Andrew Yang, a former business executive, came to The Post on Thursday to talk about why he is running for president and what he hopes to accomplish if elected. Here is the full transcript and audio recording of our conversation. — Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor
Highlights of Yang’s comments
Click on a highlight to jump ahead in the transcript below.
- On solving problems in tech: “If you are a parent, you are concerned that your kid’s brain is being rewired by screens and smartphone use. They are being rewired. We’ve seen record high levels of anxiety and depression that are in lockstep with increased adoption of smartphones and social media apps. You know who don’t let their kids use screens? The people in Silicon Valley.”
- “I’m sitting here having outperformed half a dozen sitting senators, governors, members of Congress. And so you have to ask yourself, how did that happen? And it happened because I’m laser-focused on the real problems that Americans see around us every day, many of which led directly to Donald Trump being elected.”
- “Corporate profits are at record highs but also at record highs in the U.S.: stress, anxiety, financial insecurity, student loan indebtedness, mental illness, depression, suicides, drug overdoses, and that life expectancy has declined for the last three years. So if your corporate profits are going up and your life expectancy is going down, which do you listen to as a society?”
- “So first, what many people cite is they say, ‘hey, United States of America has been through this before with the Industrial Revolution.’ What they don’t seem to remember is that the Industrial Revolution, at the turn of the 20th century, included mass riots that killed dozens of Americans, caused the equivalent of billions of dollars worth of damage, led to the origination of labor unions that fought for worker rights, Labor Day as a national holiday and the implementation of universal high school in 1911, in part to try to educate a population that was struggling with the transition. And that our best experts in the field, McKinsey, MIT, the Obama White House, all say that this fourth industrial revolution will affect two to three times the number of workers on an annual basis than that one did. So even if you were to use history as your template, you’d expect there to be massive problems during this time.”
- “We talk about the Internet as if it's very, very good for entrepreneurs. It's very, very good for people who want to sell their time for less than subsistence wages online.”
The full transcript
Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor: Thank you for coming. We’d like to ask you questions and then post a transcript of the conversation. I thought I’d start by asking about human-centered capitalism, which I think I understand the principles, but I’m less clear on the means to get there. I know you want to measure different things, which might provide different incentives. You want to pay regulators more to even the field. But beyond that, how do you get this major transition to happen?
Andrew Yang: There is a saying in business that you make what you measure, and that’s not just in business. That’s in all organizations, and that’s human nature. We have a fixation on numbers and goals. And right now, the primary goals we set as an economy and society are oriented around stock market prices, [gross domestic product] and, to some extent, the headline unemployment rate. Those three measures are leading us in very distinct directions that have less and less relationship with how the average American is doing.
And one of the things I say on the trail is that corporate profits are at record highs, but also at record highs in the U.S.: stress, anxiety, financial insecurity, student loan indebtedness, mental illness, depression, suicides, drug overdoses, and that life expectancy has declined for the last three years. So if your corporate profits are going up and your life expectancy is going down, which do you listen to as a society? So step one is to get the measurements right. Instead of trying to use these crude economic measurements as proxies for our well-being, we should just measure our well-being. So what is our well-being? Health and life expectancy, mental health and freedom from substance abuse, childhood success rates, proportion of Americans who can retire in quality circumstances, environmental sustainability. You could even have variables like civic engagement and artistic and cultural dynamism.
So to your question, first you have measurements for these things, and I would suggest that just having these be a primary element of how we pay attention to our own health and progress would be game changing, because right now the messages that Americans get are that things are great. You can tell because the stock market’s setting new highs and these numbers look very positive and rosy. But then Americans sense that those numbers don’t correspond to how their communities are doing. They’re seeing that eight Americans are dying of drug overdoses every hour, that their kids are addicted to either smartphones or drugs. And so that disconnect is causing massive, massive problems.
If you actually showed the people that we know that we’re in the midst of a mental health crisis, a wellness recession, a civic engagement depression, that would be alone a massive step forward. And also, if you have these measurements, then many, many organizations would naturally try to remedy them. So nonprofits and local governments would look and say, “Wow, it’s incredible that our social measurements are declining this precipitously. We need to do something about it.”
Now, to your question, how do we actually move things in that direction? This is where, first, your tax system comes in. So right now, we have a relatively crude way to reward charitable contributions, which is we say, “Hey, they’re tax deductible.” For most businesses, this is helpful. But just about anything they spend money on is “tax deductible” because it’s going to reduce their earnings by a certain amount. So we need to do more to say, look, if you can actually discernibly improve, let’s say, graduation rates in a particular town or area or physical wellness of, let’s call it hundreds and thousands of employees, then not only do you get a tax break for having put money into that, but you might even get something positive in addition, for the fact that you actually have improved our society’s measurements on the things that we care about.
If we persist on following GDP, we’re going to follow it off a cliff because things like artificial intelligence and self-driving trucks will be tremendous for both GDP and corporate profits, and they will be very problematic, even disastrous for many, many Americans. If you can imagine a business or organization that is following the wrong measurements, that is the United States of America right now. Human-centered capitalism actually shows us how we are doing, and then we’ll put our country’s energies towards improving our lives rather than the bottom lines of a smaller and smaller handful of companies.
Fred Hiatt: So, just to follow up on step two, essentially you’re using tax expenditures to reward companies that improve education or health …
Andrew Yang: Or nonprofits or entrepreneurs.
Fred Hiatt: Rather than have the government have policies that improve education or health.
