Yang previously ran a successful test prep company and created the nonprofit Venture for America, which he argues is a strength, offering him fresh perspective and critical distance from the workings of Washington.
In an interview Dec. 4, it was clear that Yang has done his homework, traveling across the country and listening closely. “He really seemed to have an almost emotional sense of what people have been going through and what the problems are,” a board member said afterward. “His portrait of the fundamental economic problems were more moving than Bernie’s, and Bernie has been selling this for 30 years.”
He articulated a vision for the future of work, education and technology for the nation. The board also delved into Yang’s approach to foreign policy and military intervention, and learned of his fascination with aliens and fear of flying vacuum cleaners.
Here is a transcript, [with annotations in bracketed italics], of the 90-minute discussion, which was filmed for a special episode of “The Weekly,” The Times’ TV show on FX and Hulu. The transcript is unedited.
Kathleen Kingsbury: Wonderful. Thank you. Yeah. So I have a serious question to ask you, but first we wanted to ask, were you wearing a helmet while you were biking here? [Yang biked to the Times from his Manhattan home. More New York City cyclists died biking in 2019 than in any other year since 2000; Gothamist counts 29 deaths.]
AY: I was wearing a helmet. I have a staffer with the helmet as proof.
Jesse Wegman: Is the inside of the helmet warm?
AY: My team then had me take the helmet off and then tried to make my hair look good. So that’s why I didn’t show up with the helmet.
KK: It looks sharp.
AY: I commented to one of my team members, I feel like running for president is at least a glimpse into what it’s like to be a professional woman [He’s right, of course. Women in politics have long been subjected to much closer scrutiny than men; in 1917, the first female member of Congress, Jeannette Rankin, took office and The Washington Post ran an article headlined: “Congresswoman Rankin Real Girl; Likes Nice Gowns and Tidy Hair.”] because I feel like I care about my appearance more now than I ever did. And there are people that are always like looking after —
Brent Staples: Scrutinizing you.
AY: Scrutinizing, looking after it, because I’m just like, “What? My hair? Who cares? No one.” And then people are like, “No, no,” and they have to put time in, smooth it out.
KK: So let’s get into it. We have about 90 minutes together. In your assessment, what are the policy breakdowns that lead to Americans still being hungry today?
AY: Wow, I love this question. There are many causes of poverty, and the fact that we’re not able to put food into people’s houses and on their tables is a structural problem. My campaign’s based upon the premise that we’re going through this profound economic transformation, the fourth industrial revolution. [Yang is not the first to label this period “the fourth industrial revolution” — the term was made popular by Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, at its annual meeting in Davos in 2016. Schwab’s book of the same name argues that “the fourth industrial revolution” is transforming every sector of the economy and industry through new technologies that merge the physical, digital and biological realms.] And one of the major problems is that we still pretend we’re in the economy of the ’70s or ’80s.
In the ’70s or ’80s, your labor and overall productivity were more or less in lock step. And we still pretend that if someone wakes up in the morning and says, “Hey, I need to put food on the table,” he can go out to his main street, he can sell his time for money at some hourly rate, and then he’ll be able to make a good enough living so he can feed his family, raise kids and the rest of it. That has become progressively less true over the last 40 years, unfortunately, where wages have stagnated while productivity has gone up and up, [Starting in 1979, productivity and pay sharply diverged — productivity rose nearly 70%, while typical hourly pay essentially stagnated, according to the Economic Policy Institute.] and that’s going to accelerate because of the convergence of capital and technology now, in unprecedented ways.
Especially for people who are at the lower end of the skills ladder, which is most Americans. Only 33% of Americans will graduate from college, 42% if you include two-year degrees.
So you’re looking at a nation of high school graduates. And what do high school graduates do for a living? The top five occupational categories are retail and administrative, which includes call center work, retail, food service and food preparation, transportation, primarily truck driving, and attendant supportive jobs and manufacturing still. We all know that we have gutted many of these industries, and their labor bases have shrunk.
So for a high school graduate in America to get by, if you have one health problem or car breakdown, it can take a very tenuous financial situation and send it in a downward spiral. Then how do you put food on the table? In theory, there are nonprofits and food pantries that would see to this, but we all know that they’re dramatically underresourced relative to the need. And so when you look at the causes of food poverty, to me the best solution is instead of trying to create organizations that will put food into people’s hands, which we should do obviously, we should just put money into Americans’ hands and then they would be able to procure food to provide for themselves and their families. [Yang’s candidacy has centered on the idea of his Freedom Dividend, essentially universal basic income — which has a long history, drawing support from Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King Jr. and Friedrich von Hayek, but also a controversial one. (Later annotations will look at why.)]
