What It’s Like to Run for President of the United Sates

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A few weeks ago I had fortunate to interview Andrew Yang about his 2020 presidential campaign. Below are a few of the highlight from our conversation. You can listen to the full interview here.

In the current day and age, as somebody who is running for president, who’s looking at the office, how do you think about the racial divide now? And where do we go from here? Particularly as an Asian American, how do you navigate that challenge? How do you manage that perception with the public?

I generally think that most Americans don’t care about what race I am, or their president is. They care about their own lives. If I’m going to improve people’s lives and people genuinely feel that that’s my intention, then race is going to be very much something that is in the background. This is not to say that I believe that people are — or Americans — are race-blind, because no one is race-blind. One of the reasons why sharing my childhood experience, I think, is helpful, is because I assume there is a background level of racism going on all the time. I think that Asian Americans have a very particular role to play and set of experiences that can be very helpful here. I have a friend who says that we’re something of a distinct category. He has a joke where he said that, “An Asian American is going to wind up being president, because it’s going to irritate everybody, but not make anyone that upset.”

Were you like a typical Asian kid or typical Indian kid, encouraged to do certain things?

Yes. My parents were very typical, and I did very typical Chinese American things. What does that mean? I went to Chinese school on Saturday mornings. I took piano lessons from when I was five. I played tennis, because that was the sport of the time to have on your transcript. I did a bit of martial arts. Got more serious about that and in my teenage years. All of that was pretty typical. I think the biggest thing that was atypical, was because I was in this environment where I was one of the only people of color — or Asian kids. I felt like my masculinity was always in question and that was exacerbated by the fact that I’d skipped a grade. I was always smaller and scrawnier than everyone I was around. I had this real chip on my shoulder. As a result, I always was trying to prove that I was tough, which included getting into and generally losing a lot of fights. I started going to the gym and working out very religiously in my later teen years and got to a point where I could bench press a lot of weight. I think that was one of the things that was unusual about me. I think I had a very standard set of Asian expat American experiences, but I think my response to it was somewhat unusual in that I became quite angry and dedicated to proving any questions about my belongingness or masculinity wrong.

Were you involved in politics as a student? Were you involved in student government?

I was the last person who would ever participate in student government in high school or college. I said to someone at the time that, “Fraternities are clubs for the weak-willed,” and was not much of a joiner in those years. I went to Exeter for the last two years of high school after meeting someone who went to Exeter at an academic camp — this nerd camp this summer. I would have been the last person that ever would have run for class president at any of those things. I was the angsty — listening to this morose music. Wearing flannel shirts. I was the opposite of the buttoned up, student government kid. That was true through college as well. So, certainly not.

What did you do post-college that led to this point.

In college at Brown, I studied economics and political science. I took an intellectual interest in policy and economics and then I went to law school at Columbia. One thing I did do that was somewhat unusual for an Asian American, was that I was on the debate team at Exeter and I won a New England competition — to a point where I went to the World Championships of public speaking and debating in England as a senior in high school. I suppose that was an unusual thing to do, though I guess Asian Americans are nerdy enough where there are probably a bunch of debate nerds too. So, I don’t know if that’s unusual.

What made you decide to run for president?

I spent my early thirties growing and running an education company that grew to become number one in the U.S. and was then acquired by The Washington Post in 2009. After I’d made some money, I looked at the list of problems that bothered me. The biggest problem at that point, was that we had so much talent and energy heading to investment banks, and management consulting firms, and corporate law firms on the coasts. I thought, “What a disaster. These people are all doing these jobs that they don’t even like and that aren’t moving society forward in any meaningful way.” I’m sure, you graduated from business school, you probably have friends who resemble that. I said, “Well, how do you change that?” The way I came up with to change it, was starting an organization called Venture for America. I donated 120K to seed the organization and raised another few hundred thousand. What Venture for America does, is we go around recruiting enterprising, ambitious, smart college graduates who want to be entrepreneurs, and then we train them with McKinsey and IDEO. Then, we send them to startup companies in Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Baltimore, Birmingham, New Orleans and other cities around the country, to help create job growth. This was my big giveback move — was that I was going to train hundreds and thousands of young entrepreneurs who were going to go on to create thousands of American jobs. I started this organization in 2011, and now it’s grown and grown. The budget’s gone up 25 times since when I started it. There was a movie about us that’s now on Netflix, called Generation Startup.

