When entrepreneur and Schenectady native Andrew Yang announced his plans to mount a campaign for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020, he was described as a “longer-than-long-shot” candidate. Following a childhood spent upstate, Yang entered the tech world in both Silicon Valley and New York, working for a health care startup and then founding an education company before launching Venture for America, a nonprofit fellowship organization that helps entrepreneurs create jobs outside of the country’s two tech hubs.
Despite a lack of political experience, Yang is likely to qualify for the Democratic primary debates this summer, and he’s building a national profile – even among fringe conservatives. Earlier this month, City & State spoke with Yang about his Silicon Valley background, how New York is leading in tech, and his most ambitious policy proposal – the universal basic income.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re an entrepreneur and former tech executive vying for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 – why do we need that experience in the White House?
I think it's imperative that our federal government has senior leaders that understand technology innately, because at this point, technology has transformed many aspects of our society, and our government is years, maybe even decades behind the curve. And we all saw the congressional hearings with Mark Zuckerberg that indicated just how ignorant our leaders are about even the basic workings of our biggest tech companies. There used to be an agency that was meant to inform congressional leaders of technology issues and they got rid of that agency decades ago. Think about that. There was a group that was meant to keep legislators informed of technology and they got rid of it as a cost savings. It's ridiculous. Our country recognizes this. We know that our leaders are way behind the curve and it's going from dangerous to disastrous.
How is it going to disastrous?
Technology is, for example, playing a key role in automating away millions of American jobs and our congressional leaders don't understand that fact. Being a truck driver is the most common job in 29 states. There are three and a half million truck drivers, 94 percent male, and if you imagine a technology that disrupts their livelihood, that's going to be catastrophic. Thirty percent of American malls are going to close in the next four years and working as a retail clerk is the No. 1 job in the country. Our teenagers – particularly teenage girls – are becoming basket cases because of pervasive smartphone and social media use. You can just go on and on. No one trusts the information they're getting. And our government is just looking at this in complete ignorance.
A central proposal of your platform is a universal basic income as a solution to the economic troubles caused by workplace automation. How would that work?
Every American receives $1,000 a month starting at age 18. And the money comes largely from a new tax that falls most heavily on the Amazon, Google, Facebook, Ubers of the world. And if you look at headlines, Amazon just paid zero in federal taxes despite reporting record profits last year. This is just yet another way that these technology companies are running rings around our lawmakers and policymakers.
That's an ambitious solution to automation. Are there other measures that could or should be taken?
The big question on everyone's minds right now is, are some of these companies so big that they need to be broken up? The problem is that our antitrust laws are designed to fight price gouging. In other words, you get a monopoly and then you start overcharging for your railroad or whatever it is. And the tech companies do not overcharge – if anything, they undercharge. And so they're putting other companies out of business, but our antitrust laws don't have a problem with that. So there are certain things that we probably should do. For example, if Amazon accounts for 50 percent of e-commerce – which they do – they should probably not be allowed to promote their own offerings. But the dynamics of technology are such that the No. 1 companies get much, much stronger than the No. 2. And as an example, you don't need five navigation apps, you just want the one best one. And so our thinking about competition doesn't really work, where if I were to break Amazon into four mini Amazons, that doesn't really solve the problem. And it also does not magically restore the main street retailers that are going out of business. So this is the big issue of our day: What do reforms in these industries look like? I would suggest that that's going to be something that we have to address as a country in the immediate future.
Are these bipartisan issues? And what kind of feedback have you heard from conservatives on the universal basic income proposal?
Very much so. At this point, these are bipartisan issues, they're American issues, and there's an appetite on both sides of the aisle to try and address them meaningfully. I've also gotten people from both sides of the aisle say they're very excited about (universal basic income) as a way to help move our economy forward, so I see it in a similar way.
Speaking of Amazon, what went wrong with HQ2 here in New York?
To me, the fault primarily lies with Amazon. If you come into a community, you expect to have many issues that you have to iron out and work with people. And Amazon clearly had no real desire to work things out that it didn't immediately find convenient. Do I think Amazon would have been a net positive for the New York metro area? Of course, yes. It's a ton of jobs and economic activity. But do I also think that if Amazon had sincerely wanted to be here, they would be here? Of course.
New York has taken the lead on some tech issues, including regulations for e-hail companies and proposing an internet sales tax. What tech issues should be handled at the city or state level?
Waiting for Washington to get something done might be forever. So to the extent that New York City and New York state can take the lead on some of these issues I think would make a lot of sense. This is the biggest market in the country, so whatever guidelines and rules and regulations are put forward here would have a national impact.
Concerns about the power and reach of Big Tech companies have recently been raised by candidates including U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. Do you feel that making automation and other less-discussed issues central to your platform could drive other candidates to pick them up as well?
I certainly hope so. One of the goals of this campaign is to first help Americans understand that it's not immigrants that are causing economic problems around the country, it's advancing technology. And if we can get other candidates to embrace this set of issues and propose meaningful solutions then that would be a win for the American people.
You’re not the only New Yorker plotting a challenge to Donald Trump in 2020. What sets you apart from U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, or even a potential candidate like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio?
I believe I'm the only one who is building my campaign around the issues that got Donald Trump elected in the first place. You have to ask yourself, why is Donald Trump our president today, and to me, the reason he's our president is that we automated away four million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa – all the swing states he needed to win. For whatever reason, most other candidates are ignoring that, whereas I'm very much focused on how to improve Americans' lives in an era of unprecedented technological change.
The European Union adopted sweeping data privacy protections under the General Data Protection Regulation last year. Is something like the GDPR called for in the United States?
That is very much called for. I think our data should be considered a property right that we have control over. It doesn't make sense that there are companies profiting into billions of dollars from our data while we see none of that. So we should have these rights protected, and if other companies are profiting from them, then we should see some proportion of that value.
Are tech companies aware that the tides are shifting and that regulations are coming down the pike?
Yeah, very much so. At this point, many of them are just trying to prepare for what the rules are going to look like, but they increasingly expect to be regulated.
Do specific companies come to mind as embracing regulation?
I think there are a couple of leaders that are more open to it. I know that (Marc) Benioff and Salesforce have expressed a greater willingness to work with regulators. But they realize that it's a different era that we're in, where it used to be that everyone felt like technology could do no wrong, and now, people feel like the pendulum is swinging the other way.
What would you tell Americans – New Yorkers especially – who are worried about the rise of automation and AI?
I would say if you're worried about AI taking away jobs, you are largely right to be worried. We need to collectively arrive at what that means for us, our families, our communities and our society. And one of the big reasons I'm running for president is to help America truly confront and address the challenges of the 21st century.