KK: So I assume you’re referring to [your] universal basic income plan. Your campaign platform, you have tons and tons of proposals, everything from UBI to universal daylight saving time. [Yang has prided himself on injecting the race with new thinking through proposals like yearlong daylight saving time. Daylight saving time was instituted during World War I for energy-efficiency purposes. Yang argues that extending it year-round would decrease traffic accidents, increase economic activity and lower crime.] Plans don’t really mean anything unless you have priorities. What would you do immediately when you enter office? What would be first on your agenda? What would you want to accomplish in the first 100 days?
AY: To me, the economic imbalances are causing many of our other problems. If you look up and down the line, health problems, poor educational attainment and results, even political polarization, they stem from the fact that we have this pervasive financial insecurity where 78% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. Almost half can’t afford an unexpected $400 or $500 bill. [The statistic that 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck was reported in a 2017 study by human capital management firm CareerBuilder.] If you can’t pay next month’s rent, it’s very hard to worry about climate change. I come and talk to you and say, “Hey, we need to fight climate change.” And you look up and say like, “I’m worried about next month. Next year, next decade has to wait in line.”
And that’s probably a generous response. Some of the responses would be worse than that. So if you get the boot off people’s throats, then you can start making progress on our health, on our educational outcomes, on our political polarization.
Everyone knows my flagship proposal is this Freedom Dividend of $1,000 a month for every American adult, which is not a new idea. And it’s not my idea. Thomas Paine was for it at the founding of the country. Martin Luther King fought for it and was fighting for it when he was assassinated. So after I’m the nominee and I defeat Donald Trump, everyone will know that I’m in the White House because of the Freedom Dividend.
Democrats and progressives will be so thrilled to have defeated Donald Trump, they will love the fact that we’re going to put buying power into families’ hands, make children stronger and healthier. But here’s the great thing: The Republicans will look up and say, “Wait a minute, do I hate the Freedom Dividend?” And they look up, and they notice only one state’s had a dividend for almost 40 years, and it’s Alaska, a deep red conservative state, that was passed by a Republican governor. [Since 1982, Alaska has been giving every resident an annual check from its $66.3 billion permanent fund, which gets at least 25% of the state’s mineral royalties every year. The results of the experiment have been mixed — crippling poverty is low, but unemployment rates are among the highest in the country, and the fund’s value fluctuates with oil prices.]
The reason I am drawing, in some polls, 10% or more of Donald Trump voters to my campaign is that Republicans and conservatives do not hate economic buying power in citizens’ hands. [Yang’s argument that he is pulling 10% or more of Trump supporters was not rated favorably on PolitiFact — the 10% figure comes from a July YouGov poll, and subsequent polls found the number to be lower.] What they hate is a giant bureaucracy making everyone’s decisions. So you ask what my main priority will be as president, it will be to get the Freedom Dividend across the finish line and get buying power into Americans’ hands, which will then lead us to be able to solve many other problems much more quickly.
KK: Have you spoken to Republican lawmakers about the Freedom Dividend?
AY: I haven’t sat down with a lot of sitting senators and congressmen and women, but I’ve talked to literally thousands of people who supported Donald Trump in the last election who say they are now supporting me. I’ve talked to many folks who are Republicans who say they are, at least, sympathetic to my message, in large part because they understand the numbers. When I talked to 70 CEOs here in New York City, not that far from here, it was a fancy bank office, most of them were Republicans. I said, “How many of you are looking at replacing your back-office clerical workers with artificial intelligence and software?” Guess how many hands went up out of 70. All of them. The truth is, you should fire any CEO who was not looking to make that happen, because their incentives are all tied to the bottom-line profitability of their firm. And most of them were Republicans. So they understand the need for what I am proposing.
Jamie Dimon, who is a Democrat but is a numbers person, has looked at the numbers and said, we should declare a national emergency around the fact that the economy is not working for most Americans. And he’s proposing a negative income tax, which is a close cousin to the Freedom Dividend that I’m championing. [Unlike universal basic income, a system that would provide some cash to every person regardless of income level, a negative income tax system would give cash to people below a certain income threshold. Milton Friedman made the case for the tax as a poverty alleviation tool in his 1962 book “Capitalism and Freedom.”]
