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Universal Basic Income: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Andrew Yang's signature policy has propelled him to fame for a reason: it addresses a serious problem that looms over our economy.

Last week, news outlets announced that the sixth Democratic primary debate would not be an exclusively Caucasian affair after all. Andrew Yang has made the cut.

When Yang takes the stage on December 19, alongside Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, and Tom Steyer (the latter two of whom are apparently still running), it will be a testament to the success of his oddball campaign.

At first, his plan to give every American $1,000 a month seems only slightly less absurd than Vermin Supreme’s free pony proposal. And beyond that one policy, most people don’t know much about the Asian-American entrepreneur and first-time candidate.

He’s a proud “nerd” who holds the title of “The Internet’s Favorite Candidate” and is often included in an anti-establishment trinity that includes Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard. Yet despite his ability to outperform and outlast candidates like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, he has no realistic path to victory. His poll numbers are permanently stuck in single digits. Yang himself is a total outsider. Donald Trump has proven that a particularly energetic gate-crasher can steal the show, but Yang is a wonk, not a demagogue. On the debate stage, his speaking style seems shaky (when he gets to speak at all, that is), and nothing about his presence or mannerisms screams “presidential.”

Winning was never really on the table for Yang, but the mere fact that a candidate who built his campaign on a proposal that sounds like pure fantasy has lasted this long is impressive. I wonder if that was his goal all along.

Universal Basic Income (UBI) probably won’t happen in the next administration, but it’s no longer enough to get you laughed off the stage. Yang’s website quotes Victor Hugo referring to UBI as an “idea whose time has come.” This is absurdly overoptimistic, of course. But Yang’s campaign, despite his inevitable withdrawal, may be the necessary push that brings UBI within the Overton window.

That objective, along with his general lack of partisan ire, explains his willingness to appear on Fox News and The Ben Shapiro Show. He hopes that UBI will eventually become an area of bipartisan agreement.

He is the ideal person to make this case. His record as an entrepreneur enables him to recast what would otherwise seem like the socialist program par excellence as a way of preserving capitalism. And his wonkishness, though it might not score him points on strong leader polls, makes him ideally suited to explain a complicated policy proposal to voters who think he’s talking nonsense.

By this point, you’ve probably figured out where I stand: I don’t hate the idea of UBI. There are three reasons for this.

First, it avoids nanny-state paternalism. Yes, it’s “free money” from the government, but it’s free money that everyone gets. And even better, UBI is designed to replace every other entitlement program. Libertarians might gag at such extensive redistribution of wealth, but even they should clap their hands at the thought of no more bureaucrats deciding who gets what and how much and how they’re allowed to spend it. Also, no more exhausting debates over work requirements and drug testing for welfare. You want to spend your entire thousand-dollar Freedom Dividend on hookers and blow? Go ahead! Most people won’t, and even if they do, I’d rather see that than watch the government micromanage their lives while they shun work to avoid sacrificing their benefits.

Second, it shows real concern for people in rural areas and small towns who have watched their jobs vanish and their neighbors die of suicide and opioid overdoses. “Things are disintegrating in communities around our country, and our government does not care. …Trump’s victory was a giant cry for…help,” Yang said in one interview. While other candidates like Pete Buttigieg continue to trot out the old “basket of deplorables” talking point, Yang truly gets it. His Freedom Dividend policy proves that he does. In her video on the topic, conservative commentator Lauren Chen questioned whether it made sense to give everyone the same amount of money no matter where they live. After all, $1,000 goes a lot further in rural Mississippi than it does in New York City. This isn’t an oversight on Yang’s part though. It’s a deliberate choice to incentivize people to live where their Freedom Dividend has the most purchasing power. This proposal could help breathe new life into dying towns that have lost many of their best and brightest to swollen megacities. It’s no surprise that Ben Shapiro says Yang has much in common with Tucker Carlson.

Third, it might be the only way to deal with coming economic changes. In The Jetsons, which premiered in 1962, George Jetson worked as a “digital index operator,” a job that consists entirely of pushing a single button to start and stop the manufacturing process of an otherwise entirely automated factory. “You gotta have it up here,” George says, pointing to his forehead as he tries to convince himself that his job is meaningful, “to know how to start these things and stop ’em.” What was a punch line in 1962 is reality today. Truckers, Uber drivers, customer service representatives, manufacturing workers, and even radiologists could all lose their jobs to automation over the next few decades. By one estimate, 50 percent of the work that people are currently paid to do could be taken over by automated systems using just the technology we already have. What happens when those jobs disappear or cease to pay a living wage? I imagine a dystopian future in which the underemployed masses foment revolution while Jeff Bezos rules over a robot empire of factories, drones, and delivery trucks without employing a single human being.

Perhaps it seems like I’m being paranoid. After all, the same objection could be applied to any major economic revolution. What will people do if they can’t all work on farms? They’ll work in factories. Theoretically, new jobs, ones we never foresaw, will replace the jobs we’ve lost. I’m still not sure this eliminates the need for UBI or something like it, though. Every major shift in the economic status quo has produced an accompanying shift in government economic policy. The AI revolution will be massively disruptive, and if we want to avoid having a huge, disgruntled underclass with no opportunities and nothing to lose, we’ll need to prepare for that disruption. Robots work for free, but people still need to feed their families. Robots don’t buy things, but “[m]arkets need consumers to sell things to.” “[Y]ou cannot collect income tax from robots or software,” but the government still needs revenue, and the same companies that are driving automation are dodging taxes by reinvesting profits into the very automation that’s putting its workers out of their jobs.

Am I still suspicious of how Yang would pay for this massively expensive program? Of course. A quick estimate ($12,000 times about 200,000,000 American adults) comes to $2.4 trillion a year. That’s over half the 2019 federal budget. Still, I’m no longer convinced that “give everyone $1,000 a month” is as stupid an idea as it sounds. It may still be too early for such a policy, but the future is coming fast and bringing unprecedented challenges. And thanks to one unlikely candidate, the solution might now be on our radar.

Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. at Georgetown University.

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