Andrew Yang: 'Useful Idiots' Interview with Matt Taibbi, Katie Halper - Rolling Stone
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Andrew Yang: The ‘Useful Idiots’ Interview

While “traditional” Democrats scramble to find the right message, Andrew Yang is scoring with the blunt truth

Why not Andrew Yang?

With almost no institutional support and the active disdain of much commercial press — the Schenectady, New York-born entrepreneur recently boycotted MSNBC in search of coverage “consistent with our polling” — Yang, according to poll averages, sits in sixth place in the 2020 Democratic race, earning 3.3 percent nationally.

He outperforms Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker, the moneybags vanity run of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and a slew of once-fashionable party hopefuls now in the dustbin of primary history, like Beto O’Rourke, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Bill de Blasio. With Kamala Harris out of the race, he may soon have fifth place to himself.

Yang has a chance. Actually, if the campaign press were structured differently, he’d have a great chance.

His steadily climbing poll numbers, intense online support network (affectionately called the #YangGang), and impressive base of 350,000 (and counting) donors (who coughed up $750,000 in 24 hours over the weekend) should inspire oohs and aahs among the press priesthood. Instead, Yang is learning what it means to be on the wrong side of a political narrative.

The core of Yang’s campaign is his proposal for universal basic income, in which all citizens, rich and poor, would receive $1,000 a month. The logic behind the plan is laid out in his book The War on Normal People, which Yang amusingly notes once had We’re Fucked as a proposed title.

Much attention has been focused on Yang’s UBI plan, which is often described as a “gimmick” and has inspired press figures to wonder if the plan breaks campaign laws (“You can’t just give away cash,” former federal election commissioner Ann Ravel sneered to Vox).

When media analysts aren’t scoffing at UBI, they’re ignoring the reason behind the proposal. Yang in 2011 founded Venture for America, a nonprofit dedicated to helping create new business enterprises in struggling areas. In the course of that work, he discovered a truth about the American job market he’s been trying to evangelize ever since.

Technological change is wiping out traditional jobs at a breakneck pace. Clerical and administrative jobs are giving way to automation, food service is headed there, cashier and retail jobs are being phased out with auto-pay registers, and Amazon.com is speeding the closures of malls. In his book, Yang writes the average mall closure results in roughly 1,300 lost jobs, and more than $22 million in lost wages. Even rideshare drivers and truckers, he says, are under imminent threat from the development of self-driving vehicles.

“Truck driving is the one that scares the shit out of me,” Yang tells Rolling Stone. “It’s going to be a chaos, in my opinion. It’s the most common job in 29 states.”

Yang in his book labels the shift the “Great Displacement” of traditional work. Outside of cosmopolitan cities like New York and L.A. that are the heart of the Democratic Party base, communities are in steep decline because of these changes, awaiting a future that Yang — whose cultural reference game is strong — describes as likely to be “either the cultivated benevolence of Star Trek or the desperate scramble of resources of Mad Max.

The Mad Max vote went in 2016 to Donald Trump, who urged audiences to trust his burn-it-all-down rhetoric. Trump’s implicit message: Even if I don’t get you a job, I’ll at least spread the pain around geographically, draining the “swamp” in Washington as payback. Voters in those places may stay in the Trump camp, if the Democrats once again fail to grasp the depth of the displacement problem.

Enter Yang, who appeared in the 2020 race as a kind of Democratic Cassandra, delivering true-but-disbelieved visions of America’s future. Yang entered the race hoping to be received as a positive, optimistic voice, drawing attention to an urgent social problem.

Yang sees UBI as a solution that works for everybody, including even the reviled winners in the current unequal landscape. He pitches UBI as a way to reduce social tensions so the mega-wealthy won’t have to worry as much about being pitchforked. He quotes Otto Van Bismarck, who said, “If a revolution there must be, better to undertake it rather than undergo it.”

Yang seems to be the same affable, wisecracking guy on the stump that he is off camera. His upbeat nature contrasts with the fist-shaking “Fight the Power” vibe embraced by rivals like Bernie Sanders and even Elizabeth Warren, who seek (with varying degrees of believability) major overhauls of the system.

Despite his jocular persona, Yang is serious. He’s one of a handful of candidates calling attention not only to the joblessness problem, but to the utter failure of America’s economic leaders to have any workable plan for displacement (in his book, he thrashes the oft-cited panacea idea of retraining workers to be coders).

