Have you noticed that I don’t have politicians as guests on this show? Well, today I make a rare exception. Andrew Yang was a complete unknown, a political novice when he burst onto the scene of the 2016 Democratic primary campaign. He didn’t win, obviously, but he brought an attitude and a platform that many people found energizing. He then lost a tough race to be the mayor of New York City. And some people might have given up on politics after that, but not Andrew Yang. Now he’s back, launching a brand-new party to try to shake up the status quo.
YANG: What the Forward Party is about was my reckoning, Steve, with the fact that our system right now is set up to fail us, and it will fail us because of incentives.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
The main reason I rarely have politicians on the show is that they just won’t talk freely and honestly. Partly that’s because their job requires them to constantly be pandering to voters. But also, they spend so much time giving stump speeches. Their message is so rehearsed that it’s almost impossible to get them off their script. I fear the same will happen with Andrew, but my hope is that he’s just different enough, just weird enough that we can have a real conversation. Now, my best chance to make that happen is to ask him questions that he rarely hears.
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LEVITT: So, Andrew, let me start with a confession. Ever since I was a kid, I fantasized about what it would be like to be president of the United States, but in the 50 years that I’ve been watching presidential elections, you are the very first candidate who reminded me even the slightest bit of myself. But I’ll also say that, at least for me, being president looks like a lot more fun than running for president. Do you think that’s a fair description?
YANG: I’m so glad you saw yourself in my campaign, Steve. I thought there must be other people like me who look up and say, “You know what, we could use, like, a slightly different approach.” I’m not sure how much fun being president is, to be honest, because now I have a sense of what it’s like to be in the midst of the vortex, where you wake up and there are people monitoring your schedule at every moment and T.V. cameras everywhere. It’s a little bit of a drag.
LEVITT: Were you like me as a kid? Did you secretly fantasize about being president?
YANG: Very much no. I am Asian, Steve. I don’t know if you’ve noticed. So, that wasn’t on the list of visions.
LEVITT: So, I’m sure everyone listening knows your basic story: Against all the odds, the combination of clear fresh ideas and hard work turned you into a legitimate presidential candidate. But because of your eventual success, I think it’s hard for people to remember just how low you really started. I want to quote from your new book, entitled Forward, and you’re writing about how a year into campaigning, the hard work finally started to yield results. And you write, “So, my work in Iowa paid off in December of 2018, when the Selzer Iowa poll included me in the list of candidates. The numbers were not great. I was dead last of the 21 candidates listed, including some people who weren’t running, like Eric Holder. I had the lowest name recognition and I was the only one with a net unfavorable. Of the 17 percent of people who’d heard of me, 12 percent didn’t like me. Zero percent said I was their first choice for president.” And then you go on to say, “But buried in the poll were a couple of signs that just about had me jump for joy.” One percent of the people had said you were their second choice. It blows my mind that you stuck with it. A year of campaigning, you’re in last place, no support. You went from there to raising $40 million from hundreds of thousands of donors. How did you have the perseverance to stick with it?
YANG: Well, I’m an entrepreneur and I’d taken money from people. I mean, not big money, mind you, because there are contribution limits to these things. But when you set out on a journey, you make a commitment to yourself and the people around you that you’re going to see it through. And I had a vision for what the campaign could become, and if it did not become that, I was fine with that. If I slunk home in total anonymity and had been publicly humiliated, I would be cool with that.
LEVITT: One of the things you wrote also in your book, which really reminded me of myself, was when you first started, you were actually embarrassed to even tell people you were running for president — that you were sheepish about it. Usually, ego is such an important part of running for president, but most people with a big ego aren’t embarrassed to admit they’re running for president.
YANG: I have to say, it’s very hard to say, “I’m running for president,” when no one knows who you are. And that wasn’t just an Andrew Yang problem. That was a problem for any of the lesser-known candidates. And so, we all had to put our hardhats or armor on every day to be like, “I’m running for president,” and then walk through the skepticism or apathy or disinterest because a lot of people tacitly are like, “Well, if I haven’t heard of you, then you’re not a serious candidate.”
LEVITT: So, my teenage son, Nick, was an early and fervent supporter of yours. And that’s how I first heard about you, even before you went on the Freakonomics podcast. And I was surprised by his interest in you because he’s never paid any attention to politics before. Do you have the feeling that that was a lot of your support, coming from outsiders, in a sense, people who weren’t really political by nature?
YANG: Oh my gosh, yes. And I cannot tell you how many people your age or older said to me, “It’s my son or my daughter,” or in some cases, even, “my grandson or granddaughter that got me into you,” where the campaign struck a chord with outsiders, but young people in particular, where they thought, “Wow, this person reminds me of me,” or, “This person seems like someone I can relate to.” And that started with the younger generation and worked its way up. So, please thank your son for me.
LEVITT: Why do you think that you’re in touch with young people? I mean, you’re not yourself that young, I mean, you’re in your forties, but you definitely seem to tap into a young spirit.
