Coined as the contrary to Donald Trump and the “Asian guy who likes math,” entrepreneur and first-time presidential candidate Andrew Yang joined the growing list of Democratic hopefuls dropping by the University of New Hampshire (UNH) when he led an enthusiastic yet casual rally on Friday, Sept. 27 in the Huddleston Hall Ballroom to promote his platform and seek more student recruits to his so-called “Yang Gang.” Speaking with The New Hampshire following the rally, Yang also proposed his “10 by 10” plan that would allow participants to commit 10 percent of their income each year over 10 years to become student debt-free, adding that he is looking to “devise pathways so that people can get out from mountains of debt that they’ll never going to be able to pay back.”
The hour-long event, sponsored by the Carsey School of Public Policy and the Campus Living Association as part of the university’s 2020 Presidential Primary Series, saw Yang recollect his background and rise to the national stage and take questions from an audience seeking clarity on his positions on topics such as his Universal Basic Income plan – called the “Freedom Dividend” – as well as economic adaptability, student finance and other topics.
Despite his native ties to the Empire State, Yang’s backstory took him across the Northeastern U.S.: first to Phillips Exeter Academy until his high school graduation in 1992, then to Brown University in Providence and then to Columbia Law School back in New York City, where his 1999 Juris Doctor degree led him to a career in law that, in his words, lasted “five unhappy months.”
While his parents insisted he remain a lawyer, Yang instead pursued a more commercial route in the new millennium when he left his studies to start a business that ultimately failed. Diving into the business world headfirst made Yang realize that starting from scratch was easier said than done, not counting the constant advice he received which told him to keep up a positive image and say things are “great” even when under tremendous pressure.
Even when staring that pressure head-on, Yang found himself “bitten by the bug” and called the act of kickstarting a new venture “invigorating and genuine,” leading him to join several “growth companies” as an employee and learn from other veteran entrepreneurs until he himself became the president and co-founder of Manhattan Prep, a test preparation and education company that, according to Yang, grew to be number one in the country by the time it was bought out in 2009.
At the same time that he found success, Yang also witnessed the significant aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008; as he pondered how it could have happened, his business and education backgrounds merged to grant him a troubling hunch.
“It was rough in most of the country, and I thought I had some insight as to why that had happened…The wannabe wiz-kids from Exeter, Brown and Columbia had all gone to Wall Street and devised these financial instruments that had crashed the economy,” he told attendees. “And so, I thought, ‘that’s a train wreck, that’s a disaster. What can we do about that?’”
One of his first solutions came with the 2011 founding of Venture for America, a nonprofit organization designed by Yang to recruit and train younger entrepreneurs like him to create new businesses and jobs in cities hit hard by the recession such as Detroit, Cleveland and Birmingham. To recruit fresh funds to maintain the organization, Yang took an unorthodox approach when he not only donated some of his own money toward the venture, but also called richer acquaintances and luring them in with a simple question: “do you love America?”
“And the smart among them said, ‘what does it mean if I say yes,’ and then I said, ‘at least $10,000,’” Yang recalled. “And they [said], ‘I love America for $10,000,’ and I said, ‘I thought you did.’”
The tactic resulted in not only more press for Venture for America, but also several hundred thousand dollars in financial aid, all of which helped his new organization create thousands of new jobs nationwide over the next seven years.
Despite his newfound success and even recognition from the Obama Administration, however, Yang’s travels to the Midwest and Southern U.S. and the economic disparity he saw between different parts of the country left him with feelings of uneasiness during those seven years, telling the crowd that trips from Michigan to Manhattan, for instance, felt like he was “crossing through dimensions.”
“And I felt like I was pouring water into a bathtub that had a giant hole ripped in the bottom, where for every job an entrepreneur [or] organization was creating, we were losing tens or hundreds of jobs because of bigger changes in the economy,” he said.
His concerns came to a head in 2016, when businessman and reality T.V. star Donald Trump won the White House in a surprising political upset; in the aftermath of his triumph, Yang saw people around him both celebrating Trump’s “massive” win and feeling “heartbroken” over his ascension to the Executive Branch.
“To me, it was a giant red flag that tens of millions of our fellow Americans felt like it was the right thing to do to take a gamble on the narcissistic reality T.V. star as president, because I don’t think there were many illusions as to who Donald Trump was or is, but they felt like this was still a better path forward,” he said. “And so, for me, this was a giant stop sign where I said, ‘ok, I have to examine what the heck I’ve been doing and what the real problems are that got Donald Trump elected.’”
The reasons he ultimately came across had less to do with the popular talking points of the day – Russia, Facebook, Hillary Clinton, the FBI and the like – and more to do with an underlining trend few had addressed up to that point: an evolving American economy embracing greater advances in automation at the cost of human jobs.
