What do you need to destabilize a society? "All you need is cars that drive themselves". A couple of months ago in a Thai Restaurant in Manhattan the businessman from New York, Andrew Yang released his first official interview as aspiring democratic candidate for the presidential elections in 2020. Since then the press has done nothing but talk about it because there is no shortage of possible anti-Trump leaders but nobody, at least for now, seems as original as Andrew Yang.
"This innovation", he explained to the New York Times, referring to autonomous cars, "will be sufficient to cause riots in the streets. (…) In a few years we will have one million truck drivers out of work, of which 94% are male, with a high school or first year college educational level on average. (…) And we are going to do the same thing to retail, call centre, fast-food, insurance and accounting company staff".
These are not the words of an old apocalyptic conservative. Yang is 43 years old and has spent twenty years in the world of high-tech start-ups, he is married and the father of two children. He is an extrovert who speaks very fast, wears blazer and jeans (without tie) and keeps a daily diary in which he notes down the things for which is grateful.
His campaign is set on the dystopian future that awaits the Americans with the growth of automation, but he does not just play on fear: he also proposes solutions. His argument is that the brief increase in automation and artificial intelligence will make millions of jobs obsolete, bringing unemployment to levels of the Great Depression of 1929.
Starting with the assumption that putting a brake on progress would be neither wise nor decisive, in addition to free healthcare, Yang proposes the Freedom Dividend.
For many this is excessive scaremongering, and this is probably the case. It should be said however that Yang is not the only one among economy, computer and technology experts to think of it in these terms. According to the report of the 2017 consulting firm McKinsey & Company, by 2030 a good third of the jobs of U.S. citizens could evaporate. And how does the aspirant candidate think he will tackle the problem? Starting from the assumption that putting a brake on progress would be neither wise nor decisive, Yang proposes, in addition to free healthcare, what he calls the "Freedom Dividend": a sort of rebranding of basic universal income, an idea that is not exactly new and that in recent years has come back into fashion, thanks also to the illustrious endorsements from Silicon Valley.
To finance the 1,000 dollars payable every month to every adult citizen, Yang proposes a value added tax, i.e. a sort of sales tax collectable not only at the retail stage but also at every step of the production chain.
I am a capitalist and I believe that universal income is necessary to ensure that capitalism continues.
Yang’s idea is that this income should guarantee all Americans access to essential goods, including education, allow them to spend time with the family and also for those who want to start a business. "I am a capitalist", he told the New York Times, "and I believe that universal income is necessary to ensure that capitalism continues".
It was in fact his entrepreneurial vocation and interest in innovation that a couple of decades before moved him away from the legal career he had embarked on after graduating in Economics at Brown and getting a Juris Doctor degree at Columbia. "After a brief period as corporate attorney, I realized that was not for me," according to what it says on his website. "I launched a small company that did not get off the ground, and then I worked for a health start-up, where I learned from more expert entrepreneurs how to build a company". Later he managed a high level training company which gave him a new idea: invest by creating work, precisely where the crisis had hit hardest, in cities like Baltimore, Detroit and Cleveland. With the same spirit he founded Venture for America, a programme that helps entrepreneurs to create jobs in their own city.
His trips around the United States, especially in the cities of the Midwest, enabled him to make an important link for his future political plan: one between the growth of anti-establishment populism and increasing automation of jobs. "The reason why Donald Trump was elected is that we have automated four million jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin", he explained to the New York Times. "If you look at the data on the voters, it shows that the higher the level of concentration of robots in a district the more it voted for Trump".
In this preliminary phase he is still a long way off becoming a candidate and even further from the White House. However Yang seems confident and proactive: "We must think… bigger", he wrote on Reddit, quoting Inception by Nolan. And if his analysis is correct and robots in 2016 really made the Trump’s fortune, who knows if they won’t play in his favour in 2020.