That’s what I’ve been up to the last seven years. This does lead me up to why I’m running for president now — is that I had not spent time in Michigan, or Ohio, or Louisiana, or Alabama, or western Pennsylvania, before starting Venture for America. I saw firsthand the aftermath of the automation of millions of manufacturing jobs, where a place like Detroit was built for a population of 1.7 million people and it now has extended to 80,000 people. Despite the heroic efforts on the ground, a lot of parts of Detroit you look up, and it’s blasted out abandoned neighborhoods. The devastation in these communities — and not just economic devastation — but there was a lot of human devastation and cultural devastation. There’s a lot of despair, a lot of anger. When Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, I looked into the numbers and I found that the single, biggest variable that explained the movement towards Trump in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, was the adoption of industrial robots in each voting district, where the more you’d automated away jobs, the more people move towards Trump. You’re on the west coast, so you know this, but my friends in Silicon Valley are 100% confident that we are going to automate away millions more jobs in retail, truck driving and transportation, customer service, food prep, and on and on throughout the economy.

I realize that we’re in the third inning of the greatest economic and technological transition in human history, and the third inning has already given us Donald Trump. It’s only going to accelerate and take off as artificial intelligence gets better and better. I went to our political leaders and said, “Guys, this is the core problem. We’ve automated away four million manufacturing jobs in the swing states and we’re about to triple down on that. What are we going to do?” The political leadership that I met with, including many Democrats, really didn’t have any answer. They just were completely unequipped with trying to address this, which in a way it shouldn’t be shocking, because this is an unprecedented level of change, but some of the answers were just so dispiriting. I looked into the data on federally funded retraining programs, and we’re really, really terrible at it. The success rates are between 0% and 37%, and fewer than 10% of workers qualify. Our political leaders are suggesting a fantasy to the biggest set of economic and technological changes in history. That’s when I realized that someone needed to bring real solutions to bare. That’s when I decided to run for president. This was in early 2017.

It seems like there’s a middle-America that’s largely disguised — hidden from plain sight — where a lot of bad things are happening.

Oh, yeah. My boo, as you know, goes through a lot of the data points. But at this point, eight Americans are dying every hour of drugs. Our labor force participation rate is down to 62.9%, which is the same levels as El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. Nearly one out of five prime working-age men, between the ages of 21 and 30, has not worked in the last 12 months. There are more Americans on disability now that worked in construction — up to 20% of working-age adults in some parts of the country. When you actually start digging, you find that the data is horrifying. That we are actually disintegrating in most parts of the country. There was a stat that came out recently, that literally 80% of the job creation — or the business creation — over the last number of years, has come in 20 counties. Not 20% of counties, but 20 counties. When you go out to the rest of the country, you realize that what they’re going through is completely dissimilar to what people who’ve been on the coasts, or in Manhattan, or in Silicon Valley, have been experiencing.

You grew up Asian American. You went to Brown — Ivy League educated. You started a test prep company. The place that I want to start is something that’s a personal hot button to me, is education. I think that personally, we’re in a really bad situation here as well, because if you’ve got student loan debt, you can only keep lending out for so long, and not getting it back before the bottom caves. I know a good amount of my business school classmates are underemployed. Most of us made less money post-business school than we did, because I graduated April 2009. So, I wonder, given kind of what a shit show the educational policy has turned into, personally based on what I’ve read and seen — what are your views on this? What do you plan to do to change it?