“The Democrats are acting like Donald Trump is the cause of all of our problems; he is not. He is a symptom; he is a manifestation of the fact that our economy is evolving in fundamental ways, and more and more Americans are getting pushed aside. And those changes are only accelerating while he is in office,” he said.
Per Yang, automation resulted in the loss of nearly 4 million manufacturing jobs in states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Iowa, the same states Trump needed most to win and the same states many of his opponents bragged he would never win.
Yang also saw the impact of new technologies in the Granite State, telling the crowd that New Hampshire is currently in the process of displacing millions of jobs in fields such as retail, fast food, trucking and call centers. When he asked the crowd how this could happen, most called out the likes of Amazon, who Yang accused of taking in roughly $20 billion in business revenues and threatening the survival of nearly 30 percent of American malls while paying next to nothing in taxes last year.
“What is this going to mean for the two-and-a-half million Americans who answer a phone for a living right now that make 14 bucks an hour,” he said. “I just spoke to 70 CEOS in New York City and I asked them, ‘how many of you are looking at replacing back-office clerical workers with software and artificial intelligence?’ Guess how many hands out of 70 went up? All 70. And we knew all 70 hands were going to go up because you could actually fire those CEOs if they did not replace those workers without software, because they have to optimize for the bottom line, one variable; and if you say I can replace hundreds of your call-center workers with software and here’s a licensing fee and it’s a lot less than those salaries, then you have to do that deal.”
Encouraged to spread the word and slow the spread of automation – which he dubbed a “fourth Industrial Revolution” – his first move was not to run for office but approach leaders in Washington about his discoveries and their methods of allegedly scapegoating other unrelated issues and peoples to avoid talking about the economy or center the blame on Trump. When leaders in Washington declined to talk to him about his findings and pushed what he saw as inadequate federal training programs for educating workers on new technologies, a friend encouraged Yang to take a slightly more political route.
“He said, ‘Andrew, you’re in the wrong town. No one here in D.C. will do anything about these sets of problems because this is not a town of leaders; this is a town of followers. And the only way we will do something about it is if you create a wave in other parts of the country and bring that wave crashing down on our heads,’” he recalled. “And I said, ‘challenge accepted! I’ll be back in a little while;’ and that’s why I’m here running for president.”
In the following Q&A, when a 14-year-old asked about the specifics of his Universal Basic Income plan and how it might cause “rapid inflation,” lead to significantly higher prices for commonplace goods and services, and negatively affect standards of living, Yang explained that three major types of inflation – education, healthcare, and housing – exist in the U.S. economy, and how “none of them [are] being caused by the fact we have lots of money to spend.”
Per his campaign website, Yang’s “Freedom Dividend” would grant “$1,000/month, $12,000 a year, for every American adult over the age of 18…independent of one’s work status or any other factor,” theoretically granting recipients greater spending power for essentials like bills and education costs.
Yang stressed that, despite prices for the three major sources are rising, prices for common goods like clothing, food and media/entertainment are remaining “relatively constant,” adding that printing more money can be justified because the public did not vote on the bailout of Wall Street in the fallout of the Great Recession, which resulted in the print of $4 trillion dollars in the process.
On the subject of education, meanwhile, the candidate claimed that education costs are on the rise because universities raise prices for individual students, which forces those students to either pay more or take out federal loans to afford college now and pay back the loan over time, leading to his figure of $1.5 trillion in student debt.
“I would not forgive it all, 100 percent, because I think there needs to be at least some investment on the part of the individual, but I would forgive the vast majority of it,” he said of forgiving student debt after the rally.
Friday’s Yang rally marked the first one to be led by Michelle Holt-Shannon, director of New Hampshire Listens at the Carsey School, who gave the event positive marks as she referred to the long line of students waiting to meet and get a photo with the candidate afterward. One of those students, senior mechanical engineering major Austin Snell, a recent recruit to the so-called “Yang Gang,” which he described as a group of people who “genuinely care about the country enough to investigate the candidates that are running” and get as much involved in campaigns like Yang’s as possible.
Snell, who called himself a “traditionally conservative voter,” was first exposed to Yang through a friend. Despite initial skepticism over details like Yang’s “Freedom Dividend” proposal, he was eventually drawn to the candidate’s “correct” measurements for tracking the economy and the notion that Yang could both receive positive marks from more conservative voters and appear on channels like Fox News without a trail of negative comments compared to his rivals.
“He started as a nobody that no one had known of…know [he is] polling in some polls as a fourth-place candidate,” Snell said. “I mean, Elon Musk is one of his supporters…I think that his following is going to continue to grow and this momentum is going to eventually hit that tipping point where we see a lot more media coverage of him and a lot more people who just like him.”
“We live in New Hampshire, it’s just such an opportunity,” Holt-Shannon said of the importance of events like Friday’s rally. “So many candidates are coming through New Hampshire, and it’s nice to take advantage of that.”