The Future of New York City Is in Question. Could Andrew Yang Be the Answer? (Ep. 462)
The man who wants America to “think harder” has parlayed his quixotic presidential campaign into front-runner status in New York’s mayoral election. And he has some big plans.
Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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Stephen DUBNER: New York City’s economy is so big that if New York were a country, it would be, I believe, the 11th biggest G.D.P. in the world, between Canada and Russia. So as mayor of New York City, that would make you a perfect combination of Justin Trudeau and Vladimir Putin. Would you say that sums up Andrew Yang pretty well?
Andrew YANG: Hopefully a lot more Trudeau.
You may have noticed that we don’t interview too many politicians on Freakonomics Radio. Why not? To be honest, they don’t really say that much. At least not much of the stuff we’re interested in. This show tries to use data and research and logic to explore how the world works, maybe how to maybe improve the world. Many politicians use emotion and bluster to bend things toward their worldview, and they tend to be more ideological than logical. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that — well, I guess I am. In any case, that’s just not what we do. But occasionally you do encounter someone in the political arena who’s a little bit different; even a lot different. That would describe today’s guest.
YANG: I am Andrew Yang and I am running to be mayor of New York City.
We’ve actually had Yang on the show before, two years ago, when he was just starting out on an even more unlikely campaign. That episode was called “Why Is This Man Running for President?” Here’s how it began:
DUBNER: Andrew Yang is not famous. Not yet at least — maybe he will be someday. But let me tell you his story. He’s 44 years old; he was born in Schenectady, N.Y., a city long dominated by General Electric, the sort of company that had long dominated the American economy. But which, as you likely know, doesn’t anymore. Yang’s parents had both immigrated from Taiwan, and met in grad school. His mother became a systems administrator and his father did research at I.B.M.; he got his name on 69 patents. Their son Andrew studied economics and political science at Brown, got a law degree at Columbia, and ultimately became a successful entrepreneur, with a focus on widespread job creation. In the American Dream sweepstakes, Andrew Yang was a pretty big winner. But along the way, he came to see that for every winner, there were thousands upon thousands of losers.
As we discussed in that earlier episode, Yang had started a non-profit called Venture for America. Its goal was to generate job growth in some of the places left behind by modern capitalism. This project wasn’t wildly successful. But it did expose Yang to a view of the American economy that you don’t get from the corridors of power and wealth.
YANG: We are blasting communities to dust and then pretending like we’re not and pretending like it’s their fault, and pretending that somehow it’s unreasonable to be upset about your way of life getting destroyed.
Yang believed that Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 because Trump rightly understood the nature of this frustration. When Yang decided to run in 2020 — spoiler alert: he didn’t win — he took Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan and Yangified it: “Make America Think Harder” — which happens to shorten up to “MATH,” a convenient acronym for a man who loves data. Yang embraced an approach he would come to call “human-centered capitalism.” It’s one of those phrases that would seem to be obvious, maybe even redundant — like “evidence-based policy” — but the deeper you dig, you see it’s not. Yang had a lot of interesting ideas, and I was taken with how he diagnosed and proposed to treat some of the key problems in the U.S. economy and society.
So when it turned out he was running for mayor of New York City — well, Freakonomics Radio lives here, and we care about New York, and we also know the city has a deep pandemic ditch to dig itself out of. So that’s one reason I wanted to speak with Yang again. But also, New York is a big-enough economic engine — and a big-enough stage — that if someone as unorthodox as Andrew Yang were to somehow win this election, it might shake things up all the way to the national level of politics. Yang is a devoted Democrat; once his own presidential bid ended, he campaigned hard for Joe Biden, and then he went to Georgia to campaign for Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in their runoff elections for the U.S. Senate. But Yang also thinks the Democratic Party needs to spend less effort simply trying to elect more Democrats and more developing policies that make their candidates worth electing.
YANG: I would love for the Democratic Party to embrace human-centered capitalism and have a set of measurements where it says, “Look, we’re going to be the party that improves our health, our children’s health, our educational outcomes, our environmental sustainability.” The United States is something like 28th in the world around basic measurements like public education and clean water. And that should be unacceptable to everyone. The hope is you can even draw the Republicans in and the Republicans up and say, “Well, the outcomes we care about are, you know, it could be small-business formation, it could be volunteerism, it could be things around the family.” And some of those, frankly, are priorities that I think a lot of Americans would be happy about from either party. I would love for us to have a sense of, “Look, we’re 28th now, that’s unacceptable, let’s climb the charts.”
