By Ryan Pelosky ’21 and Lily Wolfson ’21
On June 30, 2020, The Iris Editors-in-Chief and co-founders, Lily Wolfson ’21 and Ryan Pelosky ’21, sat down for a phone call interview with entrepreneur and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang.
Yang, the child of Taiwanese immigrants, grew up in Schenectady, NY. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, earned a bachelor’s degree in economics at Brown University and graduated with a Juris Doctorate Degree from Columbia Law School. After working for five months at Davis Polk & Wardwell, a prestigious law firm in New York City, Yang quit and launched his entrepreneurial career.
Yang worked at a number of startups and, in 2005, became the CEO of Manhattan Prep, a test-prep company based in New York. In 2011, he founded Venture for America with an aim to provide recent college graduates with entrepreneurial guidance. He created thousands of jobs in American cities hit hardest by the Great Recession. In 2012, President Barack Obama honored Yang as a “Champion of Change.” Three years later, Obama named him a “Presidential Ambassador for Entrepreneurial Leadership.”
In mid-2017, Yang stepped down from Venture for America to commence his campaign for the 2020 presidential election. Less than a year later, he published his book, The War on Normal People, which discusses the detrimental effects of automation on rural America, particularly in the Midwestern swing states that President Donald Trump won in 2016. One of Yang’s most well-known platform highlights, Universal Basic Income or the Freedom Dividend, appeared in The War on Normal People. In his words, the Freedom Dividend would grant $1,000 per month to each American adult.
The Freedom Dividend was only a small part of Yang’s broader vision for America: Human Capitalism. Yang explained that the system would measure America’s success with metrics such as Median Income, Standard of Living, Mental Health, and Absence of Substance Abuse, rather than the Gross Domestic Product or stock market performance.
With Human Capitalism, Yang complexes economic success with social failure. In Yang’s eyes, Human Capitalism is the solution to the United States’ faltering standard of living. “Capitalism,” he proclaims, “has to be made to serve human ends and goals, rather than have our humanity subverted to serve the marketplace.”
During his presidential campaign, Yang supported lowering the voting age to sixteen, decriminalizing opioids, legalizing marijuana, eliminating the penny, imposing an eighteen-year term limit for Supreme Court Justices and a twelve-year term limit for Senators and Representatives, and declaring data a property right for all citizens.
Yang had no previous experience in politics; as a result, he struggled to gain traction in the media. Early on, media coverage was neither complimentary nor promising: The New York Times called Yang a “longer-than-long-shot for President,” while a Washington Post headline read “Random Man Runs for President.”
After months of aggressive campaigning in small bars and college cafeterias, Yang climbed into and up polls, eventually reaching seven of the first eight Democratic debates. Even during the debates, however, he was shunned by moderators and struggled to speak as often as his counterparts; Business Insider produced a metric that claimed that Yang received the least speaking time—in proportion to polling numbers—of all Democratic candidates. When Yang ranked sixth in polls and fourth in Twitter searches, he ranked thirteenth in cable news mentions, according to the New York Magazine. After the New Hampshire Democratic Primary in February 2020, Yang suspended his campaign and endorsed Former Vice President Joe Biden for president.
Yang’s devotion to the United States has not waned since his withdrawal; he immediately started the non-profit Humanity Forward, which plans to draw attention to and further goals of his campaign. He also founded the Data Dividend Project in a strive to raise awareness among Americans about their data rights. The project proposes that all Americans should receive a “data dividend”—in other words, a payment for each time their data is traded—for their personal information when it is used by large technology companies. On his podcast, Yang Speaks, he hosts guests such as Jack Dorsey, Mark Cuban, and Ken Jeong. He has been speaking on the other side of the interview, too, with publications like Time Magazine and, thankfully, The Iris. With that, here is our conversation with Andrew Yang.
The Iris: How did being at such a prestigious school (Phillips Exeter Academy) shape your vision of your own future? Did you think you’d become a politician at some point? Was a presidential run ever a part of that vision?
Andrew Yang: It really wasn’t. I didn’t grow up in a family where we talked about politics a whole lot. I had pretty limited visions of my own future. I, like most kids of that age, was just trying to get into a good school and take the next step; I definitely wasn’t thinking 20 steps ahead.
TI: What was your goal for Manhattan Prep? What about Venture for America? Do you think these experiences established a sort of connection with the United States’ young population?