So this is not a left or a right idea, this is bipartisan. And many Republicans will see that this is going to be a huge win for their constituents, for rural areas, for red states on the interior. We don’t need 80% of Congress to pass it, we just need a majority.
KK: I want to move on to some other questions, but I actually have one last for you, which is why run as a Democratic versus a Republican if you have such bipartisan issues?
AY: I’ve been a registered Democrat since the Clinton years; I was an Obama appointee. I had a fundraiser for John Kerry. It wasn’t a great fundraiser because I was kind of young; it wasn’t one of those fancy ones where you generate tens of thousands.
KK: How much money did you raise?
AY: I want to say we raised maybe $5,000, and I was quite pleased. It was at a lounge.
KK: With inflation, though, it would be higher, right?
AY: Well, thank you for saying so. Yeah, in 2019 dollars it must be at least $6,000. I’ve been a Democrat for years and years, and if you look at my alignment on the vast majority of issues, they’re lock step with the Democratic Party. [Yang, a former technology executive and entrepreneur, has distinguished himself from Sen. Sanders and the far left of the Democratic Party in making the case for a more humane capitalist system, what he calls “human-centered capitalism.”] So it was very natural for me to run as a Democrat. I’ve ruled out completely any third-party bid because that would in my mind increase the chances of Donald Trump winning, and the mission is to defeat Donald Trump and help move the country forward.
KK: OK. Moving onto a perhaps slightly less serious topic. [In hindsight, this was not an accurate assessment of the next question.]
AY: I like it already.
Aisha Harris: Back in September, you actually spoke out on behalf of the comedian Shane Gillis, who had been hired on “SNL” and then was quickly fired after some racist comments were stirred up that he had made in the past on one of his podcasts. And you said you didn’t want to be judged for something you had done 25 years ago. [Gillis was hired by “Saturday Night Live” last September, then dropped days later after clips surfaced showing him using slurs and language offensive toward Asian and LGBTQ people, including one specifically about Yang. Yang later said the comedian should have had the chance to keep his job and explained: “As a society, we have become unduly punitive and vindictive about people making statements that some find offensive or distasteful.”] But Gillis’ comments were maybe a year ago. So I’m curious as to, in your mind, how long of a period of time should it be before someone faces some sort of consequences for something they’ve done in the past?
AY: So when I heard that Shane Gillis had called me “Jew chink” — I think was the slur — my reaction was the same reaction anyone would have, which was like, who the heck is this guy, and he sounds like a total jackass. Well, my wife actually had heard about it independently and was also like, “Who the heck is this guy?” And so then I sat down and started to figure out who Shane Gillis was, what he did for a living, and then I sat down and watched some of his comedy to try and get some context.
After watching his comedy, I felt that he wasn’t a malignant racist and that his slur toward me was just very, very bad comedy run amok. Which did not strike me as a fireable offense, and I realized that if I was the individual who was actually directly slurred, and I did not feel that he should lose his job over it, then I should probably share that sentiment with other people.
Particularly because I think we’ve become unduly vindictive and punitive toward statements that people find objectionable. A friend of mine said something, he said, “If the online universe descends on someone, and they lose their job, the online universe moves on a week later, but that person still does not have a job a week later.” That the impact on the individual lasts much, much longer than the rancor. So I shared this.
The comment about I wouldn’t want to be judged for something 25 years ago was about something completely independent. I think I’d seen something where Joe Biden was being called out for something he’d said 25 years ago, when I said I wouldn’t want to be called out for some misstatement I’d made 25 years ago. [Yang was asked on CNN’s “The Van Jones Show” about cancel culture and whether Americans have gone “too far in the direction of a lack of grace or a lack of forgiveness.” He responded: “I’m new to politics, but I certainly would hate to be judged by something I did 25 years ago.”] And then I joked, good thing no one cared about what I was doing 25 years ago, because I was at that point a 20-year-old man, and the internet didn’t really have full documentation of how I spent those years.
So the Shane Gillis opinion was not based upon the timeline, it was just based upon my reaction as a person, and the person that was directly named. I certainly think there should be consequences for one’s statements and actions, and I certainly think that obviously he made the statements within the year, and that if you did have some sort of time frame when you would want to overlook something, it would be much longer than a year. [Yang’s comments, on Gillis and on judgment more broadly, contribute to a growing conversation among political and cultural figures about the merits and downsides of “cancel culture.” Former President Obama, for example, spoke out about the prevalence of “call-out culture” during an interview in October, arguing that criticizing people on social media for not being “woke” enough is “not activism” and “not bringing about change.”]