So today on Freakonomics Radio: how do you climb those charts, whether you’re talking the U.S. as a whole or just New York City?
YANG: I think that being a human being and likable is a positive. And I think trying to be helpful is positive.
But remember, Andrew Yang is still a political outsider who’s never held office. Doesn’t America’s biggest city deserve a mayor with some experience?
YANG: Do we think that what’s been happening has been working? If you think it’s been working great, I might not be the candidate you want.
And what would a Yang mayoralty sound like?
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The current mayor of New York City, Bill De Blasio, is term-limited, so he must leave office at the end of this year. This comes as a welcome development for many New Yorkers, as De Blasio is one of the least popular mayors in modern history. Between eight years of De Blasio and New York having been the American epicenter of COVID-19, the city is ready for change. New Yorkers also understand the COVID rebound may take a while. This means the election of a new mayor has particular gravity this time around — especially because the majority of the City Council will also be replaced this year, thanks to term limits. New York City, as you may have heard, has a lot of Democrats in it, which means that the Democratic primary for mayor is historically the de facto mayoral election. This year, the Democratic primary falls on June 22nd.
There are more than a dozen candidates still in the race — many of whom have deep experience in New York politics — but Andrew Yang, thanks to his presidential run, has from the start been at the top of the polls. Lately, his lead has slipped; his most serious competitor at the moment is Eric Adams, currently the borough president of Brooklyn, a former police captain who in 1995 co-founded an advocacy group called 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. It’s an interesting time for a candidate to have both racial-justice credibility and police credibility, and Adams has so far made his case well. The former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia just won the New York Times’s endorsement. But Andrew Yang remains the candidate who has captured the most public attention, some of it more flattering than the rest.
DUBNER: So let me ask you this, Andrew. As a presidential candidate, you were everybody’s favorite underdog. And it was cheap to like you because you had no real chance. Let’s be honest. No offense, as president—.
YANG: None taken Stephen, none taken.
DUBNER: You could be everybody’s favorite second or third candidate. But now that you are the front-runner for New York City mayor, you’re getting attacked from all sides for all reasons — for having no experience in government, for having some policies that sound liberal and some that sound libertarian. You’re being attacked for never having voted for New York City mayor, even though you’ve lived there a long time. You’re attacked for taking your family out of New York City during the pandemic. Just recently, you’ve managed to upset the teachers’ union, which is a big deal in New York City, and the political arm of the L.G.B.T. community. For someone who wasn’t getting those attacks and now is, how do you interpret them and what are you doing about them?
YANG: Well, Stephen, being a front-runner is a different experience, in a number of ways, from being like the likable, scrappy underdog. But I prefer being the front-runner because it means we have a better chance to win and a better chance of having a positive impact. I think folks are savvy enough to understand political attacks when they see them.
DUBNER: And how do you see ranked-choice voting? This is the first time New York City has had a major election with ranked-choice voting. How do you think it’s going to affect your chances, positive or negative?
YANG: Well, first, let me say that I love ranked-choice voting. I think it’s the future of democracy. I think we should be using it in many, many precincts. It can diminish the incentives to campaign negatively. It can diminish polarization. It should reward people that have broad appeal and a positive message. If you look at Congressional races, 80 percent of them are decided in the primary — like this mayoral race, frankly. And so a lot of voters, they don’t feel they have a meaningful choice. If you look at the folks who participate in party primaries, it tends to be 20 percent of the population that are the most ideological on either side. This is as true in Mississippi as Massachusetts. And so you wind up with a real lack of lower-case-D democracy.
And so I think that this process change of rank-choice voting accompanied by open primaries would be a real step forward. And that’s something I’d love to see happen around the country. So I’d love rank-choice voting even if I wasn’t in a race, frankly. But I think rank-choice voting generally will help me because a lot of people have heard of me, and I’m happy to say about two-thirds of people have a positive opinion of me.