YANG: One thing I’m very proud of is I won the Iowa youth poll. So, if they cut the voting off at approximately age 19, I’d be the president. But young people did see a sense of optimism or possibility or freshness where the policies I was advocating for seemed like things that people had thought about, but no one had talked about politically. I’m really proud of the fact that we mainstreamed a number of things, including universal basic income, that spoke to young people.
LEVITT: So, tell me what it’s like actually campaigning. It must have worn you down to have to act that part all day long. I’ve done some public speaking in front of big crowds, and I think I make my handlers extremely nervous because when I am off stage, I am as off as you can be. And Dubner’s like, “Hey, how are you doing?” Talking to everybody, being friendly, giving everyone confidence that we’re going to be great. And I literally sit there, and I say nothing, look kind of glum. And then when I go on stage, I have to put on a different persona, which I’m able to do, but it is very much an act. Did it start to eat away at your sense of who you really are?
YANG: Well, it certainly takes a lot out of you. It drains you. I remember vividly coming back into the hotel room at the end of a day of these events and not even having the energy to call my wife or competently get dressed for bed or whatever it was. I say in the book that it’s like it’s your birthday every day. You show up and you’re like, “Hey, it’s my birthday!” And then eventually at some point, you’re like, “I kind of am tired of it being my birthday.” And I felt for my team because trying to make an event seem presidential is not easy. You turn on cable news and you see Hillary Clinton or whomever on this podium, and there are flags, and there are people, and there’s cameras. All of that stuff is theater and stagecraft, and it takes a lot of energy, and resources, and man and woman power to kind of make it seem cool and presidential. It doesn’t hit you until you’re in it just how much of it is set up.
LEVITT: Yeah, that certainly is something I experienced at a different level when I was doing T.V. for our books. It would take hours and hours of trying to make everything pretty for like, one minute of meaningless soundbites where you can’t even get your ideas across, and it matters more whether there’s a shadow over your face than whether what you say is important and gets across the message, which I found, myself, incredibly frustrating.
YANG: I actually was incredibly flattered that they wanted me on T.V. I was like, “Wow, this is amazing.” But you’re a hundred percent right that there’s way too much energy going into the visual aspect of the medium, and there’s not a whole lot being communicated in the majority of these segments. And this is even true when I was the segment.
LEVITT: So, Dubner and I did a bunch of media in the U.S., and then we did a tour of the U.K. And what was so different about T.V. is you’d go to the U.K. and instead of super fancy sets and really good-looking people interviewing you, there’d just be, like, crummy sets and there’d be shadows everywhere. And we’d be in the middle of an interview and the person talking to us would say, “Wait a second. This is just a bunch of rubbish. You guys don’t even make sense. Why would I believe this at all?” And it was interesting that the person who was interviewing us was actually thinking and disagreeing with us and challenging us, not in a sort of, “Oh, I’m a journalist, I have to challenge you,” but in a very heartfelt way, like, “Wait, this sounds really dumb to me. Why would you say something so dumb?” I loved doing British T.V. because it felt like there was actually some chance that you were communicating with real people about real things.
YANG: You know what that reminds me of, Steve, is podcasts, really. I try and make this point in my book that podcasts are closer to the way humans interact in real life. No one talks like a cable news segment in real life.
LEVITT: So, no one was there at the beginning of it, then bigger and bigger crowds were around. And I just wonder what it’s like — it must be really hard not to think you’re special when people are yelling your name all the time and you’ve got this army of handlers chaperoning you around and devoting their life to what you’re doing. Did you start to develop some kind of, like, a God complex? I just imagine I would have that reaction. Did you have that reaction as well?
YANG: Well first, let me say I’m married. It’s not like I could go home and be like, “Hey, look how special I am.” Like, you know, your relationships are the same, at least in my experience. For me, it was a bit more of a trial, honestly. It was like, “Ugh, like I wish I could just go outside and get a cup of coffee without like a handler yelling to me that we need to get into a rental vehicle or whatever.” I would actually go AWOL every once in a while, just to feel like a human being. The support I got was energizing and invigorating, but it also gave me this tremendous sense of responsibility, where you meet people and they are investing their hopes for the future in you, and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I really need to try and deliver on this.” I’m kind of a conscientious type, Steve. I felt this mantle of responsibility to try to make the changes happen in real life.
LEVITT: So, it must be awful as a conscientious person when, despite a great run, after New Hampshire, you called it quits. How bad does it feel to have to stand up in front of the group of supporters and say that you’re done?
YANG: It’s awful, truly. I went to thank my team and supporters in Nevada and people were crying. You feel like you disappointed many, many people, and that’s an awful feeling. And you realize how much the campaign meant to people. And that was one of the things that fueled my desire to keep trying to find ways to make good things happen because you feel like if you just then disappear after all of that, that you’d really be failing people.
LEVITT: And what’s it like post-campaign? For two years, the focus of everything — your effort, adrenaline — on the campaign, and then there’s, I assume, a vacuum back to regular life. Was that disorienting?