Andrew Yang: Of course, the government should be enacting those policies at every turn.
Fred Hiatt: Isn't that going make the tax system fairly complicated, more complicated?
Andrew Yang: Well, one could argue that right now we have a lot of complication without a lot of the positive value you'd hope to generate from that complication.
So actually, let me continue for a second.
So the goal of government should be to improve these measurements at every turn. That’s another reason why having them as the core measurements of our economy is so important. Because right now, if you have these surges in deaths of despair, which you do in much of the country, that should be a red flag for us all, particularly for government. What’s happening right now is that Americans fear that our government is essentially not accountable to the success or failure of our people. So if you were, let’s say, a state government in Ohio and then you saw these epic surges in opiate deaths to the point that your morgues can’t actually accommodate the bodies and they’re storing them at local funeral homes. The government looks up at this and says, well, this is a major problem, and then it tries to do something about it. But the people don’t feel like anything happens to the government, whether the opiate deaths continue or get better.
Fred Hiatt: So in a way, it sounds like you want to put dollars behind what the Business Roundtable just talked about of corporate responsibility and not just focusing on profits. They got some pushback from people who said, “If you’re a steel company, what you do best is make steel efficiently and reward your employees fairly for doing that. You’re not an expert in graduation rates.” And so in a democracy, rather than ask the steel company or the test prep [company] each to come up with their own solutions, we ought to tax those companies and then work on graduation rates through the government. But you think that’s wrong?
Andrew Yang: Well, so before I decided to run for president, I spent seven years running a national nonprofit that I founded called Venture for America. And we did a lot of good, still doing a lot of good today. The organization has grown and prospered after I stepped down. But I saw the limits of what’s happening in both government and philanthropy in many respects. It’s why the flagship proposal of my campaign is to put $1,000 a month into the hands of every American adult. This would improve graduation rates, health and nutrition, mental health and stress levels, rates of business formation, domestic violence rates. It would decrease hospital visits. Because if you put the resources into the hands of a nonprofit like myself, and I’m very, very proud of all the work that we’ve done, you have the feeling that you’re still just scratching the surface of the problem you’re trying to address. Where my organization has helped create about 3,500 jobs and counting over the last number of years. We were honored by the Obama administration multiple times. And I’ve been to those communities now for seven years. And I’ve recognized that my work was like pouring water into a bathtub that has a giant hole ripped in the bottom. The rate of change right now in our society is faster than ever. Technology is transforming our way of life fundamentally. Amazon alone is closing 30 percent of America’s stores in malls, reducing the most common job in our economy, which is retail clerk. And the average retail clerk is a 39-year-old woman making between $8 and $12 an hour.
What is her next role when the store or mall closes? Now, one theory of the case would be, well, we should get tax revenue and then do something about that. But of course, Amazon, your corporate parent, paid zero in federal taxes last year.
Fred Hiatt: Can I just say, not our corporate parent. Amazon doesn’t own The Washington Post. [Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon, owns The Post.]
Andrew Yang: You are correct. I apologize.
Fred Hiatt: That’s okay.
Andrew Yang: So Amazon, the trillion-dollar tech company, pays zero in taxes, which sort of weakens this case that, hey, we’ll get tax revenue and then make use of it. And the question is, even if the government did have revenue, what would it do for that woman to improve her lot? Right now, that’s a very open question. What is the government doing about the fact that 30 percent of our country’s stores in malls are closing for good? What is the government doing about the fact that robot trucks are just now starting to hit the highways and driving a truck is the most common job in 29 states? And the answer is the government is doing nothing because our government is decades behind the curve. Everyone knows that. They got rid of the Office of Technology Assessment in 1995. So they’ve literally been flying blind on technology-related issues for 25 years and counting. The American people know this. So they look up and say, “How are we going to actually solve these problems on the ground?” That is the open question. That is why Donald Trump is our president today, is because Americans have been unsatisfied with the answer.
Charles Lane, editorial writer: So if I could, I’d like to ask a few things about the basic income or the Freedom Dividend proposal. Starting with the premise, which is that technology is about to sort of so destabilize the job market, wipe out all these jobs, that you’re gonna have to have that. I mean, I’m not an expert on trucking, but I spent last night reading about three hours about the future of autonomous trucking. And it frankly just seems a lot, lot more of a long-range problem than you’re describing. I mean, I’m only zeroing in on that because you’ve emphasized the fact that it’s where not college people get their jobs. And quite apart from doing nothing about it, government is deeply involved as the regulator of transportation. And until the Congress signs off on those trucks, they’re not going to hit the road. So I’d like to hear you talk a little bit more about why you’re so sure that this sort of displacement is not going to work the way it has in the past. For example, even the retail clerks who are being technologically unemployed by Amazon, may now be working in one of Amazon’s warehouses, just to cite a for-instance. So be a little more specific about why that long-range phenomenon, whereby technological unemployment kind of corrects itself, is not going to happen.
Andrew Yang: I’m 100 percent confident because of both what I saw over the last number of years in the markets that have been hit by the automation of manufacturing jobs and the numbers on the ground throughout the country. So first, what many people cite is they say, “Hey, the United States of America has been through this before with the Industrial Revolution.” What they don’t seem to remember is that the Industrial Revolution, at the turn of the 20th century, included mass riots that killed dozens of Americans, caused the equivalent of billions of dollars worth of damage, led to the origination of labor unions that fought for worker rights, Labor Day as a national holiday and the implementation of universal high school in 1911, in part to try to educate a population that was struggling with the transition. And that our best experts in the field, McKinsey, MIT, the Obama White House, all say that this fourth industrial revolution will affect two to three times the number of workers on an annual basis than that one did. So even if you were to use history as your template, you’d expect there to be massive problems during this time.