DUBNER: What do you see as the best and worst features of, let’s say, modern American capitalism?
YANG: Well, I’ll start with the worst. At this point, we have a system that is prioritizing the growth of massive, massive enterprises, with Amazon I think being the most conspicuous example. And the repercussions of this hyper-corporatized, winner-take-all economy really have not been truly understood or reflected on. You’re seeing it in media, you’re seeing it in retail, you’re seeing it in financial services, you’re seeing a lot of these industries where the traditional competitive dynamics have stopped applying and it’s leaving many, many more Americans behind. A lot of people aren’t really being included in whatever the gains are. Those are some of the worst things about our current version of capitalism. In theory, the best things are that it’s supposed to allocate capital more efficiently — which, you could argue, towards what end?
But the other thing is that it’s fueling certain types of innovation. It’s fueling innovation in markets that frankly, there’s money to be made in. So, things that serve high-end consumers, things where there’s a really strong financial incentive. Unfortunately, there’s other areas where there isn’t a strong financial incentive, where we haven’t been innovating as quickly as we’d like.
DUBNER: There is a common complaint that it’s pretty easy these days as a big firm to do a lot of things that are illegal or unethical. And even if you’re caught, all you do is pay a fine. And even if the fine is a few billion dollars, it’s really just a rounding error for these firms. I know that in your book The War on Normal People, you proposed that for every $100 million that a company is fined by the Department of Justice or that they’re bailed out by the federal government, that both its C.E.O. and its largest individual shareholder should spend one month in jail.
YANG: I did write that.
DUBNER: You did write that. You still like that proposal and would you invoke it in New York City if you were mayor?
YANG: I don’t think that’s something that I have discretion over in New York City. But there are firms that can just do a very simple cost-benefit analysis and say, “Okay, if we market opioids as an addiction-free wonder drug, we’re going to make $15 billion and then we’re going to end up spending $680 million in fines. And guess what? We’ll still be among the richest companies and individuals in the world. So it seems like it makes sense.” And that’s obviously, unfortunately, a real-life example that has cost us tens of thousands of lives.
DUBNER: You’re saying you wouldn’t have the latitude to actually carry out your plan as New York City mayor, but you are the equivalent of half-Justin Trudeau and half-Vladimir Putin. You could do something. And New York City is the home of a lot of corporate headquarters. And this is where markets figure out how to be markets. So what would you do if not as punitive as that, to try to put your thumb on the scale in the right direction a little bit, to try to make even the largest and most cutthroat forms of capitalism a little bit more human-centered?
YANG: So I think the biggest flaw with capitalism right now is that it’s optimizing for capital returns, even if those capital returns don’t help improve our quality of life more broadly. And so my goal would be to orient our incentives around how healthy we are, how mentally healthy we are, how clean our water and air are, how our kids are doing, whether our life expectancy is getting longer or shorter. And New York City, I’m happy to say, has really copious levels of data. And some of the data is unfortunately horrifying, where a black expectant mother is eight times more likely to die during childbirth than a white expectant mother. The life expectancy, if you’re born in Brownsville, is 10 years shorter than if you’re born in the West Village. And so if you have these measurements, then you can see more clearly how you’re doing or not doing.
If you know anything at all about Andrew Yang’s 2020 presidential campaign, you probably know about his signature proposal to give a bit of money to everyone. Here he is talking about it in our earlier episode with him, from January of 2019.
YANG: My first big policy is the freedom dividend, a policy where every American adult between the ages of 18 and 64 gets $1,000 a month, free and clear, no questions asked.
DUBNER: So the freedom dividend is your phrase for what most of us know as a universal basic income, yes?
YANG: It’s a rebrand of “universal basic income” because it tests much better with Americans with the word “freedom” in it.
DUBNER: You mean the actual — right, as nomenclature. The idea is the same.
YANG: So “universal basic income” tests great with about half the country. And then the other half of the country do not like it.
YANG: Because there’s—
DUBNER: It’s got welfare connotations?
YANG: Something along those lines. We tested a bunch of names and then when you had the word “freedom” in it, then all of a sudden testing shot up among self-identified conservatives. They hated “universal basic income,” hated “prosperity dividend,” all of a sudden “freedom dividend” is like “ding ding ding!”