We have completely oversold and overprescribed college as the answer to everyone’s ills — both individually and economically. It’s as if, if you have enough college graduates and the jobs will follow. Unfortunately, the data does not paint that picture, where 44% of recent college graduates are underemployed and doing a job that does not require a college degree. The cost of a college degree has tripled over the last number of years, to a point where now we’re up to 1.5 trillion in school loans and the default rate is climbing into the double digits. So, there’s this real bill of goods that’s being sold to young people in this country. It’s like, “Oh, go to school, go to school,” and then they come out of school and they have this debt that they can’t discharge, even through bankruptcy, and they can’t find a secure path forward, because we’re cutting all the rungs of the ladder out in front of them. As president, there are many, many big moves I would make. The first thing I would do, is create a meaningful path towards debt forgiveness for people who are burdened by student loans that they’ll never be able to pay back, because it’s immoral what we’ve done to so many young people. If you have this — I used to call my law school loans my mistress, because I felt like I was sending a check to another family in another town every month.

There’s no growth in the economy for that. Young people should be starting businesses, starting families, buying homes and not servicing their debt that they’re not going to be able to pay back. One is large-scale student loan forgiveness, but the other big move we have to make, is we have to get the cost of college under control. I dug into why costs have skyrocketed. It’s not teachers, it’s not even facilities — it’s administrators — where the number of administrators in these schools has shot up 250% from the 70s and 80s. What I would do, is I would require schools to have an administrator-to-student ratio consistent with the 70s and 80s. If they want, they can actually have more administrators, but they just won’t get access to federal loans and federal monies, which would cause a massive, massive contraction in the number of administrators in these colleges. But, it’s the only way to get the costs down, because right now, they just keep on charging more and more tuition, and then the public bears the cost.

If you’re a parent, you feel like you have no choice. Your kid takes out these massive loans, that we then subsidize as a society, and then you’re crushed by this debt and you default. Then, the government has the bill — just so that the colleges can have more administrators. That’s one of the big things we have to take down, several levels. The third thing is that, instead of overprescribing college so much, we need to build up technical, vocational and apprenticeship programs around the country. In the U.S., only 6% of high school students pursue technical training. In Germany, it’s 59%, and we have 15 million middle-skill jobs right now in this country we can’t fill, because people aren’t training for it. We’ve stigmatized that kind of work. We’ve said, essentially, “If you don’t go to college, you’re a loser,” and what we’ve done is we’ve created a whole new set of losers. All these people that, frankly, should not have gone to college in the first place. Forty-one percent of people who start college, don’t finish it within six years. Imagine owing the debt and not even having that degree. That’s the situation we pushed hundreds of thousands of Americans into.

We’re talking about people coming into the education system, but what about those of us who’ve come out of it? I looked at my student loan debt, and the thing that really depressed me — my sister recently got engaged and I thought, “Well, yeah, you’re a doctor. Of course, you can afford to get engaged.” That thought has not crossed my mind once, because I thought, “Oh, how is this ever going to be possible, short of me getting hit by a car?” I wonder, is this debt ever going to be gone for my life?

Oh, no. No, you’re not alone at all man. It’s a massive, massive problem, and it’s immoral. My plan to forgive student loan debt is this — if you will commit 10% of your wages for 10 years, you will be debt free after 10 years. That way, people who know that that’s going to be a good deal for them, will take it, and then there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. The people that made these loans, will start to learn that you can’t just keep on piling on debt onto people unsustainably. We call it the Ten-by-Ten Student Loan Emancipation Act. That’s going to be one way for people to be able to still work hard and make contribution but have light at the end of the tunnel.

Let’s talk a little bit about jobs, in particular. You said in the book, “Right now some of the smartest people in the country are trying to figure out how to replace you with an overseas worker — a cheaper version of you — or increasingly a widget software program, or a robot. There’s no malice in it. The market rewards business leaders for making things more efficient. Efficiency doesn’t love normal people, it loves getting things done in the most cost-effective way possible.” I think that the things that struck me the most, were that the implications of automation were not just relevant to blue collar workers, who did jobs that were incredibly repetitive. I wonder if you could talk about that and expand on that in more detail.