AH: But do you think, I mean, he never truly apologized. He just said, “I’m sorry you’re offended.” [Gillis issued what some saw as a non-apology, writing on Twitter that he is a comedian “who pushes boundaries” and his “intention is never to hurt.” He added, “I’m happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said.”] And while you may not have felt that way, there were other jokes he made about just Asian Americans and Asian people in general, and there were other people who were obviously affected by this. So I mean, what kind of consequences do you think someone who makes those kinds of statements and who doesn’t show any sort of remorse for it, should they face? If not firing, what should happen? What would the steps be?
AY: Well, in this case, what’s interesting is it’s up to the employer, and it was NBC and “Saturday Night Live.” Even as I made the statement saying I didn’t think he should be fired, I thought he probably would be fired. Because if you’re NBC and “SNL,” you look up and say, what is my upside for keeping this guy? He’s not exactly a huge moneymaker, he hasn’t worked a day on the set. Like, that’s not a really powerful set of incentives. And so I thought they probably would fire him. I’d suggest that the extent there are consequences for people’s misstatements, they should be somewhere commensurate to the level of power and influence they have and the harm that they’re doing. In Shane Gillis’ case, he was a comedian. I’d never heard of the guy before.
AH: I mean, I don’t think most people had.
AY: No, certainly not before the statements had taken place, and in terms of consequences, I would suggest that someone like Shane had probably paid a price in many ways. Like, aside from being fired, there are many circles that, if he shows up in, he’d be labeled very, very negatively. He reached out to me personally, and I had a conversation with him. The conversation with him made me feel more confident that I’d done the right thing. [After Gillis was fired, Yang tweeted that the comedian had reached out to him. “Looks like we will be sitting down together soon,” Yang wrote. Neither the comedian nor the candidate appears to have spoken publicly about the content of the meeting.] Because I think in many cases we’re trying to follow up on a sense of shame and humiliation that the person might already feel.
KK: I think we have some questions around economics.
Binyamin Appelbaum: Yes. After every invention basically since the plow, people have found new uses for the time saved by new technologies. You’ve argued that this time, this won’t happen quickly enough. [Yang has argued that his Freedom Dividend is one answer to the needs of the millions who will lose their jobs to automation.] Why will this time be different? What gives you the confidence that we’re confronting something new in all of human history?
AY: The numbers. So keep in mind, I didn’t just wake up and say, “Hey, technology is changing the world.” I spent seven years working in Detroit, Cleveland, Birmingham, St. Louis, Baltimore and other cities that have been blasted by the waves of automation. [This work was through Yang’s nonprofit, Venture for America. More on that in a bit.]
Detroit is a city of 680,000 people. Its peak population was 1.7 million. If you look this direction, you can see a thriving neighborhood, and then you turn 90 degrees and you see abandoned buildings as far as the eye can see. If we were adapting, you would see not multidecade low rates of interstate migration, which we have right now. You would not be seeing 80% of the country have multidecade low levels of business formation, which we have right now. You would not be seeing historic lows of business formation among young people, which we have right now. [Yang argues that the automation of manufacturing jobs — especially in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri and Iowa — helped breed the discontent and economic desperation that led to Trump’s election.] You would not see labor force participation at 62.9%, a multidecade low which we have right now. You would not see record-high levels of drug overdoses and suicides to the point that America’s life expectancy has declined for three years in a row, which we have right now.
BA: But we also have record low unemployment, and when you mention labor force participation, some people think a big factor there is that the government already is giving people too much money. [Labor force participation — the share of Americans either employed or “actively looking for work” — declined precipitously from the late 1990s, dropping to 62.7% in 2014 (its lowest rate since the Carter administration). Critics of Obama liked to argue that this was because of government handouts. But there’s a counterargument to be found in demographic trends — the Congressional Budget Office estimates that a sizable portion of the decline in labor-force participation is a result of the aging of the workforce.]