DUBNER: What about progressives, liberals, Democrats?
YANG: Progressives, liberals, Democrats liked it no matter what the name was.
DUBNER: What were some of the other names that didn’t work?
YANG: “Citizens’ dividend,” “future dividend,” “prosperity dividend.” We had a lot of dividends.
DUBNER: I think of a dividend as a payout on an investment. What does it mean in this case?
YANG: Well, it’s a payout to ownership. And we are the owners and shareholders of this, the most wealthy and advanced society in the history of the world. So this is a dividend for us. And there’s nothing stopping a majority of shareholders, a majority of citizens, from voting themselves a dividend.
So that was then, when Yang was running for president. And now, running for mayor of New York City.
YANG: I’ve proposed a billion-dollar cash-relief plan to try and lift about a half million New Yorkers out of extreme poverty and keep them in more stable situations and frankly, off of our streets.
DUBNER: It’s a New York City version, essentially, of your freedom dividend, but a pared-down version.
YANG: Yes. I think most New Yorkers know if I had my way, we’d all be getting $1,000 a month or more at this point. But we don’t have that capacity in this environment. And so we’re focusing instead on trying to lift people who are in extreme poverty out. It’s harder than most people think to give people money. We had a direct experience with this last March when my organization, Humanity Forward, decided to give $1 million to 1,000 families in the Bronx as quickly as possible, because I wanted to say, “Look, this is what we should be doing during the pandemic to help stabilize people’s situations.” And I called Citibank and JPMorgan Chase and I said, “Hey, can you help us identify 1,000 of your account holders who are financially precarious?” And they said no.
DUBNER: Is this because of banking regs because of terrorism, because of privacy concerns, or just inability to do it?
YANG: I think it was a combination of some privacy concerns and inability to do it, frankly.
DUBNER: And maybe lack of will? I mean, what’s in it for them?
YANG: Yeah, there’s a bit of that, too. I actually asked them, “Okay, if you can’t identify 1,000 account holders, can you just give us 1,000 debit cards and we can figure out a way to physically get these cards into people’s hands. They said no to that too, which made me think that there was either a lack of will or capacity. But one other thing I wanted to lay out there is an anti-poverty move that I think everyone will appreciate. Eleven percent of New Yorkers don’t have a bank account. And if you don’t have a bank account, then you’re spending $600 or more a year on check-cashing fees, money-wiring fees and even pawnshop lenders. It’s more expensive to be poor, essentially because you’re actually getting whittled away.
DUBNER: So you’ve proposed something called the People’s Bank of New York. Is that meant to address this problem then, yeah?
YANG: Yeah, that’s exactly right. The goal is to make basic financial services available to all New Yorkers, regardless of their documentation or immigration status.
DUBNER: So the city runs a free bank essentially, for anyone who’s unbanked?
YANG: So we explored whether the city could charter its own bank and found that it’s actually more direct for us to have a nonprofit that we then put some money into. I am for chartering a public bank, by the way, but that would require Albany and we wanted to start with something that we knew we could execute on.
DUBNER: So let’s talk about Albany for a minute. New York City mayors have had a famously interesting time, usually difficult time, with New York state governors who even though they’re up there in Albany and are usually much lower-profile, they actually have the upper hand in a lot of tactical matters. So our current governor, Andrew Cuomo, like several of his predecessors, has found himself in a lot of trouble and may even be on the way out. That said, what would be your plan as a mayor of New York City to develop a relationship with the New York state governor, whoever it is, considering the historic tension there’s been between those two?
YANG: I’m very optimistic, Stephen, that the mayor and the governor really should be able to work together because our interests are so aligned in this moment, where New York City is clearly the economic engine of the state. And I think one of my special abilities is going to be that I can ignore conventional political incentives. I think a lot of folks in politics really want credit or attention, and I don’t care about any of those things. So if there’s a governor or a state legislator that wants to propose something and get all the credit, I will be like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” You know, if they want me at the press conference, smiling and clapping behind them, I’ll be there. If they want me nowhere near the press conference, I will not be there. So with that as the backdrop, I don’t see how you cannot have a productive relationship.