AY: That’s a great question. At Manhattan Prep I spent a lot of time teaching young people—Venture for America as well. Recent college graduates were the core of Venture for America, so those experiences did make me more focused on young people throughout my career. I genuinely love young people, and I think that young people right now have this instinct that we have left you a god-awful mess, which we have, and I’ve always thought that was deeply wrong of us, particularly when a lot of the time young people get blamed for it.
Did a young person who’s just coming of age have anything to do with our ruining the planet or mismanaging the government or having an economy that doesn’t work for them? No, young people are just like ‘What, I just got here,’ so I had this instinct throughout my life that we should be channeling the energy and idealism of young people to better purposes.
One of my frustrations was that if you’re a young person who goes to a really good school (which I’m sure many of your readers and staff members do), then, in theory, you have a lot of choices. But, a lot of the time, you feel like you have very few choices because you feel like you’re competing for another top school. Then, the reality is, after you get into that top school, there’ll always be another level. So, for me, it was high school to college then college to law school then law school to a law firm that I found out I hated. At some point, you have to say to yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I feel like if I could get more young people grappling with what they think is important to them, that would be incredibly powerful.
One of the reasons why I wanted to do this interview is because the choices you all make will be incredibly important to our entire country in the coming days and months and years. We have to try to create a path for you to make choices that you’re actually excited about and proud of, as opposed to feeling ‘Oh I have to do one of these few things because that’s what success looks like.’
In a way, and this is kind of funny, we have to make it okay for people to be unsuccessful, in a way—because for me, when I left my law firm job and started a company, it was probably a very rash decision. My parents were very concerned, and I took a massive pay cut. Then, my company failed, and people were looking at me like, ‘he’s made some poor decisions,’ but I ended up getting shaped by that time and able to do things that I was both excited about and proud of down the road, and I’ve never forgotten that. We need more people to feel like they have the ability to take a real risk and become shaped differently as a result.
TI: How would you explain the Freedom Dividend to someone who isn’t familiar, and why do you believe the United States can (and should) be the first to implement it?
AY: Universal Basic Income is a policy where everyone in a society gets a certain amount of money to meet their basic needs, no questions asked. This has been championed by everyone from Martin Luther King to Elon Musk. I think that the United States should be the first to adopt it because we have the richest, most advanced economy, where, at $20 trillion dollars plus at this point, we could easily afford a Universal Basic Income for all of our citizens. You can see that very clearly by the stimulus packages that we just passed; we were spending trillions of dollars on bailouts for big companies when we could easily be giving that money directly to people and letting them feel secure in their futures through this pandemic.
TI: In a few sentences, describe your experience running for president. What was the most inspiring moment? The best experience?
AY: One of the best experiences, really, was just meeting people on the trail and seeing the excitement that began to follow my campaign. When you show up, and dozens or hundreds or even thousands of people are excited to see you, that’s an incredible boost of energy. It made me want to do more to improve people’s lives. That’s something that I couldn’t have anticipated, and frankly, it was a bit of a surprise the first time that it happened. That was the most inspiring thing—that there are so many people in this country that believe that we can do better for ourselves and our families, and they were eager for a different kind of campaign or approach.
TI: You often say that Donald Trump is a symptom, not the problem. Can you elaborate on that sentiment?
AY: Well, our economy has become increasingly punishing and dehumanizing for decades, and Donald Trump was elected largely because we’d automated away four million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin—all of the swing states that he needed to win. If you’re of a high-functioning economy, government, and society, someone like Donald Trump doesn’t come near the White House, but he is our president in part because so many Americans feel like they have been abandoned by our political class. They’ve seen their way of life disintegrate beneath their feet and then are told that everything is okay or that it’s someone else’s fault—a lot of Americans are tired of it.
So, to me, trying to blame everything on Donald Trump is missing all of the underlying causes as to why he’s our president. We have to get to doing the hard work of actually improving people’s lives in communities across the country.
I’ve traveled the country now, and I’ve seen, firsthand, just how many Americans are struggling.
TI: How do you feel now that your ideas are receiving so much more praise now than they were while you were still campaigning? How have you been working with the Trump administration on allocating federal funds to American families?
