Presidential candidate Andrew Yang thinks way outside the box on climate change, artificial intelligence and more

Afraid that superintelligent computers are going to take your job? Andrew Yang has a plan for that. Hate robocalls? Andrew Yang would fine companies that make them. Need marriage counseling? Andrew Yang says all our health plans should pay for family counseling.

The entrepreneur turned 2020 Democratic presidential candidate has thought through issues big and small, and because he has crossed the 65,000 individual donor threshold to participate in the Democratic debates, we’ll likely be hearing more about his ideas in the next year.

“The American people are very smart, and they realize there are genuine problems that got Donald Trump elected and that we’re in the midst of this incredible economic transformation, and no one’s talking about it,” says Yang. “I think that’s why my campaign has caught fire the last couple weeks.”

When we sat down with Yang, his donor list had expanded to 80,000 donors, albeit small donors who, he jokes, “are cheaper than Bernie’s.” (Donors to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign the day he announced in 2016 gave an average of $27. Yang’s average donor gives $19.) Although he is barely registering support or name recognition in early polls, he’s garnering buzz on social media, where fans show support under #YangGang.

The 44-year old Yang was born in Schenectady, N.Y., the son of Taiwanese immigrants. His father was a researcher at IBM, his mother a systems administrator at a local university. A product of the prep school and Ivy League pipeline, Yang briefly practiced law before becoming an entrepreneur. After launching a few startups with mixed success, Yang founded the nonprofit Venture for America, a fellowship program to place recent college graduates at startups and help them launch their own businesses. A self-described nerd who asks what better foil is there to Trump than “an Asian man who’s good at math,” Yang has done his homework. He rattles off numbers, hard data and statistical projections to enforce his policy positions, which are copious, to say the least.

Yang2020’s website lists more than 80 policy positions, including boilerplate stances in line with mainstream Democrats on “Medicare for All,” gun control and criminal justice reform. His more obscure stances include setting up a robocall complaint hotline that could lead to FCC fines and a plan to tackle divorce rates by mandating that health insurers provide family counseling in their plans. Yang may be asking the right questions, but some of his proposed solutions seem like candidacy killers — politically nonviable and niche.

Take, for example, one of the ways Yang would address climate change if he were in the White House. While he is in favor of a carbon tax plan that has been floated by moderate Democrats and Republicans, he also supports a highly controversial approach to lowering the earth’s temperature through direct technical means, known as geoengineering.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, geoengineering, or climate engineering, involves the “intentional large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system to counter climate change.” The term encompasses more benign and agreed-upon technologies such as carbon capture and low-tech solutions such as planting trees but also concepts like solar radiation management, which could extend to placing mirrors in space to reflect the sun’s radiation away from earth, or setting off volcanic eruptions to spread sun-reflecting aerosols into the stratosphere. Critics, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, say these unproven technologies could interfere with natural systems, with unforeseen consequences, and run the risk of setting off geopolitical conflicts. Yang argues the conventional proposals to solve climate change are too incremental.

“We have to face facts that we are in all likelihood going to be facing a warming planet, rising sea levels, different weather patterns, and we need to start thinking bigger about how we’re going to mitigate these effects,” says Yang. “We’re messing with Mother Nature right now … in a catastrophic fashion, and we have to at least explore what we have to do to blunt the worst effects for our civilization.”

Yang’s plans to tackle climate change aren’t his only ideas far outside the box. He is reviving a 1970s-era concept that would guarantee every American monthly income from the federal government, repackaging it as a solution to job losses from automation and artificial intelligence.

As with climate change, Yang’s signature economic policy — a Universal Basic Income — assumes that the world is already on a trajectory toward the most devastating outcomes. Many economists are warning that superintelligent computers will displace millions of workers by 2030, but Yang’s view is even more dire. He believes, for example, that the current generation of self-driving technology could replace millions of truck drivers in the next five to 10 years, which would lead to “epic levels of distress, displacement and even violence.”

In 10 trips each to Iowa and New Hampshire, Yang is targeting voters who would be most affected by automation, working-class Americans without college degrees, offering them a seemingly far-fetched promise. If they make him president, he will give every American over the age of 18 a check for $1,000 a month, no strings attached. The monthly income would ease the transition to joblessness, but the impact would be wider, he says — addressing problems as broad as the mental health epidemic, the education gap and persistent poverty, and as specific as helping battered women escape abusive spouses and compensating people who drop out of the workforce to take care of children or elderly relatives.

“People realize there’s nothing stopping the members of a democracy from voting ourselves a dividend,” says Yang. “We’re the richest and most advanced economy in the history of the world. Our economy is about $20 trillion. We can easily afford a dividend of a thousand dollars per American.”

He would pay for the massive $3 trillion program in part with a value-added tax on tech companies, but balancing a Yang budget also requires optimism that a monthly paycheck for every American would be a massive economic stimulus — leading to job creation, more spending and eventually increased tax revenue. He also believes the stipend would lower government bills for things like homelessness, emergency room visits and incarceration. (Watch video for more details of Yang’s UBI plan)

As hawkish as Yang is on the imminent dangers of automation, he is a foreign-policy dove, and his Asian-American identity seems to play into his nuanced view on the Trump administration’s increasingly antagonistic relationship with China in the competition for cyber superiority. During a talk to members of the Asian-American community earlier this year, Yang made an astounding assertion about the potential fallout from confrontation with China: “We’re probably one generation from Americans shooting up a bunch of Asians saying ‘damn the Chinese’ because there’s a giant cold war with China. That’s the great danger I fear my children are going to grow up in.”

Yang clarified his remarks in his Yahoo News interview, saying they were meant to motivate Asian-Americans who have been “politically disengaged.” However, the comments are consistent with Yang’s view that U.S. politicians are intentionally framing China as an antagonist, when it should be seen as a potential collaborator on big issues that cross national boundaries, including AI and climate change.

While he acknowledges that China’s pirating of intellectual property is costing U.S. businesses billions of dollars and must be resolved, he refutes “the traditional American lens [that] has been if someone is rising we must be falling.”

“The goal is not always to be ahead of China,” says Yang. “The goal is to be strong enough so that we can maintain a cooperative relationship with China as one of the leaders.”

Yang’s worldview is at once fearful and optimistic. His policies are underpinned with an anxiety about present realities and a future when an explosion of AI-equipped automatons will deepen all the divisions in American society. In his mind, the election of Donald Trump was the beginning of the pitchfork-and-torch scenario — and his vision, as well as his presidential candidacy, is intended to head off the mobs at the pass.


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