. The jobs that are most prone to automation, are repetitive manual jobs, yes — like warehouse shelving or driving a truck, but also repetitive-cognitive work. I can tell you, as a former corporate lawyer, that a lot of professional services’ work is repetitive-cognitive. We’re talking about corporate lawyers, accountants, bookkeepers, journalists — in many cases, radiologists. There are many professions that involve taking a lot of data. Insurance — taking a lot of data and processing and in repetitive ways. The Federal Reserve categorizes 44% of jobs as either repetitive-manual or repetitive-cognitive. We’re definitely not just talking about blue collar workers. It’s one reason why so many college graduates are finding themselves underemployed, that a lot of the traditional, white collar roles are getting automated more and more.

think that that takes us into a natural segue, to what is one of the biggest parts of your platform, which is this idea of universal basic income. I think the biggest question — I was amazed to see how polarized the response was when I asked the question on Facebook, “What do you think of universal basic income?” Some people said it was inevitable, others were just livid about the idea. They thought it was terrible. One, can you address the objections that people would have? I think that the big question is, how are we going to pay for it? But more importantly, what is going to be the economic impact of having universal basic income?

The impact of universal basic income, according the Roosevelt Institute, would be a huge up step in growth, where it would grow the economy by about 13% or 2.5 trillion dollars per year, and would create 4.5 million new jobs nationwide. Right now, 59% of Americans can’t afford an unexpected $500 bill. If you put money into people’s hands, they’re going to spend it on car repairs, books for their kids, nights out, things that drive the economy forward. The reason why some people dislike universal basic income, in my opinion, is because they’ve bought into this notion that your work is who you are, your values’ tied to what the work — what the monetary market says your value is, and that if you somehow get money through some other means, that it’s going to erode your character. That’s deep-seeded in American life. People call it the Puritan work ethic, but what’s interesting is that going back even to Thomas Paine, one of the founding fathers, he was for a citizen’s dividend. In Alaska, they’ve had a petroleum dividend for 36 years, and it’s created thousands of jobs, is wildly popular, it’s increased children’s health, it’s reduced income inequality. The thing that excites me most about universal basic income. is its effect on families and children day-to-day where when families receive cash in one study in North Carolina, children’s personalities change to become more agreeable and conscientious. As a parent, those things can be great in your kids.

Mental health improves. Domestic violence goes down. Hospital visits go down. People’s productivity rises over time. There is some incredibly profound effects. One of the things I know you talk about, is how to be more creative. Universal basic income would transform the way we perceive both work and value and would push people towards doing work that’s more important to them. It would become one of the greatest catalysts to entrepreneurship and creativity in human history. I will say on the reverse end, if you say, “No, this is a bad idea,” then the question is, what do you do when the 3.5 million truck drivers — average age 49, 94% male, average education high school, one year of college — start losing their jobs? Or 2.5 million call center workers? Or the hundreds of thousands of fast food workers? Or the lawyers, and bankers, and accountants? This is, again, the greatest economic and technological transition in human history. We are decades behind it, trying to address it in any meaningful way. We need to evolve forward as a society, and as an economic system, very, very quickly, to value human activities in a different way than the market does. The market is going to zero-out truck drivers. It’s going to zero-out accountants. It’s going to zero-out more and more groups of people. If we cling to it for too long, we’re going to go off a cliff with it.

How are we going to pay for this? I think the thing that really struck me the most, was when you said that, right now almost all of our programs that are designed for this purpose, actually cost more than it would to just give people a thousand dollars.

This is much more affordable than many people think. The big issue is the human brain, because we’re programmed for scarcity. We’re programmed to see something like money, as something that you need to be very conservative with. The truth is, our economy is now up to 19 trillion dollars, up four trillion in the last 10 years alone. We could easily afford a dividend of a thousand dollars per adult. The total cost would be about two trillion dollars a year, but we already spend between five and six hundred billion dollars on current welfare programs and income support. We would get 500 billion dollars back in new tax revenue, because we would have grown the economy by two trillion. We would increase GDP by about an additional 700 billion dollars, because of improved health outcomes, graduation rates, mental health, higher productivity, fewer hospital visits, and the like. Then, the big move I would suggest that we need to make, is we need to start harvesting the gains from all of this new, wonderful technology. Right now, the beneficiaries of artificial intelligence and automation, will tend to be really big tech companies, like Google and Amazon. The truth is, they don’t pay a lot under the current income tax system, because they just move it through Ireland, or say they didn’t make that much money this quarter. We need to transition to a system that actually gives us some of that value back. The best way to do that, is to do what every other industrialized country in the world already does, which is have a value added tax, and then we would get a slice of that value. Of value added tax at half the European level, would be enough to pay for universal basic income of a thousand dollars a month, if you include current spending economic growth. The cost savings from keeping people out of the emergency room, out of jail, out of homelessness services, because we start spending much, much more money when people become dysfunctional. This is actually going to pay for itself.