The second thing is studying what happened to the 4 million manufacturing workers who lost their jobs primarily in the Midwest over the last number of years. During that time, you did not see those workers get retrained for new jobs. You saw almost half of them drop out of the workforce, and of that group, almost half filed for disability. So there was not the retraining that you hope would occur. And this is with an industry where we actually saw it coming, where we actually had industry-oriented retraining programs that were an abysmal failure. It’s irresponsible for a politician to talk about turning coal miners into coders because they will then leave and they will never have to actually train thousands of coal miners to become coders or employ those coders. The retraining programs by the numbers are more of a fantasy than a policy. If right now, in this time of historic change, our labor market were reorganizing, you would not see multidecade and record low levels of business formation among young people, interstate migration or other forms of entrepreneurship going off a cliff.
We talk about the Internet as if it’s very, very good for entrepreneurs. It’s very, very good for people who want to sell their time for less than subsistence wages online.
A couple of generations ago, the entrepreneurship that would have occurred in a community would have been things like a flower shop, a hardware store, a toy store. Now, none of those businesses make any sense because the Internet has taken those costs down and the opportunities away.
Fred Hiatt: So why is giving everybody $12,000 a year a game-changer in this picture?
Andrew Yang: So if you imagine a town of 10,000 adults in Missouri and they’re struggling. And then after I’m president in 2021, and Congress says let’s pass the Freedom Dividend, then the following year they’re getting an additional $10 million a month in buying power in that community. Where does the money go? It primarily goes to local businesses, car repairs they’ve been putting off, day-care expenses …
Fred Hiatt: So hardware store and flower stores become relevant again?
Andrew Yang: … Nonprofits, religious organizations, arts and culture. It goes towards the things that actually make that community function in a healthy way. And it may not be that the hardware store reopens, but you wind up with things like yoga studios and learning centers and things that don’t necessarily easily disappear to the cloud. This is one reason why I want to try and repurpose many of the stores and malls that are now closing, because when retail districts close or, in particular, when a mall closes, it causes urban blight for blocks and blocks around. So we have to do our best to try and shift many of these structures to some new productive use that will look different than the use that came before. But if we fail in this, then these communities will likely never recover.
Charles Lane: So I wanted to ask, because it’s not just the $10,000 or, sorry, the $12,000 a year or $24,000 for a couple, it’s the pay-for of that and also the terms and conditions. So I’ve looked at various estimates of how this would end up getting paid for. And I have to tell you, most of the estimates I’ve read suggests that your pay-fors are going to fall well short of the $2.8 trillion a year that it would cost to do that. So that’s one question about it.
And second is that the fact that, you know, when we talk about this $12,000 a year, that’s $12,000 that Ivanka Trump and $12,000 that Jared Kushner are going to get. The idea that this is not focused on the people who are actually bearing the brunt of all the changes you’re talking about, I think, is a real puzzle for a lot of people. And I’d like to hear you discuss why that isn’t a defect in this plan.
Andrew Yang: So Alaska, which has had this dividend in effect for almost 40 years, where now everyone in the state gets between $1,000 and $2,000 a year in oil money, passed this and said everyone is going to get it from the richest Alaskan to the poorest. And there are many, many benefits to this. There is no stigma attached to it. There’s no need to report your income or any changes in your circumstances. It’s not that I’m paying for it, and you’re getting it. And it’s universally popular. So here in the U.S., if we say everyone gets a $1,000 a month as a right of citizenship, then that’s something that everyone can get excited about immediately.
Now, there are several reasons why I’m not worried about the Ivanka Trumps of the world. As you likely know, I want to pay for this through a value-added tax that would fall most heavily on the big winners of the 21st century. So someone like Ivanka would end up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars into the system. And so if we try and send her $1,000 a month to remind her she’s an American, it’s immaterial in the scheme of things. And the benefits towards making it universal are much, much higher than if we have to try and ascertain whether these people truly live together, like whether they got a fake divorce so that one of them could report zero incomes, so they could get an extra $1,000 a year. All of the administrative issues essentially disappear, and this becomes something that we can all get behind as owners and shareholders of the richest, most advanced economy in the history of the world.
Do you want me to talk about the pay-for?
Charles Lane: Yes.
Andrew Yang: So the pay-for, right now, if you have the Amazons and Netflixes of the world paying literally zero in taxes, and then the other big winners like Apple, Google, Microsoft, parking tens, hundreds of billions of dollars in profits overseas because they want to avoid paying taxes here in the U.S., then you have a consistent revenue problem that is just going to rise over time. And one of the examples I use, let’s say a company comes up with artificial intelligence software that displaces most of the 2½ million Americans who work in call centers right now, making between $10 and $14 an hour. How much tax revenue will we see from the AI company? And the answer is probably nothing or next to nothing, because the AI company will have been bought by Amazon or Google, who will then park the revenue someplace else or not pay anything in taxes. Meanwhile, all of those 2½ million call center workers right now do pay taxes. And so we’re going to have this growing revenue problem over time as software and technology do more of the work.
If you want to put it in the simplest terms, robots don’t pay taxes. And so if you have more and more work being done by machines, technology, software and artificial intelligence over time, you are in a bit of a bind.
