(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE [MARCH AND TWO-STEP]")
TAMARA KEITH, HOST:
Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. All summer long, we are taking you on the road to meet the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. It's a partnership with Iowa Public Radio and New Hampshire Public Radio. And last Friday night, that meant NHPR political reporter Casey McDermott and I were hanging out in the stacks of a public library...
I find myself wanting to whisper.
CASEY MCDERMOTT, BYLINE: I know. I know.
KEITH: ...In Plaistow, N.H.
And we are in the biography section of the library.
MCDERMOTT: We have George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush; there's Jimmy Carter.
KEITH: Bill Clinton.
MCDERMOTT: Bill Clinton.
KEITH: A whole lot of presidents. And we were there to interview someone who would like to follow them to the White House - Andrew Yang.
MCDERMOTT: He has a little bit of an unconventional path to wanting to be president when you look at it compared to a lot of the other people that we just listed.
KEITH: Yang is a serial entrepreneur with some of the businesses more successful than others. He created a venture philanthropy nonprofit but became increasingly concerned about automation and the loss of American jobs. So he says he decided to run for president.
MCDERMOTT: His message seems to be that the economy is changing really rapidly, more rapidly, I think, than the government has really been keeping up with it. And so he's calling for actually some pretty significant changes to how a president would try to deal with that.
KEITH: He's essentially saying that the robot overlords are coming and that we have no chance.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Andrew, Andrew, Andrew, Andrew, Andrew.
KEITH: Yang arrived at the library after 7 p.m. on a Friday night to a packed room - so many people that they were probably violating the fire code.
ANDREW YANG: What is the actual legal capacity of this room?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: One hundred sixty-three.
YANG: OK. So there are exactly 163 people...
KEITH: There were way more than 163 people in that small room. The crowd was very diverse, in many ways - age, race and gender. Some were curious voters. Some were part of the Yang Gang, a shorthand for those all-in for Andrew Yang's candidacy. Yang's stump speech is full of doom-and-gloom descriptions of what automation has already done to the U.S. economy. He credits job losses in manufacturing for fueling President Trump's 2016 victory.
YANG: And now what we did to the manufacturing jobs, we're going to do to the retail jobs, the call center jobs, the fast-food jobs, the truck driving jobs and on and on through the economy.
KEITH: His pitch for how to fix it is a universal basic income proposal he calls the Freedom Dividend.
YANG: We have to accelerate our economy and society as fast as possible. We have to evolve in the way we see work and value. And I am the ideal candidate for that job because the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math.
KEITH: And that applause line is where Casey started our interview.
MCDERMOTT: So I want to start by asking you about a line that you've used in the debate that has come up on the campaign trail that got a lot of applause in the room tonight. And that's about how you're the opposite of Donald Trump because you're an Asian man who likes math. And I just wonder if you are, in some ways, reclaiming what some people have found to be kind of a harmful stereotype.
YANG: You know, it was something a supporter said to me initially. He said, you're the opposite of Donald Trump. You're an Asian man who likes math. And I thought, oh, that's actually pretty clever. And so then I used it at the next event, and then it got raucous applause and laughter and then said, OK, not being a total idiot (laughter) I should probably say that again. And in my case, I am an Asian man who likes math. I think most Americans are savvy enough to know that that's not true of every Asian person. But it does to me reclaim a stereotype that happens to be true in my case.
KEITH: So as you were greeting people, I was listening, and one - at least one person came up to you and said he was a Donald Trump supporter.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I voted for Trump, but I'm looking for something better (unintelligible) four years ago. I like that you weren't, like, hammering everybody.
KEITH: And I've spoken to Trump supporters at Trump rallies who say, well, the only other candidate I'm interested in is Andrew Yang. So what do you think it is?
YANG: I talk a lot about the problems in people's communities that they can recognize. And to me, it's a mystery why other Democrats aren't focused on the same problems. When I grew up, I thought of the Democrats as the party of the working class, the party of the little guy or gal. And to me, who are the little guys and gals in our economy today? It is the retail clerk, the fast-food worker, the truck driver, the call center worker, the people who feel like their futures are being pushed more and more to the side. And to me, it's very natural to talk about those things. I think that many people who voted for Donald Trump felt like the Democratic Party was not speaking to them and the problems they saw in their communities, and I am. And so that's winning me a critical mass of Donald Trump supporters, which is, to me, crucial for the Democratic nominee.
