UBI and the #YangGang

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Post by ~ Sam Gregory

Most arguments for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) are rooted firmly in left-leaning political traditions. But the idea is now being talked up by entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, who argue that capitalism needs a UBI to save it from itself.  Rather than centring around the moral arguments for a UBI, these wealthy proponents focus on one thing: automation.

They’ve found their figurehead in US presidential candidate Andrew Yang. In the hotly-contested race for the White House, the Democratic outsider has rested his campaign on a single prophecy: the robots are coming. Born in 1975 to Taiwanese parents, Yang has a background in Silicon Valley start-ups and entrepreneurial investing, particularly in the healthcare sector. His version of a UBI – rebranded as the ‘Freedom Dividend’ - stems from a firm belief in capitalism. In fact, Yang sees basic income as the next stage in capitalism’s evolution.

In his proposal, all Americans aged 18+ would receive $1,000 a month regardless of their income or employment status. It would be illegal to borrow or lend against the Freedom Dividend, and it would only be available to naturalised US citizens. It would cost $2 trillion a year – roughly half the current federal budget – and it would be paid for by progressive tax reforms, as well as new levies on consumption and companies that profit from automation.

“In just a few years we’re going to have a million truck drivers out of work who are 94 percent male, with an average level of education of high school or one year of college,” Yang told the New York Times. “That one innovation will be enough to create riots in the street. And we’re about to do the same thing to retail workers, call centre workers, fast-food workers, insurance companies, accounting firms.”

It’s a similar argument to that made by the multi-millionaire venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, who has said that if the rich don’t taken drastic action to address rising global inequality, the pitchforks will be coming. “I’m a capitalist, and I believe that universal basic income is necessary for capitalism to continue,” says Yang. The message for the future of capitalism is simple: reform or die.

Yang points out that without a UBI to replace family incomes lost to automation, there’ll be nobody left to buy the products that companies produce. Our free market consumer society, which relies on high employment, will collapse. This take on basic income echoes Henry Ford’s 1914 decision to start paying his workers a then-unprecedented $5 a day, on the basis that if he didn’t pay high enough wages nobody could afford to buy his cars.

Does Yang stand a chance at the top job? Probably not. The Democratic field has 23 contenders vying to take on Trump in 2020 – an all-time high in the US. But competing in the race has given Yang a national platform to talk about UBI on American television’s biggest shows. Thanks to his campaign, basic income has been discussed on the Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon late night talk shows, on the Daily Show, and even on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. The wooshing sound you can hear on these recordings is basic income’s Overton window hurtling towards the mainstream.

Yang is keen to stress at every opportunity that his Freedom Dividend is not socialism – a dirty word in American politics. His website contains an exhaustive list of FAQs. Under the heading “Isn’t this Communism/Socialism?”, his campaign provides this telling response:

No. Communism is, by definition, a revolutionary movement to create a classless, moneyless, and stateless social order built upon shared ownership of production. With Socialism, the core principle is the nationalization of the means of production – i.e. the government seizes Amazon and Google. UBI is none of those things and actually fits so seamlessly into capitalism, it is projected to grow the economy $2.5 trillion in eight years.

Really, UBI is necessary for the continuation of capitalism through the automation wave and displacement of workers. Markets need consumers to sell things to. Universal Basic Income is capitalism with a floor that people cannot fall beneath.

Many on the left who either support or are sympathetic to basic income will feel uncomfortable about the thought of it “fitting so seamlessly into capitalism.” This eye-opening answer demonstrates UBI’s unique ability to appeal to thinkers across the political spectrum. Although Yang occasionally discusses the benefits to people’s lives that a basic income could bring, he mostly focuses on what he sees as both the necessity and the inevitability of its introduction. As the New York Times put it, “only one [Democratic candidate] will be focused on the robot apocalypse.”

Although the Freedom Dividend forms the foundation of his 2020 platform, Yang has other radical ideas. In an unusually extensive list, he lays out over 100 policy proposals under the Trump-baiting banner ‘Humanity First’. He wants to scrap the penny, legalise cannabis, and allow all Americans to direct 1% of their taxes to a specific project. He wants to make Puerto Rico a state, introduce voting via smartphones, and roll out free marriage counselling for all Americans.

Despite this raft of genuinely innovative policies, the media are focusing almost exclusively on the Freedom Dividend. This works well for Yang, as it opens up a debate in the mainstream about what he calls “human-centred capitalism”. To provide a real world example, Yang is giving one person in New Hampshire the Freedom Dividend of $1,000 a month for the whole of 2019. Jodie Fassi was chosen to receive the money from Yang’s own pocket after a series of interviews. So far, the family have used it to finance daughter Janelle’s tuition and to pay for improv classes for her partner Chuck. It’s not by any stretch the kind of scientifically rigorous pilot proposed by UBI Lab Sheffield, and it’s largely a political stunt, but to see what one person does with a basic income is interesting in itself.

Despite his candidacy being described by the New York Times as a “longer-than-long-shot” bid, Yang has secured enough support to qualify for the Democratic TV debate on 27 June. These debates are watched by millions. On the second night of the two-part event, Yang will share a stage with such Democratic heavyweights as Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden. It will be by far and away the biggest public exposure UBI has received in its history. Citizens in every state of America will hear about basic income for the first time. Even if Yang doesn’t become White House occupant #46, his opportunity to promote basic income at the highest level of American politics could be the turning point for the worldwide movement.

Join us for the next our next meeting, UBI 2030: The World We Want. Wednesday 3 July, 6:30pm at the Sheffield Quaker Meeting House. Free, all welcome.


More about the author

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Sam Gregory - Journalist & Writer

Sam is a journalist and feature writer at Sheffield's Now Then magazine, focusing on music, culture and local politics. He also occasionally writes elsewhere on the subjects of art, urbanism and architecture.