His candidacy implies a heavy criticism of the partisan style of Democratic Party messaging. Some grumble about his willingness to talk with conservatives like Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson and note that he talks comparatively little about Donald Trump, saying things like, “He got the problems right [but] his solutions were the opposite of what we need.” Yang has even expressed reservations about the political efficacy of impeachment, heresy in the current environment.

Some Democrats see Yang’s “non-ideological” image and “not right, not left, but forward” posturing as inherently illegitimate, a sleazy pose for use in courting conservative young white male votes while “sidestepping pesky matters like sexism and racism.”

Yang was ragged on for his Asian-ness in his school years, even relating with characteristic frankness in his book how he was asked if “he needed tweezers to masturbate.” Some Democrats believe Yang’s willingness to use self-deprecating humor could be another canard, disguising racist or sexist leanings.

In June, The Nation worried that Yang’s “performative silliness” might be cover for extremist views, not that it could identify any. The magazine noted that historians studying the Ku Klux Klan had found that “appearing slightly ridiculous” had played a role in “in mainstreaming the KKK.”

Instead of understanding Yang’s laid-back appeal as rooted in the public’s desire to escape an increasingly phobic American political discourse, Nation writer Edward Burmila jumped straight to the worst-case interpretation of irony politics: “Everything is a great big joke, right up until it isn’t and someone dies.”

If Yang were an unremarkable third-term senator from a state like Minnesota or Ohio, none of these absurd criticisms would be appearing. Pundits would be swooning over his jazzy cyber-strategy and “crossover” potential.

Instead, Yang has been tabbed a dangerous outsider best kept at the margins. This is why cable-news channels in November mentioned hacktacular billionaire Michael Bloomberg twice as often as Yang (4,486 times to 2,167 times), despite the fact that Yang leads Bloomberg in polls.

Visiting the Useful Idiots set, Yang was exhausted from a West Coast trip that included a visit to Jimmy Kimmel. He agreed to come on after we hounded him on social media, a subject we joked about.

He stopped to talk with Katie and me before heading out to New Hampshire, Chicago, and Dallas for one more run of trail appearances this week. Next week, he will bunker down to prepare for the next Democratic debate, on December 19th, in Los Angeles.

Presenting us with MATH hats, he talked about frustrations of the race, his reception by the media, his take on impeachment, circumcision, and other issues. An abridged transcript of the free-ranging, provocative interview that involved a lot of laughs:

Matt Taibbi: We have a very special guest: presidential candidate Andrew Yang.

Andrew Yang: Ask and you shall receive.

Katie Halper: Harass and you shall receive.

Matt: We want to clear the air about that. It was a good-cop, bad-cop thing. Obviously, Katie was very, very…What’s the word I should use?

Katie: Vigilant. Belligerent.

Andrew: “Yang, what’s the hold up? You’ve been in a lot less cool shit than this.”

Matt: (laughs) That’s a funny way to put it.

Katie: Yang Gang, thank you. You delivered. I challenged you. I called you guys cowards, and you weren’t.

Matt: Is any of this a surprise to you, how enthusiastic and far reaching the iternet support group is for you?

Andrew: You can’t plan or predict this sort of thing. I had a message, I thought it was really important, and I was joking with someone. I was like, “I was prepared to go alone.” You know what I mean?

Katie: Yang Gang of one.

Andrew: I could have lived with myself if I had run a campaign and it had not gone well but I had done what I thought was the right thing. But certainly I’m thrilled to have so many people excited about me and the campaign and the message and the vision of a 21st century economy that works for us, because it’s not working for us now. It’s going to work less for us pretty quickly.

Matt: Long before this election cycle, I kept thinking to myself, “You go to these small towns all across America, and the first thing that comes to mind is there’s no plan for any of these people.” It’s almost like the candidates would come through and they would just tell people to make a choice, but nothing real is going to happen.

Andrew: You do have that feeling, for sure.

Matt: What prompted you to make the decision to jump in and how different do you think your campaign is compared to other traditional presidential campaigns?

Andrew: I thought I had a very important message to bring to the American people, that it’s not immigrants that are causing economic dislocations. It’s technology, and that for better for worse, technology is about to accelerate in unprecedented ways and that we needed to revisit and rewrite the rules to work for people because a lot of the things you assume about the economy are going to stop being true. I thought all of this in 2017. I realized that the reason why Donald Trump won was that we had automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs that were primarily in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri.

Matt: What a coincidence.