AY: Well, the labor force participation rate has declined precipitously, so I don’t buy that somehow the government started giving people more money over the last number of years. And the headline unemployment rate, and I’m sure you know this, it doesn’t measure underemployment, 40 to 44% of recent college graduates are now doing a job that does not require a college degree. It does not measure the fact that 94% of new jobs in the economy are temp, gig or contract jobs that do not have health care benefits and can disappear at any moment. [A 2016 study from economists Lawrence Katz at Harvard and Alan Krueger at Princeton found that 94% of net job growth between 2005 and 2015 was “alternative work,” including independent contractors, freelancers and temps.] It doesn’t include the fact that you might be doing two or three jobs to make ends meet.
Uber is literally advertising to schoolteachers saying, “Hey, we’ve figured out schoolteachers make really good Uber drivers.” And if you look at that situation, the headline unemployment rate says, “Check, this person is employed. Heck, this person might be employed twice.” The headline unemployment rate when Donald Trump was running for president, he castigated it as fake news, and then he got into office and all the sudden it became real news. He was right the first time. The number is almost intentionally designed to obscure any of the difficulties in the labor market. If I drop out of the labor market, I no longer count. I actually help the number.
Right now we have three flagship numbers we’re beating the American people over the head with, telling them that things are going great. No. 1, the headline unemployment rate. No. 2, gross domestic product, which is obviously putting up record highs even as our life expectancy is declining. And No. 3, corporate profits and shareholder value. Stock market prices correspond to the fortunes of the top 20% of Americans, many of the people, obviously, who live here in Manhattan. [The American cities with the highest number of high-net-worth individuals are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington. California has the most number of people on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans.] The bottom 80% of Americans own 8% of stock market value. The bottom 50% own essentially zero.
If these are your measurements, then of course you’re going to think things are going in one direction, while your way of life disintegrates.
Even the inventor of GDP, Simon Kuznets, said 100 years ago, this is a terrible measurement of national well-being, and we should never use it as that.
If you run an organization, imagine having an organization that has the wrong measurements. How is that organization going to fare over time? That is where we are in the United States of America right now. We’re riding a century-old measurement off a cliff, while our way of life deteriorates underneath our feet. [Gross domestic product is a measure of a country’s entire economic output. Its inventor worried that it might be mistaken as a measure of citizens’ well-being. Yang’s campaign has proposed that America measure its economic prosperity with a different index that accounts for human and not just monetary factors, including inequality and quality of life.] If you looked at levels of anxiety, stress, mental health, depression, suicides, drug overdoses, you would see that we’re in a mental health recession or depression, we’re in a wellness or life expectancy recession or depression, and the corporate profits are going to keep on going up, because in the 21st-century economy, companies can do very, very well while not hiring a lot of people, not treating them as full-time employees, and they don’t need to care what happens in their own backyard because they sell everywhere.
BA: But you’re not proposing to fix any of that. People don’t just work to make money; they do work for a sense of self-worth. They work so that they can develop skills, they work so they have the possibility of earning more money someday. You’re proposing to replace a portion of the income they may have lost, but not any of those other things. Why is that a solution?
AY: I love work, and the numbers also clearly show that people need work. Men in particular, without work, they volunteer less than employed men. [Harmful effects of unemployment are felt by men and women, but men are more likely to experience negative health effects including depression and increased risk of suicide.] So think about that for a second. They have higher rates of substance abuse, their health deteriorates, all these social ills accompany. Of course, we need to create jobs in as many communities as possible.
The question is, what is the means to creating those jobs? What I’m suggesting is that if you were to put $12,000 a year into the hands of every American adult … Let’s say there’s a town in Missouri of 10,000 people. Let’s say after I’m president, their disposable income goes up by $10 million a month. Where is that money going to go? It’s going to go into car repairs, day care expenses, Little League sign-ups, the occasional night out.
If you were a person in that town in Missouri and you wanted to start a bakery, before the dividend, it’s a dumb idea. Post-dividend, it might be a great idea. You can hire someone to help staff the bakery, you know if the bakery fails, you’re going to survive because you have this income that you can rely upon. This is the most stable and secure way to create jobs that actually reflect our community’s needs and values. [In the 1960s and 1970s, the federal government commissioned a series of experiments to look at how guaranteed income effects labor participation. Researchers discovered that a program like UBI doesn’t have the drastic effect on work that some might predict; households overall reduce their workload by roughly 13%, according to a paper in the Canadian Public Policy journal.] What are the other alternatives? For the government to come in and say, “Hey, we’re going to designate five people to clean up this park forever.” “We’re going to designate 10 people to make our people stronger forever, regardless of whether or not they’re —”
BA: So a Republican would say that alternative is to let markets work. Is that what makes you a Democrat — you don’t think the market will create enough jobs for Americans?
