Andrew Yang cut his teeth in the dotcom bubble before establishing a US-wide business. Now he wants to lead his country and introduce a “freedom dividend”. Jane Lewis reports.
Among the many candidates jostling for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, Andrew Yang stands out. The New York entrepreneur wants to guarantee every adult American $1,000 a month, “no strings attached” and apparently in perpetuity. The government “has plenty of resources, they’re just not being distributed to enough people right now”, he told CNBC earlier this year when outlining his plan to introduce a universal basic income – or “the Freedom Dividend” as he calls it. Yang, 43, is convinced that it would be “the greatest catalyst for arts, entrepreneurship and creativity” on record. “It would take people from a constant mindset of scarcity to a mindset of assured survival and possibility”, he wrote on Reddit last spring.
The right credentials
The idea of a universal basic income has gained new momentum because of the potentially devastating impact robots and self-driving vehicles could have on jobs, says The New York Times. Critics dismiss Yang’s predictions of “robot apocalypse” as doom-mongering and his campaign (slogan: “Humanity First”) as “a futurist vanity stunt”. They also argue that the cost – around $2trn a year, or roughly half the current federal budget – is prohibitive. Yang counters that the plan could easily be funded by slapping a 10% value-added tax on companies “benefiting most from automation”. He argues that he is just the man to “sell the idea in Washington” by framing it as “a pro-business policy”.
A well-connected “fast-talking extrovert”, Yang certainly has the right entrepreneurial credentials. Born in 1975 in Schenectady, New York, to Taiwanese immigrants, his parents were both high-achievers. His father, who worked as a physicist for IBM and GE, produced 69 patents over the course of his career. Yang enjoyed an upmarket education at Phillips Exeter Academy and Brown University before graduating from Columbia Law School. In the late 1990s, he left his job at a law firm to focus on tech. Having cut his teeth on an internet start-up “that failed during the first dotcom bust” Yang netted “a modest fortune” selling a tutoring business he’d developed to Kaplan in 2009. But the move that put him on the map – and gave him “the political bug” – was starting Venture for America (VFA) in 2011, with the aim of connecting recent college graduates with start-up businesses. The specific plan, as outlined in his book, Smart People Should Build Things, was to “distribute talent around the country”.
Over the next few years Yang criss-crossed the country and VFA grew fast: by 2017, its initial $200,000 annual budget had mushroomed to $6m. By the time he stepped down as CEO in 2017, the organisation had raised
over $40m and kickstarted some 29 businesses. Yang argues that his travels, particularly through ailing midwestern cities, made him uniquely placed to spot the connection between the rise of workplace automation and the growth of anti-establishment popularism.
But the programme’s success also sharpened his ambitions, says Entrepreneur. “I started Venture for America with nothing but an idea,” he notes. That has given him the confidence to face down those who deem his presidential campaign a “longer-than-long shot”. For a party clearly in need of an injection of young blood, says The New York Times, he could become a compelling candidate.