YANG: It was. I was going a hundred miles an hour for better part of two and a half years. And then it is gone. I was eager to reconnect with my family. I was a bit of a zombie though, initially, like coming off where you’re just so wiped out that you’re not exactly like the best husband or father for the first number of days. I just said to folks, Steve, I was like, “I have two missions in life: Accelerate the end of poverty and stay married, and that’s all I care about.” And then when the campaign ended, there was part of me that was, like, mission sort of accomplished? Like, I should feel satisfied, I thought, because our campaign had outperformed most any reasonable expectation. But you wake up the next day and you’re like, “Well, I’m still here and the problems are still here, even though we had this incredible run.” And so, I started writing this book. Really, it was one of my big responses was for me to try and process the journey, distill lessons from it, figure out why it is that we feel so stuck.
LEVITT: So, the mayor’s race was so different because you entered as the favorite and you didn’t win in the end. Could you feel it slipping away or are you in such a bubble on the campaign that it’s hard to tell what’s really going on?
YANG: Certainly, you get impressions. So, some days, I’d be like, “Oh, I’m not sure how well this is going.” And then other times it’d be like, “Oh, people are really into it.” It was a very difficult campaign. It was Covid for a lot of it. I’m really proud of the campaign we ran, in the sense that we got more individual donors than any candidate in the history of New York politics. But we did fall short, and hopefully, the city’s on the way back and the next mayor will do a great job.
LEVITT: Do you think you’re done as a candidate or are you eager to get back out there?
YANG: Well, now I’m single-minded about the fact that our system is setting us up to turn on each other and go insane and not get anything done and so I’m very eager to solve that. I’m not sure if that will involve me as a candidate or as a party builder elevating other candidates. Right now, I’m very much focused on the latter though.
LEVITT: So, you seem honest to me. You seem authentic, and I don’t get the impression that those are traits that are rewarded in politics. What do you think?
YANG: After you enter politics and then you achieve a certain level of success — really that there’s just money around you — then you end up with professional-type staffers. And the professional-type staffers really don’t want you to be honest. I liken it to a lot of N.F.L. coaches, where a lot of professional staffers would rather that you lose acceptably than that you do anything that might end up making their resume more difficult later. And so, any politician who’s been in the field for a while has been burnt where they said something that was off-script. Everyone got mad at them, including their team. And then their team was like, “Never do that again.” And then the politician’s like, “Okay, okay. I’m never going to do that again.” And that’s why our politicians all seem interchangeable and robotic because they’ve been instructed in a certain way. And yeah, like, I’ve certainly been instructed that way and had to ignore it. But I see the forces around every moderately successful politician.
LEVITT: My economist friends who went to Washington worked on the Council of Economic Advisors. They go there thinking they’re going to give economic advice to the administration. And very quickly they realize how political things are. So, I remember they were doing a big jobs program and the Council of Economic Advisors had put together a report that documented how many jobs they thought would be created from however much money was being put into this bill. And so, then it turned out because of politics, they had to hack maybe 30 percent off of the dollar value of the bill. So, the economists said, “We’ll go back and take 30 percent off the jobs.” And the policy people said, “Are you crazy? You can’t take 30 percent off the jobs. We need that job number to be the same.” And so right from the beginning, the economists are put in this role of pretending to do economics while they’re actually just doing policy. And I think for a lot of people, that’s extremely difficult because they’ve spent their life in academics trying to be honest and authentic. And now, they’re out of a job if they don’t stop doing that. And I think very quickly they succumb to the pressures that Washington puts on them.
YANG: That is a very powerful story, Steve, and I think that sums up D.C. in a nutshell at this point. Everyone traffics in perception in politics, and no one cares about the substance or the reality. And if you do that for long enough, you wind up with a very dispirited, despondent, angry, restive population.
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You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with Andrew Yang. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about the political party Andrew is starting.
LEVITT: Morgan, how’s it going today?
LEVEY: Hey Levitt, how are ya?
LEVITT: I’m doing great.
LEVEY: So, Alejandro is a high school senior in Detroit, and he wants to know if you have any advice on his college applications. He’s looking for a way to stand out on admissions and to his future professors.
LEVITT: So, sometimes I give answers where I’m actually an authority and I know something and sometimes I just make stuff up. Okay. So, this is going to be one when I’m just making stuff up, because I don’t really know anything about what gets people into college. But if I were a college admissions person, here’s what I would look for. The two things that would matter to me are: No. 1, right now kids spend all their time building resumes, trying to have a whole portfolio. And there’s an infinite supply of kids who have that applying to schools. If I were in charge of admissions, I would look for something totally different. The thing that would excite me would be an application where someone had really gone and become an expert on something, had devoted themselves to something no matter how strange that is. If I had to guess, what kind of kids grow up to be really special adults? It’s the kids who go off on their own, because they’re passionate and because they care about something and they just attack it. Okay. Here’s the second thing: I see a lot of college essays. And many of them have the basic structure: “I am really amazing. I have done incredible things. You should let me into college because I am so amazing.” And I think that’s the worst kind of essay to write. To me, the most interesting essays are about what’s wrong with you. About what you’ve struggled with and how you’re not perfect and how you understand that and how you deal with your imperfections. Again, I don’t know if it will get you into college, but as I imagined myself, as one of the folks who has to read hundreds of these applications every day, I would think that the student who actually writes in a thoughtful way about weakness and about failure, I would elevate that person to the top of the list.
