Seemingly out of nowhere, entrepreneur Andrew Yang has risen into the top tier of Democrats seeking their party’s 2020 presidential nomination. Known as a cheerful doomsayer, Yang, 44, is promoting a “universal basic income” of $1,000 a month to help offset the effect of jobs lost to automation. He sat down this week with USA TODAY’s Editorial Board to discuss this and other issues. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity:
Q. Why are you seeking the 2020 nomination?
A. There is a lot of confusion in the country as to why Donald Trump is our president. If you turn on cable news, the explanations you get are some combination of Russia, racism, Facebook, the FBI, Hillary Clinton and emails. No one talks about the fact that we're in the midst of the greatest economic transformation in our country's history. Four million manufacturing workers in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin lost their jobs, and those states voted for Donald Trump. And Democrats have not been able to put their finger on the true problems, let alone propose real solutions. So this is why I'm running for president.
Q. A new poll has you in sixth place among the roughly 20 candidates. Are even you surprised by that?
A. I'm genuinely not. And I'm not going to be surprised when I win, either.
Q. In 2016, voters elected a businessman with no experience in government or the military. Why would they want to consider doing that again in 2020?
A. Donald Trump is Donald Trump. He certainly doesn't represent all entrepreneurs or businesspeople. Genuine entrepreneurs like myself regard Donald Trump as a marketing charlatan and a fraud more than a real builder.
Q. Should Trump be impeached?
A. I tend to be pragmatic and a problem solver. Given the current composition of Congress, impeachment would almost certainly not succeed. And then you would wind up inflaming a certain proportion of the president's base with this persecution complex no matter what he does after a failed impeachment process. It's impractical to champion impeachment just based upon the fact that Republicans still hold so many seats in Congress.
Q. The policy centerpiece of your campaign is to give every American adult $1,000 a month “freedom dividend.” Where’d that idea come from?
A. The plan was originated by a guy named Andy Stern who used to run the SEIU (Service Employees International Union.) It was in his book — "Raising the Floor" — that he wrote in 2015. Before I decided to run, I had lunch with him in New York City, and I said, “Who's going to champion this plan and run for president on it?” He said, "No one." And then I said, "I will."
Q. What are the benefits of universal basic income?
A. This has all of the effects that you would want from the best government programs you can imagine: healthier people, less stressed out people, better educated people, stronger communities, more volunteerism, more civic participation. There's zero bureaucracy associated with it. We don't need to verify whether your circumstances change. We just need to make sure you're alive.
Q. If you are sending out monthly checks, why not $2,000? Or $10,000? And why just adults?
A. The plan is at $1,000 a month for a number of very good reasons. No. 1 is that $12,000 a year is enough to make a huge difference in the lives of millions of Americans, but it's still below the U.S. poverty line, which is about $12,770 a year. So it's not going to be this massive work replacement in most situations. After I am president in 2021, are you going to quit your job the next day? Of course not. But the $1,000 a month would reduce your stress levels and increase your ability to save for your children's education. You might eat out an extra night, thus fueling the local businesses. So $1,000 is the right, appropriate level in a way that something like $2,000 would not be.
Q. Let’s do the math. Paying the 200 million adults in the USA $12,000 a year comes to $2.4 trillion. That’s twice what we raise from the federal income tax. So where are you getting $2.4 trillion from?
A. If you look around, who are the big winners of the 21st century economy? Amazon, Google, Facebook, Uber. And if you look at these companies, you'll notice they have something in common. They tend to pay very, very little in taxes. If you had a value-added tax at even half the European level, you would get a slice of every Amazon sale, every Google search, every Facebook ad, every robot truck mile, that would generate about $800 billion in new revenue. So that's a big chunk of change.
Q. And the rest of the money?
A. The "freedom dividend" is going to generate hundreds of billions of dollars in new economic activity. How many more Americans would do something like start a business if they had a thousand bucks a month coming to them that was guaranteed? All of a sudden then if that business fails, it's not an existential I'm-going-to-starve-to-death problem. So you generate hundreds of billions in new economic growth and value. The third thing is that you save billions on things like incarceration, homelessness services and emergency room health care.
Q. The value-added tax would be passed along to consumers. So you’d be raising prices on poor people in order to give $12,000 a year to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the country. How is that fair?
A. Oh, I'd be taking literally billions of dollars from Jeff through his business.
Q. What about the tax on wealth, as opposed to income, that some of your fellow Democratic candidates are proposing?
A. The wealth tax, while it's right by the numbers and right in spirit, would be a total disaster in real life and implementation. Wealthy people are not the sort of people who will welcome an inventorying of their assets on an annual basis and then paying a 2% toll. You would see massive compliance problems and massive capital flight.