Other countries have looked at this and said you can’t have trillion-dollar tech companies like Amazon paying zero in taxes. So they have a value-added tax at the point of sale. It’s very hard to game your way out of, generates significant revenue from the people that are winning the most, and one tremendous thing about the value-added tax is you can scale it up on things like AI and yachts and luxury watches, and then exempt it or reduce it on diapers, milk, toilet paper and things that everyday Americans consume. Conservatively, an effective value-added tax at even half the European level generates almost a trillion dollars in revenue with a giant up arrow attached to it because that level is going to increase over time. That’s a huge down payment on this $1,000 a month for each of us.
After we get the $1,000 a month, if we manage to sneak into Jeff Bezos’s bank account and give him $1,000 a month, what impact would that have on the U.S. economy? Zero. He wouldn’t even know. No one would know. It just be like a digit changed. If you put $1,000 a month in the hands of one of the 78 percent of Americans who’s living paycheck to paycheck or the 50 percent-plus who can’t afford an unexpected $500 bill, what is that impact on the economy? We know they’re going to spend virtually all of it, and they’re going to spend most of it where they live. And that money is not going to stay just in that one transaction. It’s going to circulate over and over again.
When you look at the pay-for on this, people are underestimating the second order, economic benefits of having this money flow through the economy. You would get back hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue from the new economic growth, from the trickle-up economy, because people would be spending more and more persistently. You’d also save billions on things like incarceration, homelessness services, emergency-room health care that we spend tens, hundreds of billions on right now. It was a corrections officer in New Hampshire who said to me, we should pay people to stay out of jail because we spend so much when they’re in jail. We think we’re saving money by not investing in people, but we end up spending more in more expensive and punitive ways when they hit our institutions. And the last thing is that if you put this money into our hands, it increases our GDP by $700 billion a year, just by better health and education outcomes. And this is not taking into account the massive catalyst to entrepreneurship, creativity, risk taking, and new businesses and nonprofits that would form if people did not feel like they were going to starve to death if something did not work out.
Fred Hiatt: Let’s move on. We asked readers to send in questions.
Andrew Yang: And how much of them were about $1,000 a month?
Fred Hiatt: Actually, the range of reader questions we got for you was kind of amazing, and a lot of smart questions. So let me ask one and then maybe Molly can go next. Sue from Oakland, Calif., to ask a very specific one, says: “Adjunct professors teach 70 percent of the classes at college but only make a fraction of what tenured professors are paid. Most don’t receive health insurance, and there’s no realistic pathway to a permanent full-time job. What would you do to help them?”
Andrew Yang: She’s right. And what’s happened to adjunct professors is morally bankrupt. You have these universities that have figured out that they have this pool of labor that they can systematically exploit. In the old days, they would feel like they had to put someone on a tenure track in order to teach for the long term. But now they’ve figured out that there’s an oversupply of PhDs and they can get away with pushing them around. I am for the rights to organize among these adjunct professors. I know some of them have pushed for it. We need to see that they are treated better. But I want to speak to what that is emblematic of.
So we have universities that have gone up two and a half times in cost over the last number of years. Have they improved two and a half times in quality? No. But everyday Americans look up and say, oh my gosh.
How many of you all are parents like me? So if you’re a parent and you’re looking up saying “what, college costs what a year?” You know, we’re looking at what, if you have two kids, you’re looking at half a million dollars in tuition for many of these schools. And parents feel like they have no choice but to pay. So then what does the government do? The government says we’ll give you loans. So you’re up to $1.6 trillion dollars in student loan debt and counting. And the underemployment rate for recent college graduates is 40 to 44 percent.
So if you are a college, again what is your accountability? If you raise prices, what happens? Well, it’s tougher on families, but they’ll just get the loans from the government. It’s tougher on your graduates. But you know, at that point, they’re out of your hair. And so what are your incentives as a university to try and keep your costs under control? Not very high. What are your incentives to treat your adjunct professor like a human being? Vanishingly low because you’ve got an ever-replenishing pool of people who want to do that job because many Americans have dreamt about being a professor. And if you’re a university, then theoretically you can do no wrong because you’re a nonprofit and no one’s going to come to you and say, hey, some of these practices are really bad for their country.
Fred Hiatt: So your solution is?
Andrew Yang: No. 1, you say to the universities, “Hey, let’s try and get your administrator-to-student ratio down to what it was in the 1990s, because the main reason your costs have gone up 250 percent are that your administrator-to-student ratio has gone up 150 percent. You are not spending the money on faculty. You’re not spending the money on things that are actually going to impact the educational experience. You become these overgrown, complex bureaucracies where you have many, many non-faculty administrators doing jobs that did not even exist a couple of decades ago.
“So you get a lot of money from the government in various ways. You enjoy tax exempt status from the government. So we are going to now hold your feet to the fire and say you have to get your ratios down. Not going to do it all at once, but get your ratios down over this period of time.” The universities will say, “This is impossible. We can’t do it.” And then you’ll look at them and say, “Well, I think you’ll figure it out.” And as they do figure it out, we will realize that a significant proportion of these administrators have zero impact on the student experience. Students will not even notice that they’re gone and that these schools just needed someone to actually hold them accountable for annual price increases.
