Single issue campaigns are often built around whimsy. The Polish Beer Lovers’ Party springs deliciously to mind, as do Jimmy McMillan’s tireless efforts to remind New Yorkers that the rent was too damn high. Andrew Yang’s attempt to become the Democratic Party candidate for the 2020 elections is based on an idea that might seem whimsical and yet he is a deeply serious man. His campaign is to address the problem of automation: how, in other words, to make the best of a future where machines have rendered millions of jobs redundant.
The first thing to be said is that Yang has about as much of a chance of becoming the Democrat nominee as this author has of becoming the UFC heavyweight champion. He speaks entirely in the language of rational discourse, which, for better or worse, is not a vote-winner and he does not have the compensating quality of charisma. Even Democrat voters are liable to look at him and think, ‘Who is this nerd?’
Nonetheless, the matters Yang raises are important and deserve discussion. Yang is a more striking thinker than his bearing might suggest. A 43-year-old entrepreneur, he wrote The War on Normal People, which began with the bracing claim that he was ‘writing from inside the tech bubble to let you know that we are coming for your jobs.’ In the future, he maintained, mechanisation will eat up job after job and the average man will suffer as elites in Manhattan, Silicon Valley and Washington DC ‘retweet something and contribute here and there’ while being ‘determined to be among the winners in whatever the new economy brings.’ ‘The logic of the meritocracy is leading us to ruin,’ he concluded:
‘As Bismarck said, “If revolution there is to be, let us rather undertake it not undergo it.” Society will change either before or after the revolution. I choose before.’
Talk of ‘revolution’ raises conservative hackles. But it would be foolish to dismiss Yang’s claims. He is right that science and not just politics precipitates revolutions, and we overlook the threat of automation at our peril. A daunting 2013 study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne concluded that about 47 per cent of total US employment is at risk in the face of automation. Similar research found that 54 per cent of EU employment is endangered.
To be sure, new jobs could be created in the future. People were debating technological unemployment in the 1800s, when it seemed at least plausible that industrialisation would put millions out of work, but new opportunities emerged. Still, as comical as that seems in retrospect there is less work now than there was. The average working hours of Americans have almost halved since the 1800s. Moreover, if new jobs are created the skills they could demand might surpass the average person’s cognitive potential.
Yang proposes three ideas to help the US avoid societal conflict: a Universal Basic Income, universal healthcare and a new measure of well-being that encompasses more factors than allowed for by GDP. This is a tough sell, for leftists because it is egalitarian only in a remedial sense and for liberals and conservatives because the ideas entail the expansion of the state and a rise in taxes, as well as the consolidation of a dependent underclass and a towering technological elite.
The future will call for the revision of ideological premises. There may be no point in leftists decrying the fate of the exploited workers if no one has any reason to exploit them. Conservatives, for their part, may have to rethink their sunny attitude towards the market if it becomes such a boutique institution that people have no goods or services to sell.
There are numerous debates that Yang’s ideas might provoke. I would like to raise three questions that transcend traditional ideological disputes. The first is what people are expected to do. Millions of unemployed men and women might retreat into private worlds of video games, pornography, and, in the near future, virtual reality. This has discomfiting implications for our concepts of the good life and demands the institution of alternative forms of social activity or the abandonment of millions to isolation.
A second challenge is that proposed in this Quillette piece, ‘it’s not actually universal basic income that anyone’s talking about; it’s national basic income.’ If Americans enjoy free healthcare and a basic income as much of the rest of the world endures impoverishment, exacerbated by war and environmental change, there might be increasing international stratification. Yang suggests that other nations can adopt the same standards but it is arguable whether the US is in a position to adopt them, never mind Brazil, India or Somalia. The demand for immigration and aid would soar, heating debates around nationalism and internationalism. Yang writes:
‘…only citizens can receive UBI, and the US already has one of the longest paths to citizenship in the world. UBI would make citizenship all the more meaningful.’
He might discover that his fellow Democrats do not share even this moderate level of civic nationalism.
A third question we will have to face is the extent to which we want technological progress to continue. As futuristic as the idea of robots replacing workers seems, that may be just the first stage in the process of machines surpassing human skills. Who is to say that the machines will not progress beyond the control of the technological elites? Who is to say that the machines will not transcend our ability to exploit them for our needs? Yang’s ideas may not be too far-sighted but not far-sighted enough.