Andrew: Yeah. What a coincidence. All these states he won. I didn’t hear a peep of that on any of the cable-news channels being like, “Hey, we’re in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution. We blasted 4 million manufacturing jobs. It got us Trump. It’s about to take off. We’re now going to do the same thing to retail jobs and call-center jobs and fast-food jobs and truck-driving jobs, and on and on.”

Matt: Can you talk about the scope of the problem though a little bit? If you could just talk about the dislocation that’s going on and what the numbers mean and for people who live in big cities and aren’t aware of it.

Katie: The great displacement.

Andrew: You mean all of the folks who listen to Rolling Stone or urban hipsters hanging out?

Matt: Yeah.

Andrew: A lot of the urban hipsters are from other parts of the country so they know. The five most common jobs in the United States by category are, number one, administrative and clerical, which includes call centers. Number two is retail. That’s malls and shops. Number three is food service and food prep. Number four is truck driving and transportation. Number five is manufacturing. Those five job categories, about half of all American jobs.

If you look at them each in turn, call-center jobs are getting automated away by software. There are two and a half million call-center workers still in the U.S. making 14 bucks an hour. What Matt just mentioned is that 30 percent of America stores in malls are closing in the next four years because Amazon is soaking up $20 billion in business every year and paying zero taxes. That’s a pretty major loser.

The average retail clerk is a 39-year-old woman making between $9 and $10 an hour. When her mall closes, what’s her next move? There are self-serve kiosks in many of the McDonald’s and fast-food franchises around the country, and McDonald’s says they’ll be in every location in the next two years. Truck driving is the one that scares the shit out of me, where if we automate a significant number of truck-driving jobs, it’s going to be a chaos, in my opinion. It’s the most common job in 29 states. The average trucker is a 49-year-old man. Ninety-four percent of them are men, so that’s not a generalization.

The jobs I just named are literally the five most common job types in the U.S., and they’re all going to shrink very, very quickly. The question is what are millions of high school grads going to do for the next opportunity with the knowledge that Americans are moving across state lines [at] multi-decade lows?

Katie: Part of what seems to drive you is compassion and a universalism, but then there’s also a very rational self-interest that I think a lot of wealthy people don’t realize, which is that it’s in their own best interest not to have mass inequality. You mentioned how people are happier. There’s a quote where it’s like, “Even rich people are happier when they don’t feel bad about being rich.”

Andrew: Studies have shown that high income inequality corresponds to unhappiness among the winners because if you’re in a highly unequal society and you’re just a few of the winners, then you feel bad more often. It’s enlightened self-interest to try and smooth out this rampant historic inequality that we’re experiencing.

Katie: You even quote Bismarck, Otto von Bismarck—

Andrew: “If a revolution there must be, better to undertake it rather than undergo it.”

Things are disintegrating in communities around the country, and our government does not care really. There’s no built-in feedback mechanism. You could say that Trump’s victory was a giant cry for something, clearly, help, anger, something, frustration. The Democrats, to me, have not taken the message to heart, where Hillary Clinton said something, which I thought was jarring. She said, “Well, I won all of the areas that were economically prosperous.” [1]

Katie: She said that?

Andrew: Yeah, you can look that quote up and you’re like, “Do you hear yourself?”

Matt: I’ve talked to people in Republican crowds and Democratic crowds for that matter who point to the early nineties NAFTA. The original promise of NAFTA was, “OK, we’re going to do this thing that’s going to have a radical disruption to the manufacturing economy, but we’re going to fix it by retraining the population for different kinds of work.…” Except, the second thing didn’t really happen. Is that an uncorrected problem that is persistent?

Andrew: Yeah. I was stunned when I looked at the stats around government-funded retraining programs and manufacturing workers in the Midwest, because every once in a while you can see the adjustment coming like with NAFTA and with some of the other big moves. The government said, “We’ll retrain you.”

There’s zero accountability and near-zero success around retraining. It’s not like Bill had to stand there and be like, “Hey, out of these 10,000 people, how many were successfully retrained?” What, 50? That’s kind of a disaster. Moving right along. There are stories about how the government reached out to help retrain workers and there was no school in the vicinity that was offering the appropriate retraining programs.