And this is not just schools — like, health insurance companies. Every year, what’s their business model? It’s just jack up the prices a little bit. There are three core sources of inflation in American life that are driving us all miserable: housing, education and health care. Now, unfortunately, those three are like the pillars of American life and a middle-class existence. So if your wages and compensation stay essentially the same, but then I jack up the price of college every year and I jack up the price of your health insurance every year, then you become increasingly unhappy and miserable. That’s what’s happening with the American people right now. And this is again, a space where the government looks up and is like, well, I guess it’s appropriate that we’re charging this much or you’re charging this much because you’re the boss.
And at some point, the government has to say, wait a minute, this is all functioning as a massive system of taxation on our people. And that’s not right. These organizations have to actually start trying to keep the public good in mind and not just their own growth. So this is all a long-winded way of saying we need to treat adjunct professors better because these universities will not do it themselves.
Molly Roberts, editorial writer: Great. You’ve mentioned the Amazons and Netflixes of the world a lot. I keep thinking if I got a thousand dollars a month, why wouldn’t I just go and spend it on Amazon? Is there anything besides taxing these big companies more that we need to do? Do we need to, as a lot of other candidates have said, break up Big Tech?
Andrew Yang: There has been excessive consolidation in the technology industry, and it’s bad for us on many levels. We should be forcing some of these technology companies to divest parts of themselves. We should also be prohibiting them from acquiring certain types of businesses, because right now in Silicon Valley, the business model is not to build the next great company. The business model is to get gobbled up by one of the behemoths for a billion dollars and then everyone’s rich and goes home, and it doesn’t really matter what they did to your technology. That said, breaking up Amazon, as an example, would not magically revive the main streets of Indiana. And there are many fields in technology where there will actually be one or maybe two winners. And the example I used at one of the debates was, no one wants to use Bing today or no one wants to use the fourth-best navigation app. We all just want to use the one that has the best information on it. And so saying we’re going to keep breaking you up anytime one of you wins does not make sense in some of these contexts.
It also does not solve some of the biggest problems that we’re actually seeing in tech. So, again, if you are a parent, you are concerned that your kid’s brain is being rewired by screens and smartphone use. They are being rewired. We’ve seen record high levels of anxiety and depression that are in lockstep with increased adoption of smartphones and social media apps. You know who don’t let their kids use screens? The people in Silicon Valley. If you go there, you will see there are no screens in sight in these households because they know what they’re doing. Tristan Harris said we have the smartest engineers in the country turning supercomputers into dopamine delivery devices for teenagers.
So the question is, how do we get into the guts of these tech companies and protect our kids from having their brains changed in ways that are quite negative? If you were to go around saying “break up Big Tech, break up Big Tech,” that actually does not change the mechanics of the social media app. You have to have a Department of the Attention Economy with very smart people like Tristan who go in and actually say, “Look, here are the 20 design decisions you made. You’re going to make them all differently.” So saying you’re going to go around breaking up Big Tech is a pretend solution. It’s a 20th-century solution to 21st-century problems. If you home in on the actual problems you’re trying to solve, you see you need a different approach. You need a scalpel, not a sledgehammer in many of these cases.
Molly Roberts: I have a few questions about getting into the guts of those Internet harms or device harms, starting with privacy, for which I think you’ve proposed what people call data ownership.
Andrew Yang: Yes.
Molly Roberts: So I think some would say maybe that the problem that we have with privacy is privacy being treated as a commodity in the first place rather than as some sort of right that you can’t trade away. I guess I’d like to hear a little more about what data ownership actually looks like and how it addresses the harms we see of people looking at these confusing terms of service, giving their “consent” and then really having no idea what’s going on.
Andrew Yang: I love the way you frame this, Molly, because I’ve never met a human who actually reads those things and then walks away and says, “I didn’t like that particular turn of phrase. I’m not going to consent to this.” I mean, it is fake consent. You’re just looking at and saying, “All right, get out of my way. I’m going to click on it and then hope you don’t do anything too bad with my data,” because the bargaining power is so extremely one-sided. I mean, you have quasi-monopolies in these tech fields where you feel like what are you going to do, not use Facebook? I mean, like, is that like a real option? Like what is the alternative if you want to keep in touch with your neighbors and college classmates?
So the way that I would turn this around is I would say, look, we’re allowed, of course, to loan our data to these technology companies and we’re not going to make every American a contract expert or privacy expert, but we’re going to put the power in your hands and say if you loan your data to these companies, then here’s what you know will happen. No. 1, there is an audit trail where you will know what they did with your data, particularly if they sold it or resold it. No. 2, if they get money for your data, you get some too. It just gets slipped into your account like on a monthly basis, and then you’ll feel better about the fact that it’s getting sold and resold. No. 3, you are allowed to turn it off anytime you want. You can walk away and have the right of anonymity and say, “Hey, my data no longer appears if I don’t want it to.”
Now, the way this would work out for 98 percent of Americans is they would still just click that box, go use the app, they would never look at the audit trail, but they would feel some degree of comfort that it exists, and they would get money. So that would be a dramatic improvement. And from the government’s point of view, it would be a dramatic improvement to have the audit trail, because then you can look at it and say, okay, I now know what these companies are doing with our our data, which right now we don’t. Right now we just hope for the best. I go to Americans around the country and I say, “Hey, how many of you actually change your password after you get notified that your company has been hacked,” and only half of people do. You know, it’s like they’re too busy to worry about the fact that Yahoo! got hacked and their password might have been compromised. So right now, the inequities are ridiculously one-sided. I would put the power back into American’s hands, but I think most Americans are creatures of convenience. We just want to know that our information is not being abused and exploited.