Q. Would illegal immigrants or green card holders get the $1,000 dividend?
A. I just believe that citizenship should be the bright line in terms of receiving the dividend.
Q. How about prisoners?
A. No, but right now when you come out of prison there's not that much waiting for you. After I am president you will get $1,000 a month. The day you emerge from prison will mean that you at least have a foundation. People will be happy to see you when you get home because you're bringing a thousand bucks with you.
Q. Do you have other criminal justice reform ideas?
A. We have to get rid of private prisons that have a profit incentive. I would legalize marijuana nationally, and then I would mass pardon anyone who's in jail for a nonviolent marijuana-related offense.
Q. Is the White House any place for a political amateur?
A. Well, I was an honorary ambassador in Barack Obama's administration. I was named to the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship during the last days of the Obama administration. I took public policy courses and got A's in them in my law school. And it's not like Obama spent decades in government before becoming president. But then when he came, there was an influx of talent because there were many people that wanted to work in government that were inspired by Obama's election. One of the things I love doing and excel at doing is team building. As president, I'm going to enlist people from different fields and bring them to D.C. to solve the problems of this era.
Q. How would you describe your management style?
A. When someone disagrees with me, they'll see I have no judgment on them. The judgments I have is when someone welches on their word. Like if they say they're going to do something, and they don't do it, then I come down like a ton of bricks because I can't stand that.
Q. One of the thorniest problems is America’s 18-year troop commitment in Afghanistan. What would you do about that?
A. It's a problem with no easy answer. There may not even be a right answer. But the stance that I've adopted, which I think most Americans agree with, is that we can't be someplace forever with no end in sight, and that in this case we've been there for a generation. At some point, the Afghan government and the Afghan people have to determine their own future. So I've signed a pledge to end the forever war, as we've been in a constant state of armed conflict for 18 years and counting.
Q. How about the automation of blue-collar jobs?
A. If my friends in Silicon Valley succeed in automating truck driving and we have not made massive adjustments, there are going to be unprecedented scenes playing out in the United States of America. There are 3 1/2 million truckers in this country. They are not going to silently just go home if you have a robot trucks taking their livelihoods. If you think I'm being overly dramatic, there's already been a slow roll protest in Indiana where a bunch of truckers clogged traffic by just driving slowly because they were protesting the digital monitoring of their driving time. On Oct. 4, there will be a trucker protest here in D.C. at the National Mall protesting robot trucks. They know what's coming. They're figuring it out. You know who haven't figured it out? Our politicians.
Q. Many Democrats seem less interested in policy prescriptions than in turning the election into a referendum on the character and competence of the incumbent.
A. Right now if you ask Democrats what the No. 1 criteria is for the nominee, what do they say? Who can beat Donald Trump? That's why Joe Biden has such a resilient lead. Americans instinctively believe that Joe Biden is in the best position to beat Donald Trump. But then they realize that they can have their cake and eat it too, that Andrew Yang is actually the best positioned to beat Donald Trump.
Q. What makes you think that?
A. I'm one of only two candidates in the field that 10% or more of Donald Trump voters say they would support as a nominee. Which means if I'm the Democratic nominee we win hands down. That's just the math. Who's the other candidate? Bernie Sanders. It's just me and Bernie that 10% or more of Trump voters say they would support. Now after I'm the nominee, we know that Democrats and progressives just be so enthused about trying to get Trump out of office that they'll back me.
Q. The only thing most people know about you is you want to give away a thousand bucks a month. I mean they might be surprised to find out that you have some fairly moderate positions.
A. I'm at a point in the race where people are still finding out about me. And you're right that I probably started out as the guy who wants to give people free money. Let's just say that my being the free-money guy is not going to hurt me in the general election. This is not going to be something I have to pivot from. I would like to point out, though, that the one state that has a dividend, and has had it for almost 40 years, is Alaska, which is a deep red conservative state.
Q. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, favors mandatory government buybacks of assault-style rifles. Will that hurt Democrats in red states?
A. The truth is, we have about 15 million assault weapons in this country. The vast majority are in private homes in private hands. If you were to launch a mandatory buyback, there would be massive compliance problems and massive enforcement problems.
Q. You seem to be having a lot of fun on the campaign trail right now.
A. Well, first, I don't think that having fun is intrinsically unpresidential. No, I think that this country could probably use a bit of an antidote to the constant pummeling of the Trump administration on our senses. We could all use a break.
READ MORE Q&A'S WITH PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Andrew Yang: Being the free-money guy is not going to hurt me in 2020