KEITH: So we can't talk about Andrew Yang's candidacy without talking about the Yang Gang. They are particularly strong on the Internet. You have this vast online following. But I'm wondering how you balance the - that sort of groundswell of enthusiasm among young supporters online and Reddit and even 4chan with some of the associations with some of those people associated with sort of misogynistic views or nationalist views.
YANG: The fun thing is when you go to a Yang Gang rally, it's incredibly wholesome. It's diverse. It's young people who are excited about a future that they can be proud of. And that to me is the essence of the Yang Gang. I'm not privy, frankly, to some of the stuff that's out there on 4chan. I've never (laughter) been. I have a feeling that's probably a good thing. And I believe that most Americans know the difference between, you know, some marginal figures on the Internet and the essence of a national campaign that right now has us poised to - right now, we're in fifth place, and we're rising very fast.
KEITH: Do you - I mean, you've had to sort of say thanks but no thanks to some of it, though, right?
YANG: Part of it, too, is that if you spent any time with me, you'd know that I have no alignment at all. I completely disavow anyone with any kind of misogynist or hateful agenda. Our tagline is humanity first, and that's really what we're all about.
MCDERMOTT: So I want to talk about what is basically the central policy proposal of your campaign, and that is universal basic income, UBI. You call yours the Freedom Dividend. And the idea that you're proposing specifically is to give everyone 18 years or older a thousand bucks a month, no strings attached.
KEITH: Which is - that is your proposal.
YANG: Yes, it is, Freedom Dividend.
KEITH: So we asked our podcast listeners what questions they wanted us to ask. We would be here all night just asking the questions they had about the Freedom Dividend. But some of them were a little skeptical, including Chris Anderson (ph). He asks, how does he plan to push universal basic income through Congress considering Congress' inaction on, well, everything? He goes on to say, I like the idea, but I believe the action is no more than a pipe dream, unfortunately.
YANG: If you project forward when I'm president in 2021, I will have gotten there because the Freedom Dividend will have taken the country by storm. People will realize that we can build a trickle-up economy from ourselves, our families and our communities up. And the Democratic Party will be so thrilled to have beaten Donald Trump, they'll be looking and saying we took a chance on Andrew Yang and it worked. We beat Donald Trump. And then when I say, let's pass the Freedom Dividend, all the Democrats will be onboard. But here's the kicker. When you go to the Republicans and conservatives and say it's Freedom Dividend time, they'll look at themselves and say, wait a minute, I don't dislike the dividend.
This is good for red states, rural areas in the interior, places that have gotten blasted away by automation and the loss of manufacturing jobs. And we don't need 80% of Congress. We just need 51% of Congress. It's the opposite of what Chris' concern is. This is one of the few things we can do because Alaska, the only state that's had a dividend, is a deep red conservative state and it was passed by a Republican governor. Conservatives detest bureaucracies making everyone's decisions for them. They do not mind economic freedom in the hands of individuals.
MCDERMOTT: So following up on the Alaska example, which you cite a lot, that state is actually going through a pretty serious budget crisis this summer where the - their Freedom Dividend equivalent is kind of a big, central component of why they're facing the possibility of tradeoffs to some services and some social services and things like that. And let's say you do implement the Freedom Dividend nationwide but maybe the country finds itself in a budget crisis, how would you navigate those tradeoffs?
YANG: The federal government is in a very different position than the state government in Alaska because right now, the petroleum dividend is logically tied to petroleum revenues, and they have to manage a balanced budget more or less year to year. In case you hadn't noticed, the federal government (laughter) sometimes does not have a balanced budget. We can easily afford this for our people in good times and bad particularly because it will help keep the bad times from being too punishing for Americans. Even in a bad time, the Freedom Dividend will help consumers participate in the economy and keep the floor from bottoming out.
MCDERMOTT: So just to clarify, you would be OK with maybe increasing the national debt in order to, like, keep the Freedom Dividend going if it were implemented.
YANG: Well, the big way we need to pay for the Freedom Dividend is by giving the American people a tiny slice of every Amazon sale, every Google search, every Facebook ad, every robot truck mile. The biggest myth in American life right now is that we don't have the money. We're the richest economy in the history of the world - $20 trillion-plus in GDP, up $5 trillion in the last 12 years. The problem is that the biggest winners in our economy are not paying anything meaningful into the public coffers. So when you look at the debt and the deficit, it's a revenue problem as well as an expense problem. And everyone just focuses on the expense problem, but the bigger issue is getting the American people a way to benefit from artificial intelligence and new technologies that we're devising in the 21st century.