Molly Roberts: And you don’t think that there’s any role for government to say, “Hey, here are ways that information is abused and is exploited. Let’s outlaw it.” So that Americans who are kind of currently drowning in the control they have but don’t know how to exercise over their data are protected anyway.
Andrew Yang: Yes, the government should put the power in the hands of the consumers. And what I would want is for a consumer to at some point essentially just have one choice. It’s like, do you want your data use and protection to be like low, medium or high? And you can change that election at a particular point. And then the tech companies treat you differently based upon which dial you put it to, and you get a different amount of money. So if you put it to high, it’s like you can aggressively use my data to some extent and I’ll get more money. And then low is like then you have to anonymize it, like you can’t really use it for a lot of things, and I get next to no money. So at least then Americans have a basic sense as to what their preference is and how it’s expressed, like how the company actually adjusts.
Lee Hockstader, editorial writer: To ask you about immigration: The percentage of Americans who were born somewhere else is almost 14 percent today. It’s the highest in a century. It’s triple what it was the 1970s. And we would argue and, from what I’ve seen, you would certainly argue, those immigrants have made the United States a more vibrant place, more dynamic place, culturally and economically, in many ways. But certainly there’s also been a contribution to social divisions and those have been exploited by the president, among others. So what percentage, is there a percentage of immigrants as a percentage of foreign-born residents in United States that’s too high? If it’s 14 percent today or almost 14 percent, is 15 percent a problem? Is 20 percent a problem? At what point, is there a breaking point in terms of the number of Americans or residents who were born elsewhere?
Andrew Yang: I’m the son of immigrants myself, so I agree that immigrants make our country stronger and more dynamic economically, culturally, socially. That said, I think we should have a rational, principled approach to immigration. At the high end, we should be stapling a green card to the diploma of any student who comes here and studies at one of our universities and graduates. Because a lot of them want to stay here, and we should be encouraging them to stay here and make it easier for them to start a business, start a family, have a life here. We should try to provide a path to citizenship for the 12 million-plus people who are here and undocumented and bring them in to our society. Essentially, you have another legal classification on this path.
I think it’d be wrong to set like a numerical goal and say, well, you know, you can’t have foreign-born Americans above this threshold, because, in my mind, of these people you’re describing, they’re all going to have kids like me and my brother, probably like immediately, not immediately. But, you know, like the next generation, like all of a sudden, they’re born in this country, like and then they’re, in my mind, as American as anyone else. So we should have goals that we’re trying to achieve with immigration. But I don’t think that there is like a numerical target we should be setting either positively or negatively.
Lee Hockstader: So then how do you manage these tensions that have clearly arisen in society, partly from the level of immigration that’s gone up so much in 40 years?
Andrew Yang: Well, it’s gone up for a host of reasons. And a lot of that has been illegal immigration across the border. And so we need to enforce our borders in a real way. It’s one of the reasons, one of the multitude of reasons why Americans have given up on government is because they feel like we have policies on the books, but then those policies aren’t actually enacted in real life. This to me is one of the actual responsibilities of government is to say, “Look, we can actually deliver on enforcing a southern border that lives up to its name like as an actual border.” If we were to do that, then I believe the confidence level in the American people would increase immeasurably about immigration.
Jonathan Capehart, editorial board member: Mr. Yang, can I ask you to drill down a little bit more on this? Because at the start of this conversation you were talking about the problems that the federal government could be addressing and should be addressing.
Andrew Yang: Yep.
Jonathan Capehart: You were talking about your Freedom Dividend, and I was struck by a phrase that you used, which was, you know, getting the Freedom Dividend “as a right of citizenship.” And it made me think, maybe I have this at the top of my head because I interviewed him yesterday, but Jonathan Metzl of Vanderbilt University has written the book “Dying of Whiteness.” And his whole argument is people are willing to die rather than be connected to or finance policies that they believe are giving resources to people they view as undeserving. So what I would love for you to do is to please talk about how you’d address the clear societal hurdles to achieving the goals that you set out.
Andrew Yang: Sure. So none of you had heard of me eight, 10 months ago, I’d imagine. And I’m sitting here having outperformed half a dozen sitting senators, governors, members of Congress. And so you have to ask yourself, how did that happen? And it happened because I’m laser-focused on the real problems that Americans see around us every day, many of which led directly to Donald Trump being elected. Right now, I’m fifth in the polls, rising, fastest-growing candidate or campaign in the race.
So if we follow this through, I surprise in Iowa, perform extraordinarily well in New Hampshire, I become president of the United States in 2021, everyone would know that I won on the Freedom Dividend because that’s my signature proposal. Americans decided that $1,000 a month in cash is pretty great. And so then as president, I’m there celebrating with Democrats and progressives because they’re just thrilled we’ve beaten Donald Trump. They realized it was a bit of a bet, but it worked. And here we are.
And then the Republicans and conservatives in Congress will look up and say, “Wait a minute, how do I feel about this dividend? A lot of people in my district seem very excited about it. The one state that’s had a dividend for almost 40 years, Alaska, is a deep-red conservative state and it was passed by a Republican governor. This is a big win for rural areas that are struggling and red states on the interior that have gotten blasted by automation.” And so we just need some of these Republican congressmen to say, “I am for the dividend because I’m for economic freedom.” And if you get a majority, then you can pass it. Now, can you get all of them? Almost certainly not. But this is a law like any other. So you don’t need a supermajority. You just need a congressional majority to pass the bill.