LEVEY: Steve, do you remember what your college essay was about?
LEVITT: I have no recollection whatsoever and probably it took the form: “I am amazing. And I’ve done so many great things and I will continue to be amazing for the rest of my life.” But I will tell you, I learned a lot about writing from Stephen Dubner and it was only after I met him that I really began to understand how to tell a story. And interesting stories are never about greatness. Interesting stories are always about overcoming or failing to overcome. That’s what engages people. And that’s why, again, with nothing to back up these opinions, an essay that’s about failure or hardship is more likely to be a winner.
LEVEY: Well, thanks for your question. Alejandro and good luck applying to school. If you have a question for us, you can reach us at email@example.com. That’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. It’s an acronym for our show. Steve and I do read every email that’s sent, and we look forward to reading yours. Thanks.
If you asked me to put together a list of hopelessly impossible tasks that are doomed to failure, starting a third political party in the U.S. would definitely be near the top of my list, which makes it a perfect fit for Andrew Yang.
LEVITT: Your latest undertaking is starting a third political party called the Forward Party. What’s that all about?
YANG: Well first, let me say the Forward Party is inclusive. You can be a registered Democrat, or registered Republican, or certainly an Independent and join the Forward Party and not change your registration. But what the Forward Party is about was my reckoning, Steve, with the fact that our system right now is set up to fail us, and it will fail us because of incentives. And what I try and draw out for people is that right now the U.S. Congress has an approval rating of 28 percent, which is probably not shocking to listeners. You’re like, “Yeah, that’s about right.” The reelection rate for individual members is around 94 percent. In 83 percent of the congressional districts, it’s very safely blue or very safely red. So, if you get through your primary, you win and that’s how you get reelected. So, the incentives for the vast majority of our legislators are to placate and please the most extreme 10 to 20 percent of partisan and hyper-partisan voters and then you keep your job. You layer on top of that media organizations that separate us into ideological camps, which we know is happening, and then you have social media pouring gasoline on the whole thing, where the more sensationalist and inflammatory you are, the more energy you get. And that is why we are being set up for strife, dysfunction, political violence, and potentially, a new version of a civil war. And I wish that was hyperbolic, but I don’t believe it is. A lot of people know this. It’s just for whatever reason in American life, we don’t think we can change it. And what I am contesting is that we not only can change it, but we must change it, if we’re going to have any kind of future that we’re excited about.
LEVITT: So, at least at first, you’re not planning on running candidates to compete with the Democrats and Republicans. You’re more like a certifying body. You’re going to find candidates that fit with the platform that you’ve envisioned and maybe give them money. What makes this a party as opposed to something else? Or why’d you choose the word party?
YANG: So, one of my discoveries that I try and detail in the book is that all politics is tribal. And that the way I communicate and think in terms of facts, and solutions, and technology, and reason — I ended up discovering a new political language that spoke to you and your son, and a body of other Americans, many of whom were not traditionally political, many of whom were not terribly partisan. And that group of people, I believe, can be the solution to the dysfunction and the problems that we see. So, if you look at those structures that we’re laboring under, our founding fathers were anti-partisan. John Adams said that two parties would be an evil upon the Republic. The Democrat and Republican parties were virtually ideologically indistinguishable until the 1960s. This polarization that we’re experiencing now is unusual, shall we say, where now 42 percent of both Democrats and Republicans viewed the other side as mortal enemies or evil. And so, I called this the Forward Party, one, because you have to activate a new tribe around this movement. And number two, because ideally, you activate some of the 62 percent of Americans who say they want an alternative to the duopoly. So, this could be Libertarians, it could be Green Party, anyone who’s fed up. In a way, the Forward Party is the party to enable multiple parties to compete on a national stage or a local stage.
LEVITT: You’re trying to attract people from both parties. Did you leave the Democratic Party or are you still affiliated with the Democratic Party?
YANG: I changed my voter registration to Independent. I’ve been an Independent for about a month. I have to say, it’s been an exciting month. People don’t necessarily need to follow my lead because sometimes changing your voter registration makes you less able to influence what’s going on locally. Independents right now outnumber either Republicans or Democrats by self-identification significantly.
LEVITT: So, history definitely has not been kind to third parties in the U.S.A. Is there a reason that you think Forward will be different?
YANG: The appetite for an alternative to the duopoly is at the highest level that’s ever been recorded. Sixty-two percent or more of Americans want an alternative. The dysfunction of the duopoly is clearer than it’s ever been. We’re either going to ride this duopoly to ruin and political violence and strife at a scale that most of us would find unimaginable, or we’re going to change it. I’m going to say it’s un-American to think that we cannot actually evolve and reform and advance. Are we not the home of entrepreneurship and the pioneering spirit? If our system is broken down to this level, can we not change it?
LEVITT: Okay. So, the Forward Party has six basic principles. Can you just run me through those one by one?