KEITH: You have selected two families, one in Iowa, one in New Hampshire, to...
YANG: And another one in Florida.
YANG: Yeah. That was randomly chosen on the Internet. I would not have - you know, it was just a random American.
KEITH: So Casey checked in with the family here in New Hampshire.
MCDERMOTT: I did, and they said that it's made, you know, a pretty significant difference to them, not only in their ability to make tuition payments and medical payments and car payments but also just kind of the peace of mind that comes from having that extra thousand dollars a month. But that's going to stop at the end of this year, and I wonder if you've given any thought to kind of the ethics of using people, these real families, as kind of a policy experiment for your campaign.
YANG: I think most Americans would love to participate in an experiment where they got a thousand dollars a month for a year, and the only regret is that it stops after a year, which is something that we can change as a people if we all decide to do so together and pass the Freedom Dividend. It's certainly something I'm very proud of that Jodie and the Fassi family were able to address something like car repairs and it's an inconvenience instead of a crisis. I think that's positive for this year, and I agree with you that it should be happening every year for them and everyone else.
KEITH: Is it a bribe or, like, you know, a chicken in every pot kind of thing?
YANG: Well, there's no obligation for anyone who's receiving the money, and the person in Florida, there's a chance that she may never vote for me. So it's not a bribe in the - in any sense because it's a gift of a thousand dollars a month, and people can do whatever they want.
KEITH: We're coming off of these two very terrible mass shootings. And on top of that, there's the constant stream of suicides and other gun violence that really don't make national news. What would you do to reduce gun deaths? And do you think that guns are a major part of the problem?
YANG: One thing I said at the Everytown event is that if every human being in America had a self-destruct button on our legs, that if we press it at any moment in time we would disappear, there would be fewer of us around because all of us would've hit that button at one point. And then if you're a gun owner, you make a decision that sometimes is catastrophic and irreversible that you would regret a second or a minute later. So the guns are the crux of the problem because you can have dysfunction that does not become deadly in the absence of guns. And that's certainly a direction we should try and drive America as fast as possible. At the same time, to me, buying the gun and using the gun are the last two steps in a chain of events that, in many cases, is years in the making. So we have to pass common-sense gun safety legislation. We have to break the stranglehold of the NRA on our Congress.
But we also have to try and make families stronger, make schools more welcoming to different sorts of people, make it so that more young boys and men in particular feel like they have a path forward because we all know that over 96% of shooters are men. We have to put massive levels of mental health resources in place to try and help people who are troubled get well.
We have to try and reduce the supply of the 300 million-plus firearms in this country over time because even if we pass gun safety laws, it doesn't magically remove millions of guns from people's private homes. So I would have a perpetual gun buyback in effect where anyone can sell a gun at any time for market value. And some of the owners would just take their cruddy, broken gun and say - oh, I'm going to sell this one. I'll be like, fine; we'll at least get a gun out of there.
And we should invest in technology that will personalize handguns and other weapons so that only the owner can fire them so that if it gets into their child's hands or someone else's hands, it's useless. And many gun owners would happily upgrade their gun in this way because they're parents, too, and it would make us all safer. If we were to offer that personalization free of charge, you'd see many thousands of gun owners take it on.
And the technology is there. It doesn't recognize your fingerprints; it recognizes your grip based upon the dimensions of your hand, the fingers and the pressure from each point.
MCDERMOTT: So you have talked a lot about the freedom dividend on the campaign trail, but you have more than 160 policy proposals on your website. And those...
YANG: I'm glad you noticed. Thank you.
KEITH: Some of them are kind of random...
MCDERMOTT: We try to do our homework.
KEITH: ...For presidential candidates.
MCDERMOTT: Yeah, exactly. I mean, there's ones on there to get rid of the penny...
YANG: Yeah, the penny - it's terrible.
MCDERMOTT: ...To repurpose shopping malls.
YANG: We should do that, too.