This is another thing that you said is that, “Capitalism is like our mentor and guiding light to who we’ve listened to for years. He helped us make great decisions for a long time, but at some point, he got older and tempted with his friend and technology and together they became more extreme. I remember when Barack Obama ran for office, there was a lot of talk about holding Wall Street accountable. Changing sort of value system that’s almost driven entirely by greed, that really at the end of the day, causes a lot of inequality. I wonder if people have gotten really bitter or have lost faith in the idea that anybody who’s in government would actually do something about this, and that it’s not just rhetoric to get elected. I’m not saying that you’re saying that, but I am just curious how you deal with that narrative that is possibly going on inside the American people, when they’ve seen this happen with more than one president.

A lot of Americans have lost faith in government and you can see it on both sides of the aisle. Our government has become this flopping appendage that’s like trailing society. We all look at it and we’re like, “Ah.” It is true, that it’s very hard for many people to regard government as a real solution, but on this one — when I’ve looked at it — there is no other way except through the federal government to broadly distribute the gains from artificial intelligence and new technologies fast enough to preempt massive, massive social problems. There’s no other way. If you look at it objectively, you say, “Okay, we’re going to get rid of lots of these types of workers. Some people who have certain resources are going to benefit greatly. Certainly, the owners of some of these new technologies are going to benefit greatly. How are you going to get through this if the government is decades behind as it currently is? There’s really no way. That’s why I’m running for president, is because I see what is necessary and that our political establishment is decades behind this challenge. But to your point, we have lost faith in our government to solve these problems. We have to reinvigorate our government to rise to this challenge, because there’s no other way

Srini Rao: [00:36:17] As somebody who hosts the podcast, and as a media creator, I feel it’s really important that we talk about the role that media is going to play in this next election. What do you think are going to be the challenges from a media standpoint, given that what has happened as a result of Donald Trump, is a media environment that literally feels like a reality show? To be honest, I never watched the news. I nowadays watch it, because I genuinely find what a shit show it is so entertaining. It actually is like a straight up movie. I remember Seth Meyers said, “Can you imagine if they tried to make a movie about this? It would be terrible, because it would be so much less crazy than the real thing.”

Yeah, it’s one of the reasons why it’s going to be really difficult to come back from this. Our faith in media information, is at a record low. Our faith in institutions, our government, schools, hospitals and political leaders, are all in the toilet because we think all of these institutions have failed us. The media’s right there with them. There is some real potential in this era to build a movement — a positive movement — very, very quickly. We’ve seen that in a few cases. We saw that my opinion with both Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, and on the other side, with Donald Trump. All three of those figures really came out of relatively nowhere, to either win or almost win. I think it’s going to be a balancing act for traditional media. It’s one reason why I love doing podcasts like this one, is that people get their information through podcasts now, more so — in my opinion, at least in my circles — than watching CNN or one of the cable networks.

Srini Rao: [00:38:11] What do you anticipate, should you find yourself in the White House on day one?

Andrew Yang: [00:38:41] That’s one of the fun things of running for president, as the outsider — entrepreneur — who wants to give everyone money. If I win, then there will have been a blue wave and a revolution. People will have expressed their appetite for really big, structural changes. That’s what I’ll be there to do. You don’t elect Andrew Yang if you want business as usual. You elect Andrew Yang if you recognize that the operating system of government has broken down and it needs a rewrite. We would make the big changes as quickly as we could. There would be — I believe — real enthusiasm for that, because again, if you look at it, we’ve been waiting for someone to transform government from the inside out for a number of years now.