YANG: Of course. So, the first one is the enabler of all of it. It’s open primaries and ranked choice voting. So, if you were for any new party emerging, you should be for this process change. If you are a typical congressional district, right now, there’s going to be a party primary that determines the eventual winner because your district is either very blue or very red. That excludes anyone who’s not registered to that particular party. So, we need to make a change and say, “Look, anyone should be able to vote to nominate their eventual representative.” I think that’s pretty reasonable.
LEVITT: So the open primary means that someone of any affiliation is allowed to vote in the primary for, let’s say for the Democratic candidate.
YANG: Or under any other party, which is the problem. So again, let’s say that you have a district — I’ll use New York City because I’m here. Or Chicago, I think it’s the same. It’s a Democratic area and so all of the uncertainty is within the Democratic primary, but after you get past the Democratic primary, the Democrat’s going to win. So that excludes Independents and Republicans in that area. And so, what you’d want to do is say, “Look, anyone can vote for the candidate and anyone can run under any banner.” So, it’s not necessarily the fact that you only have Democrats competing with each other.
LEVITT: So open primaries are one thing, but they really come to life when you put it together with ranked-choice voting. Tell us what ranked-choice voting is and why the combination of those two is where the magic is.
YANG: Yes. It’s like peanut butter and jelly together. So, ranked choice voting is a system where you can rank up to five candidates in order of your preference or you can just vote for one candidate and walk out. And the winner is the candidate who is the top choice of 50.1 percent of voters, which by the way, would win in any system. So, if you get a majority of first place votes, then you win. But the magic is that if no one starts out with a majority, then the candidate with the lowest number of votes gets knocked out. And then that person’s supporters flow to their second choice. So, you continue that process until someone gets a majority. And the benefits to this process are manifold. You can vote for anyone of any party, minor party first and not worry about messing it up for, let’s say, the Democrat. It discourages negative campaigning because if I trash you, we both look bad, and then the third candidate benefits. It rewards coalition builders and people who are more reasonable because everyone’s like, “Eh, I kind of like that person. They’re not a jerk.” If you’d had ranked choice voting during the Republican primary of 2016, Trump probably does not win because he’s getting 30, 35, 40 percent of the vote, but he’s not getting 50.1 percent of the vote. And then the other candidates were splitting up the remainder. So, it tends to reward candidates that have broad appeal and be less positive towards candidates who can really excite some people and then really turn off an equivalent number or even a greater number. You can change the primary process to open primaries and ranked choice voting in 24 states with a ballot initiative. So, if enough of us get together, we can do it. This has already happened in one state, Alaska, last year. We have to just get enough people together and then we can make these changes
LEVITT: Here’s where I wonder whether it will get traction because you’re saying, “Well, this actually gets us to elect the candidate that truly represents the preferences of the people. But I wonder to what extent anybody really cares about the truth? My impression in politics and many other things is what people want is to win. They want their candidate to win. And if you have to rig the system a little bit in your favor, that’s okay. Is it hard to motivate people if it’s not about their candidate winning, but about institutional reform?
YANG: All politics is tribal and there are a significant number of tribalists who will be like, “How does this help my team?” But the reason why so many of us need to be up in arms about making this change is incentives. If you had to go through this process, and let’s say you’re a sitting member of Congress, all of a sudden, your mission is to deliver for 50.1 percent of the people in your district of every political alignment. That’s a very, very different set of incentives than having to navigate the 10 to 20 percent most extreme partisans in your district. And the real-life example of this is that Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was the only Republican Senator to vote to impeach Donald Trump who was also up for reelection in 2022. It was politically suicidal for her to vote to impeach Donald Trump. But last year, Alaska shifted from the closed party primary to open primaries and ranked choice voting. So now Senator Murkowski can take her case to the entire Alaskan public and say, “Look, you might not agree with me on this one thing, but I’ve been an independent voice and represented you for the last number of years and I deserve another shot.” And so, she has different incentives. And so, if you shift that dial to the point where now legislators answer to the general public, as opposed just to the most partisan folks in their district, that’s the game changer that so many of us have been waiting for.
LEVITT: So, if the current representatives don’t like catering to the extremists, why don’t they just go ahead and pass this themselves? Why do we have to go to ballot initiatives, as opposed to have the existing political machine say, “Great, let’s do it?”
YANG: Well, if you think about who’s going to be for this, Steve, it’s fascinating. It’s going to be the minority party in most of these places because the majority party’s like, “Let’s see, we’ve got this place under lock and key. We know who’s going to win. Every once in a while, there’s a flare up, but no big deal.” And so, it requires a critical mass of Americans saying like, “Hey, nothing against you guys, but the system’s not great and let’s make it so that you have to be genuinely competitive. Like, you have to actually answer to more people and not just the insiders that you’ve been cozying up to for the last number of years to get your spot.” By the way, 95 percent of New Yorkers found ranked choice voting easy to use, and, almost 80 percent want to do it again, which in New York, I’m going to say, is essentially unanimity. This is a process change that people love as soon as it gets in front of them. It’s just, I think, a lot of existing officials will try and scare people about it.