MCDERMOTT: But there are also, you know, frankly, some more serious ones, as well, including one that affects - or could affect - a state like New Hampshire, where the opioid crisis has been particularly pervasive and devastating to a lot of people. And you've proposed, in some form, decriminalizing small amounts of opioids. And I wonder how you make that sell in a place like New Hampshire where, you know, even tonight in the audience, there were families that have been personally affected by fatal overdoses.
YANG: I think New Hampshire would be more likely to support decriminalization because they see that our current approach is not working. And when I looked at what happened in other countries, first, if you look at the origination of the opiate crisis, it's a matter of federal negligence and delinquence (ph).
We let Purdue Pharma dispense millions of opiate prescriptions that have metastasized into a plague that's now killing people in New Hampshire and around the country. So if the federal government was asleep at the switch, then it's up to the federal government to put proper resources to work to help people get well. It is not a money problem, but money should not be the obstacle. We need to invest the right resources. There is a moral and economic obligation.
The second part is that our current criminalization approach doesn't work because many people who are addicts feel like if they get discovered, it's going to be a disaster for them. And so they suffer in silence, they're addicted in silence, and they die sometimes in silence. When other countries have decriminalized opiates for personal use, you've seen a sharp reduction in both overdoses and substance abuse over time.
KEITH: Now let's talk about climate change. You took a position at the debate which was essentially - man, we are toast.
Is that a little fatalistic? You know, like, scientists would argue that, yes, climate change is happening and it can't fully be reversed, but you could save millions of lives if you stop it or slow it down.
YANG: Everyone can see that things are much worse than even the most pessimistic projections. The U.N. just released a study saying we'll be OK if the majority of the world's population becomes vegetarian immediately. Most politicians will say we can do it; we can beat it. I just told the truth, which is that we're only 15% of the world's emissions. Even if we were to go zero-carbon, the Earth would continue to warm, in all likelihood, because of the energy composition of other countries.
Now, I take climate change very, very seriously. It's an existential threat to our way of life. So I think we should move towards renewable energy sources as fast as possible but, also, proactively try and mitigate the worst effects and even try and restore our habitat in various ways by reforesting tracts of land and reseeding the ocean with kelp, marine permaculture arrays and things that can help rehabilitate what we've done.
KEITH: This leads to my next question. Do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist?
YANG: Well, if you think about it for a second - I've started several multimillion-dollar organizations, I'm running for president, and I'm currently either in fifth or sixth place depending upon where you look. You don't do any of these - those things if you're not an optimist.
I believe we can arrest the decline of our civilization. I believe we can evolve in the way we think about work and value. I think we can give every American a freedom dividend of a thousand dollars a month if a majority of us get together and say that's what we want to do. I'd say these are profoundly optimistic decisions and actions.
I'm not someone holed up in my basement waiting for the waters to overtake me. I'm trying to fight it with every fiber of my being. And that, to me, speaks to my sense of the possibilities still in front of us. I'm a parent. I've got two young boys, and I'll be damned if I just rest while the future I see coming up just overtakes us all.
KEITH: All right. We are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, Yang tells us about his Goth years, what he learned from failure and what he can't let go.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KEITH: And we're back. And New Hampshire Public Radio's Casey McDermott started Part 2 of our interview with a follow-up question.
MCDERMOTT: Earlier this year when you were talking to New Hampshire Public Radio, you did say that you'd release your tax returns soon. That was three months ago. Why haven't you done that yet?
YANG: I think they're going to be released any day now. And I know I said that a little while ago, but they'll be released any day now. And they really are quite dull. I ran a nonprofit for six years. And if you were to look at the 990 of my nonprofit, you'd probably get the essence of what the tax returns will say. But they'll be out any day now.
KEITH: You have said that you were a gamer. You have said that you were a Goth. You have alluded to poor fashion choices. We need details.
YANG: I can prove those, yeah. There are high school photos of me that demonstrate my poor fashion choices. But I was a gamer. I was a Goth. I did skate around somewhat. I did listen to The Cure and The Smiths. It's all well-documented history in the '90s.
MCDERMOTT: Would you describe yourself in any other way outside of those kind of typical high school labels?
YANG: I was a bookish kid, very introverted...
YANG: ...Liked to read a lot.
KEITH: And now you're running for president.
YANG: Yeah, that's all accurate.
KEITH: How does that - like, how - the introversion and then you're just out there.