AY: We had some early communication with their teams around direct cash relief. Right now, if I’m focused on something legislatively, it’s this Emergency Cash for the People Act that’s in the House and has 40 co-sponsors. 74% of Americans agree that we should be putting cash into people’s hands right now, and I’m trying to get that passed into law before too many people run out of money to buy groceries and keep a roof over their heads.
TI: Just after you suspended your campaign, you started Humanity Forward. What is its goal? Where do you see it going in the next few years?
AY: Humanity Forward is dedicated to furthering the goals of my campaign—Universal Basic Income (UBI), reigning in Big Tech, mental health initiatives, and other policies that are long overdue. We’ve already given $6 million away in direct economic relief to struggling Americans, and the goal is to help make UBI the law of the land, and that includes helping local candidates who are running on UBI and other related ideas.
TI: How do you feel about Generation Z’s response to the murder of George Floyd and the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement?
AY: It’s invigorating to see so much energy around reforming our institutions that are brutalizing black people and people of color. Police brutality is a massive issue and has been with us for decades, and I’m thrilled that so many young people, in particular, want to change things for the better in a real way. It’s been awesome to see.
TI: How do you think high schoolers across the country should be approaching the issue of racism in America? Our generation is next up; how do we implement concrete change? Do you trust Generation Z to do so?
AY: Again, I love young people. You know, I genuinely think if we took a whole group of young people and replaced our leaders with them, we’d see real improvements. I advocated for lowering the voting age to sixteen, in part because I thought that young people needed more of a voice. I’m optimistic about the future because I think many of these institutions will change for the better as young people end up in charge. The goal is, by the time you get to my age, hopefully, you’re still as fired up and idealistic to do good things. Some people, as they grow older, get a bit more jaded and cynical.
TI: What are the three most pressing issues that face our country today, and what do you foresee as the three most pressing issues in fifteen years?
AY: Well I hope we can resolve them in the next fifteen years, but number one is climate change, number two is poverty and economic inequality—including the legacy of slavery and racism in this country—and then, number three is the fact that our government has become completely dysfunctional and we’re not able to respond to the real challenges of our time. I put gun safety legislation somewhere on the list of things we should be addressing but are not. It’s immoral that young people are going to school worried for their lives—it shouldn’t be that way.
TI: I remember your unique and unorthodox response in the debates to a question about climate change, for which you received significant criticism on social media, so why does climate change top that list?
AY: I would put poverty ahead of climate change insofar as I believe we can address poverty very, very quickly if we all just come together and get rid of it. I just listed climate change number one because it’s a planet-wide, irreversible, and potentially species-threatening issue. But I do agree with you that we can address poverty much, much faster.
TI: You’ve been talking a lot about the importance of data. What do you see as data’s future in America and our world, and how do we make sure that privacy is ensured and power isn’t abused?
AY: Oh yeah, your data is being bought and sold and resold over and over again! Facebook and Google and big tech companies are making tens of billions of dollars per year off of it.
Not only are you not seeing any of that money, but it’s also bad for your mental health. It’s bad for our ability to come together as a community. It’s bad for your autonomy because you might think you’re making a decision one way, but it could be that tech companies that know you better than your family members know you.
So, I’ve started a project to try and help give people control of their data, it’s called the Data Dividend Project, and our goal is to fight for your data rights. The first step is getting paid for your data; there are now laws in some states that obligate tech companies to give you back your data and report what they’re doing. New York is considering such a law right now, and so the goal is to activate people around our data rights and see to it that we’re actually sharing some of the value, so I’m very excited about this. For anyone who wants to sign up—it’s completely free, but you’re essentially just saying to the tech companies that our data should be ours, and if anyone is in control of it, it should be us.
TI: Many have called upon you to run for mayor in New York. Any thoughts?
AY: Right now, I’m focused on the national election, helping Joe win, and helping solve these problems on a national scale. We are facing a new Great Depression unless our policymakers get their act together. I love New York City a lot, and it’s incredibly gratifying that people are excited about my potentially running. I’m going to try and help Joe win in the fall and then see where we are.
TI: Will you run for president again in 2024?
AY: If the problems are still there and I think I can do something about it, then nothing would’ve changed from my first decision to run.
I didn’t do this because I have some deep desire for political power—I really don’t care that much. My goal is to try to clean up the mess that we’ve left your generation—my two kids—so I would 100% run again if I thought I could make a difference.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and concision.