LEVITT: I also will announce myself as an advocate for open primaries and ranked choice voting.
LEVITT: What’s the second position you have as part of the Forward Party?
YANG: The second is fact-based governance, which is just we need to agree on a baseline and say, “Look, if you’re going to advocate for policies and it drives a particular measurement, that’s fine, but we just have to agree on the fact that there is an objective reality and measurements that we should be trying to improve.” If we did this, we would notice that our country is 28th in the world on things like clean air and drinking water, infant mortality, quality public education, life expectancy — the basics.
LEVITT: But we know — I mean, you have those statistics. It’s not like they’re being kept hidden by the government. So, you want them on billboards?
YANG: I want them on a giant electronic dashboard in Congress. I want them broadcast the same way stock market prices are right now. So, if you had the news programs say like, “Hey, still 29th and declining,” it’s harder to get away from that. Whereas right now, we argue over stats that don’t actually speak to how people and families are doing around the country.
LEVITT: So, the model you have in mind is some idea where, as a voter, if the economy is doing great, and I’m doing terrible, I think, “Oh, well, that’s okay. I’m doing terrible, but as long as the economy is doing great, I’ll keep on voting for the incumbent,” which doesn’t seem to me to be the right model at all. It seems to me, people are very much centered on their own experiences, right? So, who cares what the G.D.P. numbers are? People vote their own pocketbook. So, I’m kind of skeptical that just putting these numbers up will have any impact on either what politicians do or how people perceive things.
YANG: I think your story earlier just sums it up, Steve, which is if you’re in Washington, perception becomes reality. And it’s one of the things that’s fueled polarization, and now people can’t even agree on various facts. I thought it was important for the Forward Party to say, “Look, we should settle on a set of facts and then, take them as your starting point.”
LEVITT: So, point three, what would point three in the platform be?
YANG: Human-centered capitalism, which is, essentially, what you just said, which is that our economy should be measured based upon our wellbeing, how our families are doing, our health and mental health, and not G.D.P., which is going to go to the moon with A.I. and some other technologies, but it’s going to end up pushing a lot of people behind. We want to try and center our sense of economic progress around people.
LEVITT: So, I struggle with this a little bit because I think a lot about economics and this is a bit of a foreign concept. So, this is about our judgment about whether we’re doing well or not. It must also be about changing policies. It feels to me like maybe what you mean is something more aligned to a European model. So, my wife is German. I’ve learned a fair amount about German politics. So, in Germany, when you have a baby, there’s 14 months of parental leave. Is the sense that human-centered economy has to do with putting forth policies that help people live better lives? And would you think that’s the kind of policy that fits in?
YANG: A hundred percent. If you look at that parental leave calculation, on one hand, you could be like, “Oh, this worker needs to get back to work or the economy won’t function as well,” which seems very shortsighted and somewhat inhuman. Then the other calculation would be like, okay, what’s going to be best for that parent, that family, that child, and use that as the point or the goal of a policy over time? And by the way, you could also, in that case, make a really good argument that extended parental leave is going to make that person more likely to stay employed at that company as opposed to leave, because in America a lot of folks just leave and don’t come back. So, the driver has to be that the markets are serving our own well being because if you let the markets be their own end, eventually we’re going to find that fewer and fewer people have a successful place in those markets where the advent, particularly of new technologies.
LEVITT: So that takes us to — what are we on, point four, point five? I’ve lost track now.
YANG: So, number four is universal basic income, which is a policy where everyone in a society gets a certain amount of money to meet their basic needs, no questions asked. I campaigned on a thousand bucks a month, which now seems little bit un-ambitious given all of the things that have happened around the country, but there are pilots being run in dozens of cities around the country for different groups. I think that it’s only a matter of time before we move in this direction.
LEVITT: So, the best story for U.B.I. are cases of acute disruptions in people’s life, where they lose a job, but will soon get another job, or there’s some kind of acute healthcare crisis that absent this, say, thousand dollars a month, plunges them into some kind of a spiral of dislocation and loss. That case is totally clear. You’ve written a book about job loss due to automation and the difficulties that middle America are going to suffer in the future because their skills will not be highly valued by the market. I don’t really see U.B.I. being such a great long-term solution. So, you had a job at a steel mill. You were making good money. It’s gone forever, and I don’t really see how a thousand dollars a month is the answer to the problem of a 38-year-old person thinking they’ll be working their entire life in a steel mill. How is that actually the long-term solution?
YANG: Well, if you look at the talking points around that individual, Steve, a lot of people will say, “Oh, we need to retrain that worker,” which I’m for. It’s just that our government-funded retraining programs have been very unsuccessful, by the numbers.
LEVITT: So, all of the evidence we have from a wealth of economic studies is that once people are in adulthood, it’s extremely difficult to get them on a good path when whatever they’ve trained for disappears.
YANG: It’s not like the money is a panacea and solves all the problems. But the money enables that person to more meaningfully transition. The money goes into local businesses and organizations that may end up reconstituting the fabric of a community that has lost its primary source of jobs. It does enable people in some cases to relocate to places that have maybe more ample opportunities. Americans are moving less often than they had in years. They’re not starting businesses in 75 percent of the country. A lot of the numbers that you would hope would be there in order to provide an alternative for this hypothetical 38-year-old aren’t there. And so, the basic income ends up flowing into those organizations and opportunities, ideally on a local level.
