Andrew Yang, who has been called “the internet’s favorite candidate,” turned into something of a latter-day Oprah during last Thursday night’s 2020 Democratic presidential debate.
Instead of offering each member of his audience a new car, as Oprah Winfrey famously did once during her daytime television talk show days, New York CEO and philanthropist Yang offered an online lottery.
During his opening remarks, the former entrepreneur and currently long-shot presidential candidate offered Americans aged 18 and up a chance to be one of 10 randomly selected families that will receive $1,000 a month for a year in an online Yang campaign-funded raffle.
In other words, the “something big” and “unprecedented” that Yang promised before the debate turned out to be an online door prize. Just visit his campaign website and enter your name, email and ZIP code and you, too, could be a winner.
And, one presumes, added to the campaign’s mailing list. That’s one big reason why Yang’s bold move was ignored by his rival candidates who concentrated on their own agendas and various attacks against the so-far unshakable front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden. Viewers who stepped away to the refrigerator during Yang’s opener missed the issue entirely.
But some other viewers, such as President Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, suggested Yang’s lottery might be illegal. The Federal Election Commission bans the use of campaign funds for “personal use.”
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Still, other deep-pocketed friends could rise to the rescue. Alexis Ohanian Sr., co-founder of the social platform Reddit, tweeted support, writing, “Hey @AndrewYang I like this idea so much I’ll do it personally for those 10 people if you can’t.”
Meet the #YangGang. If Yang made little impression onstage, he triggered a storm of activity in Twitterland around his signature campaign promise, which his lottery is intended to promote: A universal basic income of $1,000 per family per month that he calls a “Freedom Dividend.”
The idea is not new, although Yang has raised its profile to national fad. Milton Friedman, Charles Murray and other libertarian-leaners have proposed similar versions of the universal basic income to streamline traditional welfare programs. Thomas Paine called for a “citizens’ dividend” in the new republic, supporters of the universal basic income point out. In the 1960s, they also note, Martin Luther King Jr. and 1,200 economics professors signed a letter to President Richard Nixon pushing for a version called a “guaranteed income.” It later passed the House in those “War on Poverty” days, but was voted down in the Senate.
The difference in Wang’s program from other ideas, as explained on his website, is that he would not replace existing aid programs. His $1,000 per month would be delivered to all Americans, regardless of income. That’s too costly to please libertarians and other critics. It also relies on a new tax, which is hardly a popular selling point either.
Yang’s real target, though, as detailed in his speeches and website, is not government tax-and-spend policies but the shrinking job market brought on by competition from new technologies. After having replaced millions of factory jobs with machines over the past half-century, automation, artificial intelligence and other new technologies now increasingly threaten even more highly skilled jobs, such as truck, taxi and bus drivers and food service workers.
Whether Yang’s campaign goes much further or not, he has raised an important issue that won’t go away. As much as some people, including me, have pointed out the role of racial anxieties as a major reason for Trump’s 2016 victory, economic anxieties also mattered. Those same anxieties matter for 2020, too, and shouldn’t be ignored by either party, except at their peril.