AY: Oh, I think the market will work beautifully toward what it’s designed to do. The market is designed for maximal capital efficiency, and it is doing a phenomenal job. That’s why you see the returns on capital outstripping the returns on labor at historic levels. The market is not designed to maximize human well-being.
And again, all you have to do to look at it is to say, stock market prices and GDP record highs, life expectancy declining. [Trump likes to say that the economy has reached historic highs under his administration. However, life expectancy has been falling, and other measures of well-being have declined, including rising rates of depression diagnosis.] Like, that sums it up. You know? You don’t need any clearer divergence than that.
What I’m suggesting is we actually make capitalism’s goals align with ours, as human beings, as parents, as Americans. Instead of maximizing these capital efficiency measurements, we should be maximizing our own health and life expectancy, our children’s education and success rates, our mental health and freedom from substance abuse, our environmental sustainability. Then we can line up the power of the markets with how we are doing. But the markets do not care one whit about us and our children.
BA: I want to ask you about the — Oh, sorry, go ahead.
KK: Oh, sorry, I just wanted to ask you, you know, there are some people who would suggest that a better use of money, instead of giving a Freedom Dividend, would be to dramatically overhaul America’s high schools and start teaching people different skills instead of trying to continue the race against AI. [The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Future of Education and Skills 2030 project is exploring the ways education systems internationally need to change to prepare students for a rapidly automating economy. ] Why isn’t that a path? Why couldn’t we instead change how we do education in this country?
AY: We should definitely do that, in a very big and dramatic way. And I have proposals to help move us toward a better model of high school education. Only 6% of American high school students are in technical, trade or apprenticeship tracks. In Germany, that’s 59%. Think about that gulf. Meanwhile, there are millions of those trade and middle-scale jobs that are left unfilled. Why is this?
One, it’s a lot easier and cheaper for us to throw kids into a classroom with textbooks and a teacher and say, “You’re going to go to college,” than it is to try and train them in skills that are going to give them a secure livelihood. Number two, we have fetishized college and stigmatized anything that’s not college. We’ve beaten Americans over the head, pretended everyone’s going to college and say, “It’s going to work for you.” And the Democrats are guilty of this. That’s why they’re yelling, “Free college, free college.” [The question of whether to prioritize free public college has divided the Democratic candidates. Warren and Sanders say that four-year public colleges should be free, and Sen. Cory Booker signed on to legislation that could make it debt-free. Sen. Amy Klobuchar previously criticized the idea of “free college for all,” but then signed on to a version of a free-college proposal. Yang, though, has said he supports forgiving more student loan debt but thinks the Freedom Dividend is a better solution to inequality than free college.] Meanwhile, again, only 33% of Americans are going to go to college, and that is a relatively stable number.
KK: But access to college is still a civil rights issue in this country. [Obama referred to education as the “civil rights issue of our time,” as did former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Indeed, the gap between education outcomes for black and white students has barely budged in recent decades, according to research from the Brookings Institution.]
AY: It very much is. But if you were to apply resources, you would want to apply resources in ways that don’t necessarily advantage the top third of your population by educational attainment exclusively. You would be trying to build more paths with the other two-thirds, which investing in trades and apprenticeships would do, and you would try and provide for the people who are the weakest and most vulnerable in the job market, which are not going to be the people that are attending college. [Most American laborers work in the services sector, according to Pew Research — in July 2019, 107.8 million people worked in private service-providing industries including trade, transportation and utilities.]
Our economy is breaking down on all levels. Again, if you are fortunate enough to graduate from college today, you’re in the top third of the population, you’re graduating with tens of thousands in school loans very, very often, and there’s a 40 to 44% chance you’re going to do a job that does not require your college degree. That’s if you’re one of the winners in our society today. I spent seven years working with, frankly, some of the top educational products in our country. I saw that even the winners are not winning right now. And so imagine if you’re a nonwinner, what this looks like.
BS: Would you dilate what you’re talking — seven years doing what?