DUBNER: You’re also just kind of likable, let’s be honest.
YANG: Oh, well, thank you. Yeah, I’m going to do my best to be well-liked by the folks in Albany, too. And I think I can help them. I think that being a human being and likable is a positive. And I think trying to be helpful is positive.
Okay, that’s all well and good: Andrew Yang is likeable, he’s clever, he’s got some good ideas, he wants to be helpful. He’s even planning to throw the biggest post-COVID reopening ceremony in the country:
YANG: It would be a five-borough celebration that would take place in parks. It would have artists, musicians, speakers, and be this massive festival of, “We’ve gotten through COVID and now we are back. We’re ready to live our lives, celebrate, and welcome back the rest of the world.” And it would be glorious.
But even a glorious party won’t be able to jump-start an economy that’s taken such a beating.
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Andrew Yang has parlayed his quixotic presidential campaign into front-runner status in the race to become the next mayor of New York City. As such, he’s being attacked from a variety of angles. A group called Asians Against Yang, for instance, opposes him in part because he has taken some pro-police stances, and he has also come out against raising taxes on rich New Yorkers. New York City voters, especially primary voters, tend to carry a long list of grievances, and they are not shy about airing them. But the one problem that just about everyone agrees is the most important problem for the next mayor is the economy: how to lift New York out of the financial crater it fell into because of the pandemic.
YANG: We’re down 600,000 jobs, 88 percent of commuters, probably 90 percent of tourists — though I will say tourists are trickling back now — 70 percent of subway ridership. And so we have to get ourselves back on our feet as quickly as possible. The municipal budget of $90 billion sounds like a lot until you realize that it’s only 9 percent or so, a bit less, actually, of the city’s economy as a whole. So the exercise is to use 9 percent of the economy to activate the other 91 percent in two years. And I say two years because our federal aid will make the city’s budget whole for the next two years. But it’s completely uncertain whether we’re going to get more aid after that. So we have no time to waste and we have two years to get this done.
DUBNER: I guess really the question is, how do you avoid a 1970s-style meltdown/backslide and all the things that came along with that?
YANG: This to me really is the challenge. I think you can’t cut your way to success and you have to try and avoid this downward spiral where people leave, things get dicier. You cut services, people feel more insecure, so more people leave. And in this case, about 300,000 families have left the city. And a number of those individuals were, frankly, business owners and high earners and taxpayers who’ve gone to lower-tax jurisdictions. So we have to be very serious about trying to reconstitute the value proposition and competitiveness of New York City as quickly as possible and not get ourselves into a cut-shrink, cut-shrink, cut-shrink cycle. That’s one reason, again, why I’m so focused on these first two years, because we have to try to rebound as quickly as possible. In 2019, New York City got 66 million tourists who spent about $46 billion and supported over 300,000 jobs, which is about half the number of jobs we’re missing.
And a lot of those jobs were in restaurants and bars and tour-bus companies and places that, frankly, employed folks who maybe didn’t have very high levels of education and savings. And so if you’re trying to get our city’s economy functioning again, you want to try to bring tourists back as quickly as possible. So the most basic thing you would do is literally to spend money on digital advertisements that pop up on people’s phones saying, “Hey, visited New York City?” And the smartest investment is when you’re starting from zero. There’s always a point at which you spend more and it’s not as effective. But when you’re starting at zero, like the first $100 million you spend ought to be very effective because you could target people that have already been to New York City, that have already demonstrated a propensity to travel and spend.
DUBNER: Would you be willing to, let’s say, stand, yourself, in Times Square for 24 hours straight and take a selfie with anyone who came to New York on one of these targeted campaigns?
YANG: Yes, for sure. I mean, if it would be helpful, I’ll do anything that I personally can.
DUBNER: So one source that I spoke with who’s a former senior city official and also had a long career in the private sector, he said the biggest problem facing the next mayor would be finding a way around this paradox between the need to grow and the political and social pressure against growth that’s coming especially from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Some of your positions are popular with progressives. Some of your positions are anathema to progressives. How do you think about threading that needle, maybe from a psychic perspective as much as anything?
