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Automation Should Be a Major 2020 Issue. Andrew Yang Failed to Put It on the Map

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Photo: Wilfredo Lee (AP)

It’s early yet, but automation is already on track to become the most ignored issue this campaign cycle—outpacing even the neglected climate change, which, while broached both nights of the first Democratic presidential debate this week, deserves a much larger share of the conversation. Corporate automation, and the mass job loss and degradation it portends, was the subject of just a single question in four hours of debate and mentioned by the candidates only twice.

This despite the fact that one of the candidates—the techie and former entrepreneur Andrew Yang—has built his entire campaign around the threat of automation and his proposed solution, a universal basic income. Yang missed a huge opportunity to deliver a message to a massive mainstream audience and force his fellow candidates to engage the issue. He spent his opening volley mostly on a lengthy explanation of his proposal for a value added tax and only attempted to articulate the scope or contours of the automation problems he’s hoping to address with it at the end of his spiel, almost as if it were an afterthought.

“Technology is now automating away millions of American jobs,” he said when he did hit his stride. “It’s why Donald Trump is our president today—that we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and we’re about to do the same thing to millions of retail jobs, call center jobs, fast food jobs, truck driving jobs and on and on through the economy.”


That’s the frustrating thing—he’s right. (Of course, “technology” is not automating American jobs away, companies, executives, and managers are using technology to cut jobs and labor costs, but still.) Companies that have embraced automation throughout the rust belt and beyond have eliminated more jobs than offshoring has—as Yang points out, it’s meant millions of lost jobs over the last two decades.

And there’s ample evidence, as most recently relayed in a Brookings Institute report, that those lost jobs, which impact mostly high-school educated workers, breeds drug use, mental health woes, discontentment—not to mention Trump voters. Regions with higher rates of automation are more likely to vote Republican, the study found, so there is also a tactical imperative to address the issue, it would seem.


Automation is transforming the world of work, and even if “robots” are not “taking” our jobs, it is undoubtedly leading to a profound disruption in almost every industry imaginable. It is creating an opening for executives to trim payrolls, justify lower wages and fewer benefits, and helping to sustain mass precarity in the modern economy. And yet substantive public engagement with the issue remains minimal—besides the occasional scare story about the robot apocalypse, general comprehension of the actual workings and ramifications of automation is low. And besides the occasional bromide about needing better education and training programs, politicians have not figured out how to meaningfully address automation, or even how to talk about it.

Andrew Yang is unique among candidates in that he’s never held public office; his background is in law, tech, and philanthropy. He left his job at a law firm to co-found a startup called Stargiving that was supposed to funnel small donations to celebrity charities every time users clicked a button. When that went belly up, he went to work at a healthcare software company, and then Manhattan Prep, a small firm that offered test preparation services for the GMAT and LSAT. He eventually rose to the CEO of the then-tiny company, and when the recession of 2009 hit, business boomed as the newly out of work flocked to business and law schools to retrain. He sold the company to Kaplan and became a millionaire.

After that, he started Venture for America, a nonprofit designed to help people in economically blighted regions found startups as a means of growing jobs and the economy. While the organization attracted acclaim and notoriety, and scored a meeting with the Obama White House, he now admits that effectually, VFA was mostly a failure. “We were pouring water into a giant bathtub with a giant hole in the bottom of it,” he likes to say. He diagnosed automation as the root of the employment problem, wrote a book about it, The War on Normal People, and launched his candidacy last February via a profile in the New York Times titled “His 2020 Campaign Message: The Robots Are Coming.”


Since then, he’s built a small but loyal following by focusing on his signature solution, the Freedom Dividend—a $1,000 universal basic income guaranteed to all U.S. citizens—demonstrating a little web savvy, and by going on popular podcasts like the Joe Rogan Experience. His group of supporters, the so-called #YangGang, is enthusiastic and very online in its mode of support, and derided by critics for largely the same reasons, and for the fact that some of that support simmers in toxic cesspools like 4chan. (Critics on the right are ALSO wary about the cost and efficacy of offering $1,000 monthly checks to citizens, while those on the left criticize the fact that the payments would not supplement other government benefits.) To wit: despite Yang’s lackluster debate showing, trolls and supporters flooded online polls, as they’d done for fellow dark horse Tulsi Gabbard the night before, to declare him the winner. Today, they got a #LetYangSpeak hashtag trending on Twitter—Yang said his microphone was off for much of the debate.

In interviews and campaign stops, Yang paints an apocalyptic picture of service and low-educated workers being replaced by robots and software; of mass malaise, higher rates of suicide, of riots in the streets. Yet on Thursday night’s debate stage, he commanded the least time speaking of any candidate—including the loopy New Zealand fan Marriane Williamson—clocking in at just under three minutes. The biggest splash he seems to have made was by declining to wear a tie to the debates. Part of the blame goes to the moderators and his peers, who were more aggressive and spotlight-hogging. Still, Yang made few efforts to distinguish himself, and even his most enthusiastic followers must have been frustrated with the performance. The candidate himself was.


Andrew Yang is not going to be the nominee. But as he’s said, if he can get whoever is to voice his platform, he’ll consider it a victory. And just as Julian Castro proved the night before in hammering his peers on immigration policy, Yang had a real chance to move the needle among his fellow candidates—in Yang’s case, articulating the importance of addressing automation in a manner that extends beyond the ‘more education’ platitudes.


You know, platitudes like the one Representative Eric Swalwell deployed in the only other response to automation on the debate stage either night. “We must always be a county where technology creates more jobs than it displaces. And I have seen the anxiety across America where the manufacturing floors go from 1,000 to 100 to one. So we have to modernize our schools, value the teachers who prepare our kids,” he said, and “invest in America’s communities especially where places where the best exports are people who move away to get skills.”

Which, a) yawn, and b) does little to address actual worker concerns that their jobs are on the chopping block. But it accurately reflects the extent of the current political thinking about automation in the Democratic Party. (Republicans, meanwhile, tend to ignore automation as an issue altogether, which makes sense, given that the status quo favors corporate interests.) The issue needs pushing, in other words—the word “automation” appears nowhere in the Democrats’ last official party platform. While I personally feel that Yang’s UBI proposal manages to be both politically far-fetched and woefully insufficient, at least it evinces a vigorous articulation of the root problem and a stab at a contemporary solution.


In the UK and elsewhere, conversations are opening up about using the logic of automation to fight for a shorter work week and other worker benefits. In the U.S., we have for too long let corporations dictate the terms of automation—in a newly resurgent left-leaning Democratic Party, harnessing automation to work for the people should be a popular proposition. (In Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has shown significant skill in this arena.)

Automation is, as Yang has pointed out, already causing a lot of pain among American workers—it is a momentous, overlooked issue that promises to reshape the entire world of work in favor of corporations. As such, it needs figurehead who’s willing and able to step out on stage and clearly define, diagnose, and propose a solution to the problem. If Yang wants to seriously impact the direction of the policy debate, or to help put the threats posed by employer-driven automation on the map, he’s going to have to do more than leave his tie at home—he’s going to have to speak up when he’s handed the mic.