Jonathan Capehart: I mean, one could argue that when President Obama came into office, he was laser-focused on getting health care to as many people as possible. And Obamacare passed, but those Republicans, no Republican voted for it in the House. I’m having a hard time seeing how you’re going to break the fever that President Obama thought he was going to do in 2012 simply by your election. How are you going to convince the Americans who are literally willing to die or or stay in dire economic circumstances simply because policies that you’d want to put into place and others want to put into place would benefit someone else?
Andrew Yang: I think that the attitude you are describing, while it does apply to a certain subset of Americans, applies to a very, very low proportion of them. And I’m confident of this because when I campaign around the country, at every event I go to, someone comes up to me in the line afterwards and says, “I voted for Donald Trump. This time I’m voting for you.” One survey in New Hampshire said that 10 percent of the voters who voted for Trump would vote for me over Trump in the general election. Another survey said that 18 percent of college Republicans would choose me over the president. Now, this is not everyone. But this is enough. You don’t need to convert 80 percent of the president’s followers. You need to convert, let’s call it 20 percent. So this attitude that you’re describing is very real. But I believe that it does not contain 100 percent of the folks who voted for Donald Trump. And I know this because, again, they come to me at my events every single time and say, “You’re my candidate this time.”.
I also believe I’m somewhat different from some of the other Democrats in the field. And I can’t speak to Obama, but I’ve been on Fox News any number of times. I’ll talk to anyone. And one friend of mine, whose mother is an avid Fox viewer, said that Yang is the only Democrat I would support because he is the only one who does not seem to be judging me. That is enough for us to get a critical mass of Donald Trump supporters to get around a solution that would dramatically improve their way of life. They can see it.
The second argument I’d make is that cash is much, much harder to demonize than health care. If you go to a conservative in Kentucky and say “the government wants to take over your health care,” you can get people very, very upset about that. If you say, “hey, this cash is going to hurt you,” it’s going to be tougher. I mean, there might be some someone there who’s like, “yeah, the cash is going to hurt me,” but others would be like, “Wait a minute, they do this in Alaska. If I got that money, I think I’d be very productive with it. Sure, some of my neighbors less so, but, you know, first things first.” So we can get Americans on board because it’s such a simple, straightforward vision of citizenship.
And I’ve run organizations for decades now. And what I say to people, is this. There are three ways you can treat human beings who work in your organization. No 1. you do nothing, then they leave you within a year. No. 2, you tell them how great they are. That lasts for about a year, and then they leave you before the second year. The third thing you can do is you invest in them. You compensate them. You give them raises, and you genuinely value them and then they’ll stay with you forever. Right now in the United States of America, we’re doing some combination of one and two with our kids. We’re saying, “Hey, things are great. You can vote.” They don’t really believe it. If you could look at every parent who could then look at their children and say, “when you turn 18, you’re going to get $1,000 a month from your country because your country loves you, your country values you, and we are investing in you,” that is a game changer for Americans of every political party. And there are many people in red states who are already embracing this vision. I know, because I see them every day.
Fred Hiatt: Can I just follow up on why you're still here and why we've heard of you?
Andrew Yang: Sure.
Fred Hiatt: You say it’s because you’re focusing on problems that people care about, which I’m sure is right. But you also hear a lot of people say, “Oh, he sounds like a normal person. Smart person, maybe, but a human being, unlike most politicians.” And I’m just curious why you think most politicians don’t sound like normal people. And as you go up in the polls, do you find yourself under pressure not to or, I mean, what’s the process been like for you?
Andrew Yang: Thank you. It’s a really important question. I went through that tension a little bit earlier in the process. I clearly see why politicians do not seem like normal people, because they are surrounded by organizations whose livelihoods are dependent upon this person’s political career. And so they deliver to the candidate, “Okay, here are your talking points. Go to them. Do not go beyond these guardrails. And if you do go beyond these guardrails, then people will throw rocks at you for at least a day, and maybe your career will be over, and then all of our careers will be over.” So if you’re surrounded by that kind of organization and message, then you become very, very guarded pretty quickly. You have your talking points. You deliver them. And Americans can sense it.
It’s a variant of what I was talking about with the universities. But this is actually the big problem in American life. And I’m going to extend it to you all as journalists. Almost 2,000 local newspapers have gone out of business in the last number of years. Why? Because all of the advertising revenue went to the Internet. The local businesses that used to advertise in those papers disappeared. They got zeroed out. Did journalism become less valuable during this time? Well, yes, according to the marketplace, like the marketplace says, it’s where zero then is where zero. And the theme of my campaign is, of course, journalism is not worth zero just because the market says it’s worth zero. You need journalism to have a functioning democracy. How are you going to vote on things going on in your community if you don’t have a local paper? So this is what’s going on with politicians is that politicians have very, very clear institutional incentives and then they go to them. It’s like the marketplace for politicians. What are their upside for seeming like a human being? Actually quite low because at some point they’re going to say something that someone doesn’t like, and then everyone will mock them and there’ll be a negative press cycle, and their staff will be like, “You can never do that again.” Or then what are your incentives for like staying on the straight and narrow? That’s like then you get more success, more cable news appearances, like your team pats you on the back and says, “Great job. You didn’t say anything that was off your talking points.”