YANG: When I talk to New Yorkers around the city, everyone wants to try and get our small businesses back up on their feet. Everyone wants to feel like their community is vibrant again and I think that folks who have had particular points of view when it seemed like there were folks thriving in a time when communities are being left behind. It’s a little bit different when we’re all looking up saying, “Okay, we’re down over half a million jobs, the city still feels wounded.” Like, job No. 1 is to get our city going again. And then we can have very intelligent conversations about how to solve for poverty and address how certain communities have genuinely not been included in any of the economic growth. So I just don’t think these things are mutually exclusive. I genuinely don’t.
DUBNER: What about the business element? Let’s start with big business. So can you talk for a little bit about rich people or wealth in New York City? As you noted, some people have left for lower-tax jurisdictions. Some may come back, some may not. So there’s losing some tax base there, but it’s complicated by the fact that big firms are discovering that business can be done without necessarily having multibillion-dollar leases in midtown skyscrapers. That seems like it could be a fundamental adjustment of how commerce happens in any city, but especially New York City. How are you thinking about that?
YANG: So a lot of folks have been working remotely and the case that New York City has to make is that people are more collaborative, creative, innovative, productive, and even happier if they’re working together in a physical environment versus remotely. It’s hard to build a culture over Zoom. It’s hard to get promoted over Zoom. And by the way, it’s easier to automate away your job if you’re over Zoom, because at this point, you’re halfway removed. So we have to make a case very clearly that New York City is the place for a place-based economy. Physical proximity is actually a competitive advantage for firms in highly competitive, sometimes even winner-take-all industries like let’s call it finance, media, technology, arts, and culture. And that if you’re playing to win in these fields, it behooves you to be in a physical environment. And we’re going to do everything in our power to help leaders of firms get people back in the office in a way that makes people safe.
DUBNER: Name some things that you would do. Are there financial incentives, are there tax incentives, are there public-relations campaigns to persuade people that working in person is more necessary than, frankly, a lot of people have come to think it is?
YANG: Well, one thing you can do is provide an example. So I’m happy to say that as we’re having this conversation, city employees are coming back to the office, I believe, five days a week. We have to get our schools open. And in my view, schools should be in person five days a week. And then we can provide political cover for firms that are trying to bring people back and say, “Look, getting people back in the office five days a week is a huge plus for the city and your firm. And we should be championing this at every turn.” And I would not be above having a campaign that rewards people when they come back to the office in the form of maybe a gift certificate to local bars and restaurants because part of the recovery has to be trying to get the restaurants and bars back on their feet as well.
DUBNER: But wouldn’t you agree that there is a non-trivial chance that a big chunk of commercial real estate will essentially lie unused or semi-fallow over the next five or 10 years? That’s massive revenue, a lot more than a few planeloads of tourists could ever provide. That’s a macro trend that you can’t do that much about as mayor. So do you have any ideas for adjusting to what might be that new reality?
YANG: I think there are two things that can be true at once, and one is that we should be fighting like mad to get people back to the office and make this case that this is core not just for New York but for firms and employees. But two, I happen to agree with you that there’s going to need to be an adjustment on a certain proportion of commercial real estate. And that right now, commercial landlords are very reluctant to mark down their properties. I think that there are going to be some downward price adjustments. I think they’re going to be some downward valuation adjustments. And I think there needs to be a repurposing of a significant number of buildings toward something else. Now, there are certain things I think would be good for the city — startups and life-science-related lab space could be great. But there are also things that frankly, I think are going to need to be more imaginative that are just better than an empty building.
DUBNER: Give me your most imaginative ideas.
YANG: You have a lot of empty storefronts in New York City right now. And if you have a new retail establishment or restaurant, there’s going to be a very sharp reluctance to commit to a five-year commercial lease because you’re not sure what the climate holds. So if you can lower that barrier and have it be, let’s say, a pop-up restaurant or a pop-up retail space that has a six- or 12-month commitment, that’s something we should be trying to facilitate at the storefront level. And then even if you look at these commercial buildings, I think that having similar lower-commitment leases for artists, for example, you could convert an office building into a public art space where artists can occupy it. And frankly, the economic value derived for the landlord is going to be not anywhere near what they were hoping for if it was filled with commercial tenants. But it’s still going to be vastly superior to having an empty and darkened building.
