CLAREMONT — Andrew Yang guessed that most of the 25 people who showed up to see him at the Claremont tech center at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning only knew him as “That Asian guy who is running for president and wants to give everyone $1,000.” There were some embarrassed chuckles as Yang hit the nail on the head, as he did many times throughout his nearly hour-long presentation and dialog with this audience. Yes, dialog. Yang asked questions of the people in the room at regular intervals that were not rhetorical; he really wanted to hear the answers and he got them.
Yang arrived only 10 minutes late, which is quite punctual for the campaign trail. Steve Marchand, a Democratic candidate for governor in 2018, was there to introduce Yang. Marchand said his goal was to have Yang connect with Trump supporters. “This is not just about becoming president,” he said of the campaign, “it's about being president.” Marchand feels the country is in a “transformational moment.”
“Trump was the wrong answer to the right question,” said Marchand. “Andrew Yang is the right answer. So, what is the question? The question is, the economy is rocking, so why does my life and the lives of the people I know, suck?”
The presidential candidate began by personably reciting his resumé. He is familiar with New Hampshire from his prep school days at Phillips Exeter. He then attended Brown University and law school at Columbia University. He lasted five months as a corporate lawyer before quitting to become an entrepreneur. His first venture flopped, but he then joined an education company that did well and was purchased by a larger public company in 2009, at the start of the Great Recession.
The recession inspired Yang to found a nonprofit called Venture for America. He had just watched Ivy League-educated Wall Street whiz kids crash the economy. So, his nonprofit placed Ivy League graduates like himself in economically challenged communities to start businesses.
During the 2016 presidential campaign Yang was puzzled that to explain the rise of Donald Trump the media was obsessed with a “mishmash explanation” that variously included combinations of the FBI, Russia, Facebook, and Hillary Clinton. It was clear to Yang that Trump was popular because manufacturing jobs were disappearing rapidly in the swing states. He noted that one of the best correlations he'd seen to explain the outcome of the election was between regions that had the greatest adoption of robots in manufacturing and density of Trump voters.
Yang cited Amazon as the number one reason for the closure of local retail businesses and the loss of retail jobs. “Amazon pays no taxes,” he said. “Those workers did. Who gets the blame? Immigrants. But who is a huge user of robots? Amazon.”
Trump, Yang said, is not the problem. He is the symptom. The problem, as he sees it, is that the United States is entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution — driven by the expansion of computer technologies — and no politicians are willing to talk about it.
“AI [artificial intelligence] is about to leave the hype stage,” the tech CEO said. “AI is gonna be a buzzsaw. Our government doesn't know anything about tech.”
The programs to retrain American workers have not been effective, Yang said. Half of people displaced by automation have simply left the workforce and filed for disability. He does not believe that the subsequent surge in drug addiction and suicide is a coincidence. Life expectancy, he noted grimly, has declined for three years in a row in the United States. It was a theme of his stump speech: he is paying attention to numbers and trends that everyone else is ignoring.
Yang is best known for his Freedom Dividend; he wants to give $1,000 every month to every American over the age of 18, no strings attached. The idea has a long history, beginning with Thomas Paine, who called it the citizen's dividend, to Milton Friedman, who called it guaranteed minimum income. Under the name of the Family Assistance Plan it passed the House of Representatives twice in the early 1970s, but failed in the Senate because Democrats there wanted to give people a larger sum and Republicans would not go that far.
The candidate presented the Permanent Fund in Alaska as an analog. Every Alaskan resident receives a check once a year from the state that is funded by taxes on oil production on the North Slope. The technology industry, Yang said, is the oil of the 21st century and “Jeff [Bezos, owner of Amazon] and the gang” should pay for the dividend.
Yang believes that this supplement to income would grow local economies because people would use it for car repairs they had been putting off and to go out to eat. It would also help feed their children better and make them stronger and healthier. By removing a financial strain from relationships it would reduce domestic violence and improve women's lives.
Gross domestic product — the total worth of good produced and services provided in one year — is a lousy index of the health of the economy, Yang said. He asked the audience what they thought were good measurements of economic health. They quickly offered the rate at which new businesses are opening, environmental quality, and trends in health and life expectancy. “We need real measurements to focus on,” Yang said. “I can go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics as president and say 'Make a new measurement.'”
Unlike other Democratic candidates, Yang got to climate change last. “I used to think we were shafting our grandchildren,” the candidate said. “Now I think we're shafting ourselves.” But, he said, the stresses imposed on people by economic change make it very difficult for them to make sacrifices to reduce climate change.
We have questions
Although Yang had interacted repeatedly with the crowd throughout his remarks, he eventually threw open the floor entirely. His first questioner worried about the effects of inflation on his Freedom Dividend. Yang pointed out that the three biggest expenses for people are education, housing, and health care, and those costs are not tethered to market economy; their price tags increase at rates greater than inflation. He would peg increases in his dividend to the core inflation rate, but those other expenses would have to be dealt with separately.
When asked his opinion about impeaching the president, Yang pointed out that he is a candidate for president and his job is unseat Trump in an election. Let Congress do their job, he said.
Another person followed up on the failure of retraining programs. What would he do? “Tech centers are where we need to drive resources,” he said, gesturing at the room around him. “Only 6 percent of students in the U.S. are in tech programs compared to 59 percent in Germany. We send everyone to college and saddle them with debt. What's easier to automate, being an accountant or being a plumber?” Yang said that 44 percent of jobs, including many that require a college education, are repetitive manual or repetitive cognitive.
In response to a question about health care, Yang said the Americans pay twice as much as anyone else with worse results. “I was having lunch with a health-care industry investor,” he recalled, “and she told me that the profiteering in the industry was like nothing she had ever seen.” Good health care, Yang said, is a right.
Judith Kaufman, the chair of the Sullivan County Democratic Committee and organizer of the event had the last question. She wanted to know if he would shift the subsidies that now go to the fossil fuel industry to the renewable energy sector. Yang said there was no other way to do it, but he also thought that nuclear power should continue to be “part of the puzzle.”
Standing in line
A queue formed as members of the audience waited to have Yang autograph his book, “The War on Normal People,” which was available for free at the event.
Julie Schoelzel of Keene was already a Yang fan when she heard Sam Harris making fun of him on NPR. Schoelzel read Yang's book and found it to be well written and clear. “I emailed the campaign,” she said, “and they actually wrote back to me. I'm more and more excited about him.”
John Streeter of Charlestown is the vice chair of the county Democratic Committee. “A friend mentioned that he'd be here,” Streeter said, “I'm trying to see everybody. He certainly gave me a lot to think about. Everyone else plays on your emotions. He challenged the norm.”
Peter Schmidt is 18 years old and will be voting for the first time in the August primary. Schmidt was trying to see as many of the candidates as possible and was not won over by Wang. The young voter wanted to see more focus on climate change and doesn't think Wang has enough mainstream recognition to have a chance.
Christopher Ratcliffe of Claremont is a former Trump supporter who feels the president has “not done anything he promised.” Ratcliffe believes that Yang and Tulsi Gabbard “are the only sane people in the race. I'm more of a libertarian and the other candidates are too far to the left.”
Democratic state Rep. Gary Merchant (District 4) came to the event out of curiosity. “Overall he has a good message,” Merchant said. “He has a different way to frame things because he's not from inside the Beltway.”