Democratic residential candidate Andrew Yang speaks at a conference in New York on Wednesday. (Wes Bruer/Bloomberg News)
Opinion writer

At a rally Democratic presidential contender Andrew Yang held earlier this week in New York City’s Washington Square Park, I asked attendees how they found out about him. Many mentioned stand-up comedian Joe Rogan’s popular podcast. A few also mentioned “The Breakfast Club,” the nationally syndicated morning show based out of New York. Exactly one person referenced the news — and, it turned out, he also told me his mother is a journalist.

That’s no surprise. Yang, 44, has acquired his small but devoted following outside conventional channels. Like Donald Trump (and Ross Perot before him), he’s a businessman. Unlike Trump, he’s not campaigning with a semi-improvised agenda targeted toward the resentful, the angry and the racist. Yang is a successful technology entrepreneur, “a problem solver,” as he likes to say. He’s a man with a plan — a plan that consists of dozens of points encompassing everything from immigration reform to funding nonprofit journalism. He’s for Medicare-for-all — and free marriage counseling and financial counseling for all, too. He’s also against circumcision. He told the Daily Beast he’d like to educate the practice out of existence. He’d like to see an end to localities offering tax giveaways to entice businesses to locate within their jurisdiction, and a restoration of net neutrality. He says combating climate change needs to be a “top priority” of the federal government.

But over and over again when I ask people who identify as members of “the Yang Gang” what attracted them to Yang, they cite Silicon Valley’s preferred solution to our economic woes: universal basic income (UBI) or, as he calls it, “the Freedom Dividend.” Yang argues that technology is going to eat up millions of jobs over the coming decade, wiping out everything from retail workers to truckers. “How many of you have seen the self-service kiosk at McDonald’s or another fast food restaurant?” Yang asks. “You kind of like them. I kind of like them too.” The only solution to this inevitability, Yang argues, is giving every American, beginning at age 18, $1,000 a month. He’d fund it by upping taxes on technology companies.

Yang has translated his unlikely background and platform into something of a cult following, centered around men under the age of 40. The idea that anyone except the occasional oddball would thrill to carrying signs with the word “MATH” emblazoned on them — which stands for Make America Think Harder — may feel like a stretch in the United States, where an anti-intellectual streak is writ large, and our current president is prone to saying such things as, “I love the poorly educated.” But when people attending the rally talk about UBI, it feels more personal. “It makes a lot of sense, because a lot of Americans are struggling,” said Keegan Steinke, 24, a canvasser for a solar company. “It provides a safety net for everyone, and it doesn’t provide these perverse incentives like, 'Okay, I made this much, I might lose these benefits,’ ” said Elliott Ribner, 32, a software engineer.

This is a generation that’s been repeatedly shafted by the American economy. One might even say support for UBI is not so much the typical American “what’s in it for me” as much as aspirational. Millennials — who make up the bulk of this audience — have not exactly been the recipients of plenty.

Yet Yang’s critique is not an angry one. While he refers to Washington as a town of followers and not leaders, his take on American society is not particularly complicated. It doesn’t wrestle with the systemic causes of our woes the way Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) do. Yang is not in favor of a wealth tax and instead argues for a value-added tax, which is a surcharge tacked onto consumption — something that hits low-income people harder than higher earners. He simultaneously wants to reduce the size of the federal government and to “improve the recruitment and retention of younger workers,” which is rather contradictory as a policy, not to mention vaguely insulting to long-term civil servants.

Yang seems to believe many of our current problems are ultimately rooted in the deus ex machina that is technological progress wiping out jobs. But that’s not strictly the case. This second gilded age was almost certainly accelerated by such advances, but that’s by far not the only cause. Inequality was done to us by regulatory, legislative and judicial changes — one after the other after the other.

Yang is not a politician. His plan appeals because it’s politics made easy — by, well, removing the politics. Many attendees at his New York rally aren’t all that political — it takes a minute for several to remember if they even voted in the 2016 primary. (Most say they did, and usually say they supported Sanders.) Yang’s policy platform is rational, and an almost perfect fit for his audience, many of whom are tech oriented themselves. They cheer when he says he would use charts and a Power Point presentation as part of the State of the Union. That’s when it occurs to me. Yang is a hipper, cooler update of modern American belief that a man of business can solve the messy world of Washington. It sounds smart, but he’s ultimately still offering up simplistic solutions to difficult social and economic woes. It’s a TED Talk version of politics.

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