DUBNER: What about converting commercial buildings to residential, whether it’s fair-market, subsidized, for the homeless, etc.
YANG: We should be trying to convert any office building that is convertible into housing, in my opinion. One of the reasons I didn’t lead with this is that it’s a relatively low proportion of commercial office buildings that make sense as housing conversions.
DUBNER: Why is that?
YANG: A lot of it is that they’re laid out in a way that makes it difficult. There’s not much plumbing on each floor. Sometimes the footprint makes it so that you’re going to wind up with apartments with no windows. So there are some commercial buildings that make sense as a conversion. The buildings that make the most sense as housing conversions are hotels. If you have a hotel conversion, it can cost you half as much and take half the time as ground-up construction.
DUBNER: How do you like vertical farming?
YANG: I do like vertical farming. I have a plan for stimulating urban agriculture and vertical farms are tremendous. I don’t think we could do it for a majority of these buildings, but for a handful for sure.
DUBNER: New York City is famously very, very, very hard to do business in, especially for small businesses. And every politician likes to say that small business is the lifeblood of New York City, but it’s hard. Small business revenue nationwide is down a little bit more than 30 percent because of the pandemic. But in New York City, it’s down more than 50 percent. So considering especially how many empty storefronts there are right now — and in fact there were before the pandemic in some neighborhoods — can you tell me a few concrete things you’d like to do as mayor that would make it more viable to actually run a profitable small business in New York?
YANG: Well, the first big thing we can do is to be a more genuine partner for small businesses and in some cases, get out of the way. I can’t tell you how many small-business owners have said to me that they only hear from the city when they’re getting checked up on for various requirements, that they got a fine of $1,000 and they didn’t show up for the hearing, and then it got doubled and they said, “I’m not paying, because I don’t have the money to pay it.” And it’s a heartbreaking message because here are some business owners that frankly are just trying to reopen and make it and the city instead of trying to help is there being like, did you do this? Did you do that? So the first thing we’re going to do is declare a moratorium on small business fines, saying very clearly to small business owners, “Look, you are not a revenue source for the city, you’re actually the lifeblood,” as you’re saying.
And if you do have a lapse of some kind, you have a cure period. You can just fix it. Like, I’m not going to ding you and try and try and make your life more difficult. The single biggest thing we can do is be a better partner and not get overly bureaucratic with mom-and-pop businesses that are just trying to open their doors and make it. Related to this is that we’re going to make outdoor dining permanent in part because it is shown to drive small-business revenue up for adjacent businesses by something like 45 or 50 percent.
DUBNER: I read you’re in support of some sort of vacancy tax. Can you tell me about that?
YANG: Well, this is oriented towards the vacant storefronts we’re talking about. The goal is to say, “Look, if you’ve got a vacant storefront, that’s actually negative value.” And so we want to prompt you to get someone in there. A lot of these commercial landowners have very large investment portfolios. And so we want to give people a kick in the pants to get someone in there.
DUBNER: New York City public schools used to be considered literally among the best in the world. And now they are, well, certainly not the worst, but they’re not considered anywhere near as good. There are a lot of macro trends to intersect with this. What do you think happened and what would you do to make New York City public schools better?
YANG: I think there are still many excellent public schools in New York City. We need to try and build on the successes that we do have. We’re spending a lot of money on our schools. And my goal would be to get more of that money flowing towards areas where it’s really going to help our kids learn. What I mean by that is in the classroom, I think teachers in many cases should be getting paid more, that we can get more teachers per number of students or teachers’ aides in some cases. I’d like to empower principals and administrators to be able to address students’ needs more authoritatively and not feel like they have to have the kid test to get into another school to have an enrichment program.
DUBNER: You also want to increase the number of charter schools, yes?
YANG: My position is that we should be utilizing the already authorized charters at the state level, that have already been authorized that aren’t in use.
DUBNER: And what about teacher tenure?
YANG: Well, this is a negotiation with the union. I earlier made a statement about teacher tenure being granted a bit too early in their time teaching.
DUBNER: They didn’t like that so much when you said that.