You know what happened? Some enterprising person said, “I’ll open a school,” and then retrains all of the workers, gives them all diplomas, and then closes the school the next day. The government checks it off and says, “Retrained, school is gone, someone made money off of our dollars,” and then the workers are all like, “I’ve now got a worthless certificate that didn’t teach me shit and here we are.” The government is like, “Success,” until you actually dig in and like, “Did anybody even get jobs in this new program that you got trained for?” They’re like, “No.”

There’s no accountability. It’s not like Bill Clinton had to come back years later and say, “OK, here’s what happened with NAFTA precisely, with the people that were the displaced losers in the equation or trade.”

Matt: We saw the debates last week — it was unbelievable the way that they didn’t call on you for huge stretches of the debate.

Andrew: Thank you for noticing that. I appreciate it.

Matt: What’s been your feeling about the media response to your campaign and what the reaction has been?

Andrew: It’s been an education, I would say. It’s been a process. If I had imagined how I was going to be received by the media, it was somewhat different than how it played out. MSNBC, as you guys know, I’ve gotten to a point where I just called it out and said, “Look, you guys have omitted me from over a dozen graphics.” Called me John Yang on air.

Katie: I remember that.

Andrew: My wife was joking because my wife was in the room. She was like, “First, you went with the raise-your-hand move,” which I did, then I went with the raise-both-hands move. I was just standing there with both of my hands over—

Katie: You were Bernie-ing. You’re pulling a Bernie.

Andrew: I did the “I’m going to start talking” move. It got ridiculous. The generous interpretation is that they didn’t know what to make of me and my campaign, but at some point, you have to just say that there seems to be something else at work here.

I’ve already outperformed half a dozen senators, governors, congresspeople. At some point, if you’re a working journalist, you should be like, “Huh. Maybe I should actually dig into why this person is fifth or sixth in the polls. Why are they getting hundreds of thousands of Americans to actually support him in a way that a lot of the more-mainstream politicians have not been able to do?”

Katie: When did you first get the idea that universal basic income would be good to implement? You said you were a Johnny-come-lately to it, but what made you think of it? Did you have an a-ha moment?

Andrew: I started a nonprofit that Matt knows well, called Venture for America, in 2011, and we helped create several thousand jobs around the country. It’s still going. During that time, I was reading all these books about the future of work because I was Mr. Entrepreneur at job creation. I was like I should know all this stuff about—

Katie: Obama named you something.

Andrew: Champion of change and a global ambassador of entrepreneurship.

Katie: There you go.

Andrew: My wife got to meet the president, so that was a good day. The in-laws were like, “Yes, she did all right.”

In 2015, I read a book by Andy Stern, who I don’t know if you know Andy, he used to run the biggest union in the country, SEIU….He wrote a book called Raising the Floor, and he said the future of labor is no labor. We’re screwed, and we need a universal basic income as soon as possible. He actually said, “Someone should run for president on this as soon as possible.”

I took that as a mission statement, so I had lunch with him in 2017 and I said, “I agree. Is anyone running for president on this?”

He said, “No.”

I was like, “Then I will run for president on this.”

He said, “Who are you, again?” (laughs)

Matt: I read a book called Utopia for Realists, by Rutger Bregman

Andrew: Rutger. He and I are friendly.

Matt: He talked a lot in that book about how an obstacle was that people have gotten out of the habit of big ideas in Western politics. The phrase he used that we’ve become a “society of managers and technocrats,” that just having a big idea is already an enormous obstacle. Have you found that in your campaign?

Andrew: I haven’t read his book in a little while, but he’s definitely right. To me, freedom dividends, universal basic income is necessary and inevitable, and we should just get the show on the road and make it happen. I agree with Rutger that our current system does not reward transformative ideas. It rewards more incremental solutions, which I understand, but if you go decades without balancing the economy, then it turns out the debt you owe is really significant to a point where what seems transformative is actually just long overdue.

Katie: What about Medicare for All? That’s another thing that people are talking about. The hot topic is whether or not there should be the option for private insurance.

Andrew: I’m of the mind that we should provide a public option for health care, Medicare for All, but then out-compete the private insurers and squeeze them out of the marketplace. A lot of Americans are happy with their coverage. In some cases, unions negotiated very, very hard about their coverage and gave up a lot of other stuff. If we can provide for Americans and, similar to the freedom dividend, raise the floor of coverage, then I think we can ring out a lot of the excesses of private insurance very quickly.

Matt: Characteristically, you’re one of the first people to break ranks with some of the other democratic candidates on impeachment. You’ve made some comments that drew some fire from pundits. What’s your take on the impeachment process?