AY: I started and ran a national nonprofit called Venture for America that recruited enterprising college graduates to help grow businesses in Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, New Orleans, Birmingham, Baltimore, and nine other American cities. [Yang founded Venture for America, a fellowship program for recent college graduates, in 2011, with the goal of creating 100,000 new jobs in the country’s most underresourced cities. As of 2019, the nonprofit has created around 3,500 jobs.] We helped create several thousand jobs. I’m very, very proud of that. But I realize that the jobs we were creating were only going to apply for a small slice of the population. And these jobs were pouring water into a bathtub that has a giant hole ripped in the bottom. I’m running for president to let America know that it is not our imagination, the water is rushing out of the bathtub. Immigrants have nothing to do with it. It’s the fact that we’re going through the greatest economic transformation.
BA: Just before we move on, maybe I can ask one more question.
AY: Of course, sure.
BA: Your proposal is oddly regressive. On the benefits side you’re proposing that people will have to choose between this benefit and their existing federal benefits while someone like me just all the sudden gets a new check in their mailbox every month. On the funding side you’re relying on a VAT, which is an inherently regressive funding mechanism. [A VAT (value-added tax) is a tax on consumption, so the burden disproportionately falls on low-income households, who spend a larger portion of their income.] You’ve proposed some offsets, but I still don’t understand why you don’t just embrace a progressive approach to taxation. Either raise top rates or a wealth tax. If there are people who need help, why aren’t you trying to help them as much as possible?
AY: I’m for a more progressive tax structure. It’s clear that the people at the top of the income chain are not paying enough. I don’t think a wealth tax will work.
I like the spirit of a wealth tax, but if you look at other countries’ experience, Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden, very sophisticated developed countries, they tried a wealth tax and they wound up repealing it because it had massive compliance problems, and it did not generate anywhere near the revenue that was projected.
So if you cannot learn from the experiences of other countries, what can you learn from? [In 1990, 12 European countries had some form of a wealth tax, while today only three have kept the policy — Norway, Spain and Switzerland. Reports by the OECD and others have found that the tax led to an exodus of the wealthy and didn’t raise as much revenue as anticipated.] We have to take a policy that actually works, and what those countries and every other developed country have determined works, is a value added tax. Because a value added tax is impossible to game your way out of. If you’re a trillion-dollar technology company — you know, I was just in New Hampshire campaigning yesterday, and you know what I say to them? I say to everyone around the country, Amazon, a trillion-dollar technology company sucking up $20 billion in business every year, closing 30% of your stores and malls, paying zero in taxes, how do you feel about that? You know? And they are angry. They say, how the heck can Amazon be paying zero in taxes? And I was like, I know. And it’s up to you, the people of New Hampshire, to change it. So if you look at other countries —
BA: But that doesn’t make our tax code more progressive.
AY: So if you look at other countries, they have a value-added tax and then they take those resources and put them to work toward various social programs in ways to balance out the inequality. Now, another thing I love about the value-added tax is you can either reduce it or exempt things like diapers, toilet paper, eggs, milk, things that Americans consume just to make ends meet, and you can dial it up on things like artificial intelligence, yachts, luxury watches. There are ways that you can make it so that it falls more heavily on people that would barely notice. And we’re taking the resources plus an additional hundreds of billions of dollars and putting it directly into the hands of working Americans. This would increase the buying power of literally 90% of Americans.
BA: But just to be clear, it’s still not a progressive tax. There’s no model that says that you can use these kinds of exclusions and exemptions to make that progressive. You can make it less regressive. You’re still fundamentally proposing a nonprogressive means of revenue raising. [A progressive tax is one in which the rate increases with income, while a regressive tax increases inversely with income.]
AY: In a vacuum, you’re 100^ correct. But it’s failing to account for the fact that we’re taking that money, and then some, and putting it directly into the hands of the American consumer.
BA: But that just brings us to the other side of it, where what you’re proposing is not to give as much more money to the people who need it the most. You’re saying, if you get food stamps, the amount by which your government benefits increase will be less than for me or you. [A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that UBI could redirect spending to more affluent and middle-income families, therefore leaving low-income families worse off; a UBI large enough to direct more funds to low-income households would be extremely costly. Read the paper here.]
AY: Let’s say I’m on food stamps, and I’ve got a 15-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter. I’m concerned about their future, very, very deeply. And then Andrew Yang becomes president, and I find out that my 15-year-old is going to get $1,000 a month starting at age 18 for the rest of his life, and my 12-year-old is going to get $1,000 a month for the rest of her life. I’m going to say, wow. That’s actually the biggest value gain I’ve ever even heard of in history. [Other candidates have taken a different approach to creating a nest egg for low-income youth — Booker, for example, favors baby bonds, which would provide every infant with a savings account that the government would contribute to annually depending on family income.] My kid will have a financial literacy class in high school, the first semester of their senior year. It is impossible to teach financial literacy to someone who does not have money. So the kids will actually learn about what to do with the money before they start getting the money.