YANG: No, I don’t think they did. But one thing I think most of us can agree on is that it’s not a good thing if you have 50 percent of teachers leaving the field within the first three or four years. And so we have to do more to try and support and retain teachers that are starting out because that’s way too high a rate. And I think everyone would agree that having more experienced teachers is a win for us all.
DUBNER: Are both your kids in public schools, Andrew?
YANG: Oh, my younger is in public school, my older is autistic and in a special-needs school.
DUBNER: So let’s say I’m your median New York City voter. And I hear this fellow Andrew Yang and I say, “Wow, he sounds really bright and really compassionate and human, down-to-earth, with good new ideas, too. But the last time we took a chance for a high office on someone who’d never served in government at all was Donald Trump. And I don’t think he was a very good president. So even though Andrew Yang is plainly not the same person as Donald Trump, too risky. I’m going to go with — you know, there are 18 million other people running for mayor, many of them do have a lot of experience in city government. I think that’s — especially coming out of a pandemic — that’s the wise choice. I don’t want the wild card this time.” So you, Andrew Yang to them, say what?
YANG: Well, first of all, I hope I don’t seem like that much of a wild card. But I’ve had experiences I think a lot of New Yorkers can relate to as someone who’s owned and operated a small business, as someone who founded and ran a nonprofit. The part about running for president most people can’t relate to, so I’ll put that aside. I don’t think government is the source of all energy or ingenuity in our city, you’re going to need to activate the private sector, the philanthropic sector, the tech sector, the artists and cultural community, that there is so much vitality in our city that lies outside of city agencies. And there’s an administrative element to this job that I will embrace. There is a cheerleading aspect of this job that I will embrace. And you have to look at the opposite side of this equation, which is do people feel like our government agencies and bureaucracies have really been serving us at an optimal level over the last number of years?
Like, do we think that what’s been happening has been working? And if you think it’s been working great, I might not be the candidate that you want. But if you think that we could genuinely use a change, that we need people in government that are practical, not particularly ideological, just want to improve our way of life, not beholden to some of the special interests that, frankly, have run our town for a long time, I think I’m a great bet.
Is Andrew Yang a great bet? We’ll find out soon enough whether New York City voters think so. In the meantime, if you want to hear more from Yang, check out Episode 362, “Why Is This Man Running for President?” Also, on related topics: Episode 434, from several months ago, called “Is New York City Over?” And from way back in 2016, Episode 242, “Is the World Ready for a Guaranteed Basic Income?”
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Matthew Schwartz. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mark McClusky, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Zack Lapinski, Mary Diduch, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Jacob Clemente. We had help this week from Jasmin Klinger. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Andrew Yang, frontrunner candidate for N.Y.C. mayoral race.
- “What to Know About the 2021 New York City Council Races,” by Rachel Holliday Smith (The City, 2021).
- “Andrew Yang Promised to Create 100,000 Jobs. He Ended Up With 150.” by Brian M. Rosenthal and Katie Glueck (The New York Times, 2021).
- “Who Wants to Be Mayor of New York City?” by Emma G. Fitzsimmons, Katie Glueck, Jeffery C. Mays, Dana Rubinstein, Umi Syam and Eden Weingart (The New York Times, 2021).
- “Yang Cautions Against Taxing the Rich in Front of Pro-Business Group,” by Sally Goldenberg (Politico, 2021).
- “As Presidential Dust Settles, New York City Turns its Eyes to Historic Mayoral Race,” by Sally Goldenberg (Politico, 2020).
- “Former Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang Campaigns in Columbus for Ossoff, Warnock,” by Alex Jones (WTMV, 2020).
- “Andrew Yang Becomes Eighth Former Democratic Presidential Candidate to Join Joe Biden’s Team,” by Jocelyn Grzeszczak (Newsweek, 2020).
- “Report: American Quality of Life Declines Over Past Decade,” by Devon Haynie (U.S. News, 2020).
- The War on Normal People, by Andrew Yang.
- “Is New York City Over? (Ep. 434),” by Freakonomics Radio (2020).
- “Why Is This Man Running for President? (Ep. 362),” by Freakonomics Radio (2019).
- “Is the World Ready for a Guaranteed Basic Income? (Ep. 242),” by Freakonomics Radio (2016).