Andrew Yang says Boston may be a winner of what’s been dubbed the “fourth industrial revolution” — but only relatively.
The 44-year-old acclaimed entrepreneur is running a unique campaign in the crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates on a platform to address the effects of “the biggest economic and technological transformation in the history of our country,” which he blames for the current “political and social disfunction.”
Experts predict that anywhere between 15 and 40 percent of jobs will be eliminated by artificial intelligence and automation in the next 15 years, likely quicker than the economy will replace them. And while the Boston area may not suffer the same level of job displacement that is ravaging other parts of the United States, Yang says local residents will feel the impact in other ways, if they haven’t already.
“The most proximate cause of Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 was that we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin,” he told Boston.com in an interview ahead of his rally Wednesday evening on Boston Common. “And we’re about to do the same thing to millions of retail jobs, call center jobs, fast food jobs, truck driving jobs, and on and on through the economy.”
The son of Taiwanese immigrants, Yang attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and says there “wasn’t a year that went by” that he didn’t visit friends of family in Boston. To this day, his conversations with local residents of the city help inform his worldview. Yang says one Boston-based venture capitalist told him that half of the business plans he now sees involve significant “headcount” reductions through technology.
“It’s not enough to say, ‘Hey, we’re going through this process,'” Yang said. “You have to advance meaningful solutions.”
His solution is relatively straightforward: Give $1,000 a month, or $12,000 a year, to every American citizen over the age of 18.
A form of universal basic income, Yang’s so-called “Freedom Dividend” is the centerpiece of his campaign. He says it would end poverty in the “most direct manner possible,” support those whose lives have been disrupted by AI and automation, and share the prosperity the new economy has created (and thus far distributed unevenly).
“It doesn’t just help people in the Midwest that are losing their jobs,” Yang said. “It helps people in Boston that are struggling with elevated costs.”
The Boston economy is going to be “largely insulated” from the negative effects of automation, according to Yang, since it is disproportionately composed of “information intensive” industries, like life sciences, education, and technology itself. However, he says the side effects of increased wealth concentration due to automation can be seen in Boston and similar cities in the form of skyrocketing costs — particularly housing.
“In the metropolitan areas that are relative winners — which would be New York, Boston, Seattle, Washington, D.C., San Francisco — you see skyrocketing rents in all of those cities, because there are these employers and institutions in these cities that are driving a lot of the value, and harvesting a lot of the value, and so then it drives up the cost of real estate in those markets,” Yang said. “And then certain people can afford it and certain people can’t. If you’re a school teacher in San Francisco, you’re like, ‘Where the hell am I supposed to live?’ And it’s similar in Boston.”
“Boston is a relative winner in terms of the fourth industrial revolution,” he added. “But there are still many, many people in Boston that feel very displaced.”
Yang’s campaign, which he launched more than a year ago, has earned the New York native a cult online following and enough individual donors to qualify for the Democratic primary debates this summer. Noting the increasing (and historically bipartisan) support for the general idea of universal basic income, he’s confident that he could rally support for the plan as president.
“There are many, many Republicans and independents and libertarians who are very excited about the Freedom Dividend,” he said.
“It would give the American people a tiny sliver of every Amazon transaction, every Google search, every Facebook ad, and that’s the way we get this dividend in place,” he said.
For as much as the Freedom Dividend is foregrounded in Yang’s campaign, he’s hardly a single-issue candidate. His campaign website’s policy page lists positions on a remarkable, ever-increasing number of issues, from the mainstream to the obscure.
Like several of the more high-profile Democratic presidential candidates, Yang supports shifting to a single-payer “Medicare for All”-style health care system and would like to make income tax rates more progressive, “as they were in the past.” He also wants to get rid of the penny, allow college athletes to be paid, make daylight saving time permanent, adopt ranked choice voting, and crack down on robocalls.
“It’s just a really terrible interruption of our attention every time we get one of these robocalls,” Yang said. “And like why are we allowing these robocalls? Like, who wins?”
However niche some of his policy positions may be, Yang says they’re each representative of a larger theme of his campaign.
“I feel strongly about many of these other policies that might not seem as important, but are really crucial towards having a country where people feel like the government is working for them,” he said.