YANG: (Laughter) Well, it wasn't, like, overnight. What happened to me was that I had a set of goals, and the goals ended up informing certain behaviors. I mean, the first goal for me at the time was try and get a date. So it's like - well, that's not going to happen if I'm just playing video games my friends all the time, so I should try and figure that out. And I became an entrepreneur, which involved a lot of selling and interacting with people, pitching my ideas. And I did not find it easy, but I found it necessary. I said, OK; I'm not going to be able to have the kind of work that I want or impact that I want if I don't get out there. And so you get out there over and over again, and the discomfort starts to fade a bit over time.
MCDERMOTT: So I'm curious about - what was an experience from when you were younger, maybe when you were a kid or a teen, that really shaped how you think about government today?
YANG: I didn't have much interaction with the government when I was young. That's for sure. I mean, as a teenager, it's just the DMV like the rest of us. I did not have any run-ins with the law. I was a very well-behaved nerdy kid, so that wasn't happening.
I think for me, the interactions happened when I was a bit older. And so you know, you start paying taxes. In my case, I was an honorary ambassador in the White House and a champion of change, and I was appointed to the National Advisory Council on Innovation & Entrepreneurship. So you interact with government over time. But my exposure happened way later. I'm happy to say, when I was young, there wasn't much government in my life. There wasn't, like, the trip to juvie or anything. I was just nerding out.
KEITH: (Laughter) You allude to this, so I'd love to get you to spell it out. What is a time in your life when you have failed? And what did you learn from it?
YANG: I have failed so many times in my life, from when I was young to now - I mean, just so many humiliating defeats. I mean, the ones that you think of as most significant is my first company totally flopped. And if you start a company, you have to tell everyone you know you're doing it, so then everyone knows it flopped. Like, there's no hiding it. There's no, like - oh, it went OK. It's like, no, everyone knows.
When I was young, you know, I tried out for soccer team - didn't make it; basketball team - didn't make; and then, like, school play - didn't make it. Like, I was constantly getting caught losing (laughter)...
YANG: ...Whatever it was. You know, certainly, my profile was not like, oh, you know, star of the high school play, student body president. Like, that was not the profile. So I feel like I'm very intimate with defeat. And I think it's actually good training as an entrepreneur because one of the things we're doing with our young people is we're training them to fear failure.
Let's say if you're a salesperson - if you can sell 20, 30% of the time, then you're actually doing great. Even now when I talk to New Hampshire voters - if I talked to a group of 150 voters, I don't expect 100% of them to be like, yeah, Yang Gang immediately. But if half of them end up being Yang Gang and then another critical mass say - well, that was really interesting; let me dig into this more - then that's a huge win.
MCDERMOTT: So we want to wrap up by asking you a question that we ask all of the candidates during these interviews. And that's - what can't you let go of this week?
YANG: Just today it came out that there's going to be another Dave Chappelle comedy special on Netflix, and I am so excited for it. I saw him live at Radio City Music Hall on his last tour, and he's my favorite comedian. He's so funny and great and wise. He's like our oracle all rolled into one (laughter).
MCDERMOTT: I did hear some voters come up to you afterwards and say that they wanted you to host "SNL." Is that something that you're kind of hoping you might come across, as other candidates have?
YANG: Yeah, I would love that. All I have to do is climb the polls a smidgen, and then I'll be on "SNL." That'll be great. Being in the show itself would be a dream - well, not really a dream come true. I don't really dream about that stuff. But it'll be a delight. I dream about eradicating poverty and making this society strong for our kids. So that'll be a dream come true. Being on "SNL" would just be a good time.
KEITH: All right. Andrew Yang, thank you so much for joining us on the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
YANG: Thank you. Such a pleasure.
KEITH: This was the latest interview in our ongoing series where we're taking you on the road to meet the 2020 Democratic candidates. You'll find other interviews with candidates including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris in your podcast feeds. We'll be back just as soon as there's political news you need to know about. I'm Tamara Keith, and thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE [MARCH AND TWO-STEP]")
KEITH: You did not make it sound like it was a pleasure (laughter).
YANG: Really? Well, that's just the Asian stoicism. I actually enjoyed that immensely.
KEITH: (Laughter) All right. Well...
MCDERMOTT: Thank you.
KEITH: ...We really appreciate it.
YANG: Really is. I have this resting face that's very unwelcoming, and I apologize for it.