Srini Rao: [00:39:31] How do you plan to navigate establishment politicians? It’s not like you’re going to come in from the outside — the president and the entire establishment is going to disappear and we’re going to have nothing but outsiders running the government. How do you navigate that dynamic, given that you’re challenging so much of what these people are used to?

Andrew Yang: [00:39:57] What’s fascinating is that the Democratic Party recently voted to disempower all superdelegates from their nominating process. In terms of becoming president, it’s genuinely just going to be about what people in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina decide that they want to see. If I were to be president, I believe I’d be part of a wave of people that want to make big changes. I’m not someone who’s bound by any strict — I’m going to do exactly what I said I’m going to do, but I’ll work with anyone. If you look at the history of it, there have been many, many conservatives and libertarians that have been pro universal basic income over the years. Milton Friedman was for it. It passed the House of Representatives under Richard Nixon. There are a lot of libertarians that love the idea of universal basic income, because it puts decision making in the hands of the individual. We can get a lot of really big things done and I’m very happy to work across the aisle. You’re right, it’s not like everyone in government’s all of the sudden going to be someone like me, but I believe I can get a ton done with a lot of different people.

Srini Rao: [00:41:13] What are you hearing on the campaign trail from people around the country? I really wonder this, because like I said, probably I’m not consuming news that exposes me to it.

When I’m out in the rest of the country, people are not paying any attention to the things you and I pay attention to, honestly. You know what I mean? They’re just living their lives, spending time with their families, trying to make tomorrow a little bit better than today. They look at their friends’ Facebook feeds. It’s been really educational for me. Just yesterday, I was in Iowa speaking to a group of union workers, and their perspective also is very different from many of the people that I spent time with in New York City. So, I’ve learned a lot and I would say that Americans are really hungry for change in a government that will work for them. They’re also very good, decent people that just want to make better lives for themselves and their families

If you could say anything to people who are listening to this, regardless of what side of the aisle they fall on, what is the message that you want to share with them? Or why should they vote for you, I guess is really where we’re headed?

I’m an entrepreneur and I’m just trying to solve a problem. In this case, it happens to be the biggest problem perhaps in human history, which is that human labor is becoming less and less central to the economy. It sounds futuristic and far out to some people. They’re probably not the people listening to this podcast, but we have to move society forward in meaningful ways very, very quick. Technology is speeding up, artificial intelligence is coming fast, and our political establishment is totally not up to the challenge. If you believe that our government has to speed up and our society has to speed up, and the quickest way to do that is to transform the way people experience value and work in our society, then please do support my campaign at yang2020.com. We need you. We need the forward-thinking creators to get on board with the fact that our society does not have to just keep on steering into the ditch, which is where it’s heading now. It’s disintegrating under our feet. Together, we can build a human-centered economy where the market serves us, instead of us all serving as inputs for the market.

What do you think it is that makes somebody or something unmistakable?

I think as an entrepreneur — what’s funny — and the slogan for this campaign is “humanity first.” It’s also “invest in people.” Those are the two slogans we use. What makes someone unmistakable, is when they become more themselves. As a kid, you’re yourself for the most part, and then you get trained in how to be something else. Over time, you unlearn all of that training and you become more yourself again. I think the more human you are, and the more yourself you are, that the more unmistakable you become. It’s a real privilege when you can marry that essence with your work. It’s a rare gift, but we have to fight for it for ourselves and for the people in our lives, and really eventually. for people in our society. Right now, more and more people are being pushed to become less and less human and it’s going to destroy us over time.

Where can people find out more about your books? I know you mentioned the campaign website. Where else can they connect with you online if they want to chat with you or say hello?

You can follow me on Twitter, “@AndrewYangVFA,” which stands for Venture for America. Just google Andrew Yang and come find me. The website is yang2020.com. If you want to dig into all the research and the facts and figures, my book, “The War on Normal People,” is available on Amazon and the rest of it. Please do come join me in this campaign and let’s fight for humanity, because we can build the society that we all know is possible, but it’s going to have to be us. Certainly, no one else is going to do it for us.

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