Andrew: I’m pro-impeachment, but this is going to be a loser.

Katie: How dare you!

Andrew: Not a single Republican has given any indication that they’re in fact-finding mode. They’re all in defend-the-president mode. You need literally dozens of Republican senators to switch sides when the trial starts, which we’ve gotten zero indication is going to happen. The more this drags on, the more danger there is of two things:

Number one, Donald Trump comes out of this and is vindicated, totally exonerated.

Number two, we are wasting precious time where we should be creating a positive vision that Americans are excited about solving the problems that got Donald Trump elected, and beat him in 2020. If all that happens is all of the Democrats are talking about impeachment that fails, then it seems like there is no vision. It seems like all we can do is throw ineffective rocks at Donald Trump, and then it ends up leading unfortunately toward his re-election.

Katie: It’s like good PR for him.

Andrew: He’s a creature that thrives on attention, and so the more attention he gets, the better for him, the worst for Democrats.

Matt: After 2016, the first thought I had was, “Well, this is going to inspire a rethink in the Democratic Party. They’re going to re-argue their case. They’re going to find a way to tell people how they’re going to fix the problems of ordinary people across America.

Immediately they point to Russiagate, now impeachment….They’re focusing on this thing that, to a lot of people, is an internecine phenomenon, a Washington drama.

Andrew: Unfortunately, Matt, my team and I have been part of some of the planning sessions, and that’s not changing. Their take on it is, we argued against Trump wrong last time — this time we’re going to really stick it to him by talking about this. You’re like, “Oh, my gosh. We’ve learned nothing.”

Katie: We have to talk about the circumcision thing.

Andrew: OK. That’s cool.

Katie: We got to cut to the chase.

Andrew: Oh, god.

Katie: When did this become an important issue for you, and how have people responded to it?

Andrew: Well, it was born of a conversation on Twitter, as many things are. I was asked my point of view on circumcision, and I said something about how I don’t think it’s necessary or positive for the infants. That gave rise to a whole hullabaloo, I think is the sentence. I think parents should do whatever they want with their infants.

I do think that the medical necessity/case for circumcision has been overstated where if you’re a new parent, you’re like, “Oh, we should do this.” Why exactly should I be doing this? We have two boys. My wife and I went through this process ourselves with the boys, and we found the medical case to be quite unconvincing….I personally just want parents to inform themselves….

Matt: (After Yang mentions attending a bris) We mention a bris literally once per podcast.

Andrew: I satisfied the quota.

Katie: You outperformed expectations.

Andrew: I didn’t even know about the quota.

Matt: What’s the funniest thing that’s happened on the campaign trail? You have a great sense of humor, especially for a politician.

Andrew: Meeting the man who tattooed my face on his calf and then posing next to his calf.

Katie: Was it a hairy calf, or hairless?

Andrew: I think it’s a normal amount of hair on the calf. It was the emoji of my face. I don’t know if you’ve seen the dancing Yang, something like that. It wasn’t like a real life….It was the emoji face, but it was there. It was real. It was permanent. That was fun.

Matt: There’s a person out there who has you on their calf for the rest of time.

Andrew: What I said is, “I’d better fucking win.”

Katie: Who are you going to run with? Who would be a running mate you would run with out of the current candidates?

Andrew: Really good question. I’m enjoying getting to know the other candidates. We have to see how the field plays out, but there are a number of people I can see myself working with happily.

Katie: Anyone in particular?

Andrew: We all have to just fight it out.

Matt: All right, excellent. I might see you on the campaign trail in New Hampshire and Iowa in the next couple of months.

Andrew: Come on out. Bus tour. New Year’s Eve party in New Hampshire. So many options. We are going to grow and grow and peak at the exact right time. The American people are a sleeping giant, and we are waking them up.

Matt: Excellent. Well, congratulations on an already extremely successful campaign, and thank you so much for coming in.

Katie: Go to yang@2020.com, and follow Andrew Yang on Twitter.

Andrew: Yang2020.com. Join the Yang Gang. The average donation is only 30 bucks.

Matt: Don’t stop at 30 bucks. Give all your disposable income to Andrew Yang.

Andrew: Don’t do that. Thanks, guys.

Katie: Bye.

Matt: Bye.

[1] The actual quote, from March 2018: “I won the places that represent two-thirds of America’s gross domestic product….I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward. And his whole campaign, ‘Make America Great Again,’ was looking backwards.”

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