first pointed out that the people who’ve owned stock have been the ones who benefited in the inequality breakdown in America. The people who basically live on wages are the ones who have suffered. He wanted to give stock to his employees at Aetna but he would have had to expense it. It was almost literally impossible for him to do under the rules of capitalism so there’s another regulation, legal, taxation accounting change that we could think about.
Yang: So 80% of Americans own 8% of stock market wealth. And the bottom 50% own essentially zero. So trying to get Americans to feel invested in, for example, stock market price growth, it really just reflects the fortune in the top 20% of the population. And so looking for assets that people can feel some sort of ownership of is key. But we have to realize how far we are away from that right now.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, there was a question over there, I believe. Please stand up and identify yourself.
Marcus: Hi, Andrew, I’m Marcus. Criminal justice reform is kind of a hot topic, there are 8 million people behind bars in the U.S. Are you in favor of giving them voting rights? Please talk about your criminal justice policies.
Kirkpatrick: Thank you.
Yang: So I’m for getting rid of private prisons entirely. It makes no sense to have prisons with a profit motivation and then they benefit from both recidivism and shoddy treatment of inmates. I am for voting rights for people who are incarcerated, studies have shown that if you vote after you come out of jail you’re less likely to go back to jail. And so you can make your own correlations there. With the exception of whether you’ve deprived someone else of their right to vote, if you know what I mean. So if you’ve done that, then you should not be able to vote, but other than that, you should and that’s shown to actually enhance the odds of someone getting reintegrated into society.
One thing that would help with reintegration into society is they come out and have a dividend of $1,000 bucks a month waiting for them. They go back to their homes and families and people will be like, “I’m excited to see you because you’re bringing $1,000 bucks a month with you.” [LAUGHTER] And they’ll be like, “Things sure did change when I was on the inside.” And then if you go back to jail then you don’t get a dividend anymore because we’re spending it on your incarceration. But a prison guard in New Hampshire said to me, he said, “We should pay people to stay out of jail because it’s so expensive when they’re in jail.” And so we convince ourselves that we’re smart by like, you know, saving money, no, we just end up spending money in much more punitive and costly and destructive ways on the backend. So we need to try and make our prisons more rehabilitative and then reduce the population over time. Because we know that a lot of the administration of our criminal justice system has been deeply racist.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, both of our presidential candidates are tightly scheduled so we have time for one more question now if it’s a really—I can’t see because of the lights. Okay, yes.
Varadam: Hi, Andrew, Venk Varadam with Nanoware. Many of us are in early-stage health tech or med tech companies. I’m curious on how you think as a technocrat, healthcare technology, how that would frame policy, a lot of us don’t have visibility into reimbursement with codes that were created in the 1970s, 1960s. How do you think about technology and healthcare going forward?
Yang: Yes, certainly we’re in an era where we’re poised to have many breakthroughs that could enhance our health. You know, there’s certainly the regulatory thicket you’re describing, the medical billing codes and we need to try and clarify that picture for innovators. I used to joke that healthcare is where good ideas go to die. And I say this as someone who worked in a healthcare software company for four years. Where it’s like, “Oh, this makes perfect sense, everyone is going to love it,” and then you get there and it’s like, “Whoa.” Like they have this whole hodgepodge of existing systems, they don’t care if your system works better without the incentives. And that’s like a very tough thing where in the healthcare industry, for better or for worse, generally for worse, they’re tied more to revenue and activity than they are healthfulness. And so to me, it’s impeding a lot of innovation that could improve our lives because it’s not aligned with their current institutional incentives or the payment mechanisms through the insurance companies.
So one of my big goals would be to try and clarify those incentives for innovators like you because we have to make it so that healthcare is not where good ideas go to die but it’s where good ideas go to thrive.
Kirkpatrick: Andrew, thank you so much.
Benjamin: Thank you.
Yang: Thank you all very much. Thanks, guys.
Kirkpatrick: Good to have you. Thank you, sir.