LEVITT: Let me give you another reason why I worry about U.B.I. In the short run, I think it’s great. But I worry about when it becomes permanent, that people will just treat it like other sources of income, and it will be built into the budget. So instead of renting an apartment that costs $600 a month, people will say, “Look, I got U.B.I. Why don’t we rent an apartment that’s $1,300 a month?” And then consequently, when the acute shock hits, the dislocation will be just as bad as it was before U.B.I., because people have built U.B.I. into their budget. What do you think about that?
YANG: I think it’s going to require us discovering what the new equilibria look like. But I like what you were saying in terms of trying to still make it a shock absorber and something extra, and not completely built in. I would love to figure out ways to make that happen.
LEVITT: Okay, and the last piece is that it’s expensive. So, just doing a little bit of math, we’re talking about $2.5 trillion and the federal government revenues were only $4 trillion in 2021. And I think one of the reasons people feel that cash transfers that we’ve done during Covid have been so successful is because we haven’t paid for them. We just borrowed the money. Someone’s going to have to pay for it. And I think there might be a lot more complaints when that comes to pass.
YANG: Well, to your point, the Cares Act was $2.2 trillion dollars, which by the numbers was enough to give every American a thousand bucks a month for six months or longer. And a very small fraction of that actually went to people and families. So, we’re putting the money into the system. We’re just not actually giving it to people. We’re plunging it into pipes and institutions.
LEVITT: So, I know you have ideas about how to pay for it. How would you pay for U.B.I?
YANG: The single biggest thing we have to do is harness the gains for the technology firms of the future that right now are not paying meaningful taxes. And I proposed a value added tax that you could scale up on things like A.I. Because let’s say Google invents A.I. that can do the work of the two-million plus calls center workers in the United States, which is very realistic. Right now, those two-million plus call center workers are paying taxes, mostly. And what is Google going to pay in taxes on its A.I.? Next to nothing. So, I would want to have a mechanism that harnesses that value gain. And if you do that effectively, that could generate hundreds of billions of dollars given the scale of some of these changes.
LEVITT: So, you and I both agree that retraining is hard, but one thing you don’t talk about as much as I would expect you to is that there’s future generations, the economy will be different. It will be an economy that is dictated by data, A.I., robotics, programming. And yet we are doing nothing in our basic education of what we’re doing in grade schools and high schools to train those future generations to be prepared for a new economy. So, if I could add one thing to your list, which doesn’t get as much prominence as I think it deserves, it would be a complete overhaul of the educational system to actually be giving kids tools that are useful in the economy they’re going to experience.
YANG: I am a hundred-percent aligned. I’m a parent. I’ve got a nine and a six-year-old, both boys. And it pains me how our school system still prepares kids for an economy that has stopped existing. It also pretends that everyone’s going to go to college, which is not the case, by the numbers. I’d say that the fact that a lot of parents can sense that our schools are not performing what we hope they would in terms of preparing our kids for the next generation of opportunities is something I would love to be a part of changing.
LEVITT: Okay. Point five.
YANG: Modern and effective government.
LEVITT: Amen. I don’t know if we need to talk about that. It’s crazy how hard and bureaucratic and difficult so many things are with government. One last point we haven’t hit. What’s that?
YANG: Grace and tolerance, which is just that other Americans are not our enemies. The enemy, the true enemy, is a system that is tribalizing us, and turning us towards the next civil war, really. And so, the Forward Party is about the opposite of that. It’s like, “Look, you can agree with me, disagree with me. You’re worth just as much as I am. And with that spirit, then we’d have a chance at a different approach to politics that, by the way, doesn’t profit from making you angry or depressed.
LEVITT: So, the idea in the beginning is that the Forward Party will be overlaid on top of these existing Republican, Democratic parties, and that you’ll be seeking out and endorsing and funding candidates whose views are in line with this platform. Do you have a sense of how many candidates in the 2020 election cycle you would have deemed worthy of endorsement?
YANG: It’s a significant number and growing, because there are a lot of folks who are outsiders, really, to the party establishment on both sides, that are looking up saying, “This isn’t working so well.” And I’m in active talks with half a dozen candidates who are running in 2022 for local races up to the U.S. Senate. It’s going to be exciting. We can help elevate the leaders that truly are trying to do the right thing for our country, even if that might mean that their party has less top-down control, which by the way, really has to be the project. Let’s say you were an avid Democrat listening to this — defeat Republicans forever is not a viable strategy. That strategy will probably fail in frankly, 13 months. I’m going to suggest an alternative strategy that you can adopt simultaneously, which is to try and make the system more rational, resilient, sustainable. And so, there are a growing number of public officials who recognize this need on both sides, happily.
LEVITT: So, you say on both sides. This feels Democratic to me. If you had to give me the ratio of public officials who you think, say, in 2022, you’ll be endorsing, you think it’s going to be 50-50 Republican-Democrat or more like 75-25 Democrat?