So our politicians seem increasingly like flies stuck in amber. And it’s one reason why Trump won is because even though he is a narcissist reality TV star, and many Americans sense that he has massive character problems, he struck people as “more authentic” than our politicians. And it’s because our system has become overrun by these market and institutional incentives that have pummeled the humanity out of otherwise well-meaning public servants.
I experienced this myself when I was rising. I acted like a human being when no one cared. No one was watching me, it didn’t matter. I got like a little bit of visibility and then some negative press cycles. And then people were like, “Hey, you know, maybe you should like stick to the script.” And then I stuck to the script for a little while, and then it didn’t work for us. So then I started evincing more humanity again, and then we started rising again. And then here we are. And now I’m happy to say, like, I get to act like myself and like a human being most all of the time because it’s worked for us. It’s actually our major competitive advantage, relative to the field, that I seem like a human being speaking English in terms that most of us can understand. And, you know, that’s what we need right now. So thank you for the question.
Jo-Ann Armao, associate editorial page editor: So do you ever run into people who say, “Hey, you know, we tried to nontraditional like last time with Donald Trump? That didn’t work out so well, so I’m a little bit leery about you?”
Andrew Yang: I do get that.
Jo-Ann Armao: And what do you say?
Andrew Yang: And what I say to them, I’ve got a few responses. No. 1 is I say, look, I’d be the last person who would say I was going to run government like a business, because they’re two completely different things with different leadership styles. And anyone who thinks otherwise is a moron. And then I say running government will be much closer to what I did running a national nonprofit that had thousands of stakeholders, where you have to try and generate consensus and galvanize energy around a vision that will get people excited. The other thing I say is that Donald Trump is not every non-politician in the world, that there are actually many people that are sound human beings who just want to solve problems. And he should not represent every person who’s not spent a career in politics. And No. 3, I say that Americans have been looking for some kind of change agent for years now because we sense that our government is behind the curve. And that’s not just Trump and Bernie Sanders’s outsized success. But you can even see that in Barack Obama’s election in ′08, where people were hungry for some form of change. And we’re still looking for it. And the fact is that change is unlikely to come from someone who has spent decades on Capitol Hill.
Fred Hiatt: And even though you are still able to act as a human, you’re also having to say the same thing again and again. I’m sure every question we’ve asked, you’ve heard before, and you’ve explained the Freedom Dividend. And so how do you do that without sounding bored or getting bored with yourself?
Andrew Yang: Well well, part of it is I don’t have any talking points. So if you were to watch 100 interviews with me, there’d be a lot of similarities, no doubt. But there’s something different about each one of them because I would go insane otherwise. So I might get an identical question and answer it differently depending upon the day. Honestly, because I’m a human being and you know, like, sometimes something else is a more appealing.
Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page editor: Foreign policy. I went through your answers to the Council on Foreign Relations, and I was struck by several times where you said the U.S. response to something should be to join the chorus of other countries. In particular, it struck me as an interesting model for what the U.S. role in the world should be. And in particular, when you were asked what should the U.S. do about Xinjiang in China, you said the U.S. should join the chorus of countries that are calling China out. So I guess my question is, is that all?
Andrew Yang: That’s not all. What we have to do is regenerate our global leadership role through investing in our historic partnerships and alliances. If we want to improve China’s treatment of its ethnic minorities, which is reprehensible, to me, you could go it alone or you could try and build an international consensus around it. I would go for path No. 2, and I would actually try and strengthen that consensus in ways that would be important to the Chinese, which is why I’m proposing a world data organization that’s analogous to the [World Trade Organization]. If you look at our recent past, China modified its behavior significantly because it thought it was important to join the WTO. And that ended up being positive in some ways for the rest of the world. We need to bring similar pressure in their use of technology and data. And if the Chinese feel like they need to conform to certain standards in order to achieve their economic goals, then they’ll be much more likely to actually feel pressure to pull back in some of their abuses. So I don’t want to relinquish American global leadership. I want to rebuild American global leadership by actually strengthening our alliances and partnerships and let our friends know that Donald Trump is not forever. We’re here and open for business.
Fred Hiatt: Also in the world, Abby in Woodstock, N.Y., asked, how would you handle nonstate terrorist groups like ISIS while getting us out of forever wars?
Andrew Yang: When I talk to Americans, they do not want us to be in a constant state of armed conflict as we’ve been for 19 years and counting. There are ways that we can combat ISIS that don’t involve semi-permanent occupation of certain territories. So I have a three-part test for armed intervention. No. 1, there is a clear, national interest at stake or the ability to avert a humanitarian crisis. No. 2, there’s a clearly defined timeline where we can bring our troops out. And No. 3, we have allies and partners that are willing to join us in the mission. Something like ISIS would satisfy all three, where there is a clear national interest, we should be able to define a timeline, and if we have partners and allies that are willing to join us in that that mission, which we do in that case, then we’ll be able to act in concert. So I do not want to engage in forever wars …
Fred Hiatt: You can define a timeline maybe to destroy the caliphate, but ISIS hasn't gone away. There are Islamist terrorist groups in northern Africa and Afghanistan, and a lot of people in the military would say without some presence on the ground, gathering intelligence and responding, they can't contain those threats on a continuing basis. Is that wrong?
Andrew Yang: Well, even then when you say continuing basis, I mean that you can define a timeline, like the timeline could be prolonged and measured in years and still be the right mission.
Conversations with the Post Editorial Board:
Michael Bennet, 2020 presidential candidate
Pete Buttigieg, 2020 presidential candidate
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