YANG: For the good of the country, I’m going to suggest that at least half of our activities ought to be in red states or purple states because we need these changes everywhere. But I’m thrilled that the appeal is actually, in some ways, more natural among Republicans because right now, if you were to be very simplistic about this, though this is pretty accurate, is that the Democratic Party is the party of the establishment, increasingly. And the Republican Party has been taken over by this anti-institutionalist zeal. And so, if you go to a group of people in the state and say, “Hey, power to the people, these parties don’t know what’s best for you.” That message actually hits home among Republicans, as much as it does Democrats, maybe even more so.
LEVITT: Are you the leader of Forward or do you have a Republican counterpart, who’s as prominent as you are?
YANG: Wow, you make me sound so Demi. I’m the founder of the Forward party, but I met with a fairly prominent Republican-turned-Independent just today, and hopefully we’ll have some exciting recruits over the coming days.
LEVITT: How many people have you signed up so far? And what’s your target?
YANG: I’m happy to say thousands of Americans, in the five figures, have signed up for the Forward Party to say, “Yes, let’s make a change.” I’m not unrealistic, like, I don’t think half of Americans are going to sign up. But one of the things I say to people is like, “Look, if we get 10 percent of Americans, it’s a game changer, like, we will succeed.” So, if you look at 10 percent of our electorate, that would be something in the millions. And certainly that should be our goal.
LEVITT: So you double majored in economics and political science, is that right?
YANG: Yes, at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
LEVITT: If you were young again in college today, what would you study?
YANG: I know there’s a lot of pressure on young people to be very employable, you know, you going to study computer science or engineering or economics or one of those things. I’m not sure I’d agree with that. I would try and study something that you’re genuinely excited about because being excited about something now may be the most important distinguisher in terms of your future, in my opinion.
LEVITT: I agree with you a hundred percent. I used to always push people towards practical majors and just in the last five years, I’ve come to really be surprised at the value of passion. The real truth is there’s not very much you learn in university that you’re actually going to use on the job. I think people should find something they love and it’s better, of course, if they find something they love that also maybe involves computer programming or data science, I think that’s better. But look, pretending that you love data science because you know that’s where the jobs are, that’s definitely not a very good strategy.
YANG: Steve sees a lot of the young people, so listen to the man.
LEVITT: So, a reader wrote in recently — and I always ask advice from my guests and it’s always about young people. And he said, “Well, I’m an old guy and I need some advice, too.” And I think you’d be a good person here. So, you’ve been on the road talking to communities that that have been devastated by whole sectors shutting down. What advice do you have for say, a 45-year-old whose factory shut down and who’s just been laid off from a firm? What would you suggest they do?
YANG: Well, one of the data points that struck me was that if you are unemployed, you volunteer at lower levels, and you attend religious services at lower levels. So, what that means is that people tend to withdraw. And I’m going to suggest that’s really the opposite of what that person should be doing. The reality is, it’s hard to look for a job for eight hours a day. There’s diminishing returns after the first several hours. So just continuing to volunteer or attend religious services or go to your friends’ things is so vital to your wellbeing, and it will end up leading to another opportunity more so than if you just dwell on the search itself and withdraw.
LEVITT: One really big generational difference in this country is that people who are my age — you’re younger than me, but still old enough — that I think we feel a lot of shame around failure. And one thing that impresses me and surprises me is that young people are very open about their failures, and they don’t seem to view it really in the same stigmatizing way. There’s a resiliency built into this next generation because they’re open about mental health, because they’re open about failure. Just an observation.
YANG: Take a page from the next generation. No shame. Look at Andrew, I’m 0 for two, and yet — people still happy to have me on the podcast.
What do you think? Is the Forward party the future? Or will Andrew soon be 0 for three? I hope it succeeds. But I’ll tell you what: Even if the Forward party flops, I’ll be eager to hear Andrew’s next idea and the one after that and the next one, too, because he thinks big, he puts everything he has into it, and he knows when to quit.
To hear more from Andrew Yang, check out the Freakonomics Radio episode number 362 — “Why Is This Man Running for President,” or for more about the U.S. political machine, check out the Freakonomics Radio episode called “America’s Hidden Duopoly,” it’s number 356. And as always, thanks for listening.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. This show is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Morgan Levey is our producer and Jasmin Klinger is our engineer. We had help on this episode from Alina Kulman. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Stephen Dubner. Theme music composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, that’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
LEVITT: I was literally in the airport in San Diego saying, “Well, it’s 11 o’clock at night. And I have literally no idea where I’m supposed to be.”
YANG: You’re like a six-year-old.
- Andrew Yang, founder of the Forward Party, 2021 New York City Democratic mayoral candidate, and 2020 Democratic Party presidential candidate.
- Forward, Andrew Yang (2021).
- “The Future of New York City Is in Question. Could Andrew Yang Be the Answer? (Ep. 462),” by Freakonomics Radio (2021).
- “Why Is This Man Running for President? (Ep. 362),” by Freakonomics Radio (2019).