This is a game changer for Americans in any circumstance. And I am not for reducing or curtailing any of these social programs. For me, we’re trying to lay a foundation that works for all Americans, and then we need to keep building on top of it. So if there are people that post-Freedom Dividend need additional programs and assistance, I’m all for it.
KK : I want to ask you, you were the CEO of Manhattan Prep. [Yang was the CEO of a boutique test prep company that was purchased by Kaplan in 2009. The company flourished during the 2008 financial collapse, becoming the country’s foremost preparatory company for the GMAT as more people flocked to business school. ] How does test prep — doesn’t that contribute to income inequality in the United States?
AY: Yeah, it does. It’s one reason why I think we need to de-emphasize — excuse me.
KK: Take your time.
AY: Not at all. We originated the SAT during World War II as a way to determine which kids we did not want to send to the front lines. [The SAT was first administered in 1926 and evolved out of a test used for admission to Princeton University and Cooper Union. It was inspired by military experiments with IQ testing.] Now we treat our kids like every year is wartime. I’ve talked to parents and teachers around the country, and I’ve said, we need to de-emphasize these standardized tests. They are a terrible measurement of human value, certainly have nothing to do with character. At this point, as you said, they are more likely to test your parents’ socioeconomic status than anything else.
So we need to have better, more holistic ways of measuring how our kids are doing educationally, and we need to empower teachers and let teachers do their jobs. Because if you are a teacher and you’re teaching to the test, you end up making decisions in the classroom that you know are not right for the students.
KK: Actually, I also want to ask you about your time at Manhattan Prep. Your colleague Kimberly Watkins told City Council in September that she had faced both gender harassment and pay inequity under your leadership there. Could you respond to those allegations?
AY: I believe your reporters then talked to maybe half a dozen or more of Kim’s contemporaries at the organization and found out that those allegations were completely groundless, which they were. [In an essay published by the Gotham Gazette, Kimberly Watkins alleged that Yang fired her from Manhattan Prep because he did not think she would “continue working as hard” after getting married. Yang appeared on “The View” shortly after and said there was “zero truth” to Watkins’ account.]
Nick Fox: Can I clarify one point on taxation? Are you proposing any new or increased taxes on the wealthiest Americans or corporations, or is it strictly the VAT?
AY: If you look at our proposals, we have a tax on financial transactions, which would obviously end up falling most heavily on the wealthiest Americans and the wealthiest companies. We have a carbon tax, which tends to fall most heavily on the wealthiest industries, which are emitting a lot. [A Times evaluation of Yang’s tax plan by N. Gregory Mankiw, professor of economics at Harvard, found that Yang’s tax plan would target the affluent who spend their money lavishly while incentivizing people to save.] The value-added tax would obviously be enormously generative from people who benefit from society and consume the most. I’m for trying to restore our income tax levels to previous levels to be more progressive.
Michelle Cottle: Now, I think it’s clear that people are responding to you in part because you have this big vision, [Yang has a fervent online following that calls itself the Yang Gang.] but Washington has a problem achieving even kind of modest —
AY: Yeah, we noticed.
MC: So, and we are currently enjoying a businessmen president who has no experience in government or the military. What is your argument to people, that we should trust you with no experience in government and the military, in the same position, and that you will do a better job dealing with the peculiarities of Washington. [Many of Yang’s supporters say they are drawn to his perspective as a political outsider.]
AY: Well, it sounds like you’ve been there.
MC: Quite a lot.
AY: Did you come up for this?
MC : Yeah, I’m based out of —
AY: Oh, man. Well, thank you for making the trip. Then you know. First, any person who says they’re going to run government like a business does not know what they’re talking about, because they are two completely different things.
In a business you can say, “Hey, we’re going to go this way,” and people generally have to do what you’re saying. In government it’s much more analogous to my role as the founder of a national nonprofit, where you have hundreds or even thousands of stakeholders, and you have to try and generate energy around a vision. [Yang told Vox’s Recode that one of the reasons he quit Venture for America, the nonprofit he created, was because he realized it couldn’t achieve the change he wanted at the necessary scale. For instance, it had fallen short of the 100,000 jobs he set out for it to create.] Let people see that it’s in their self-interest or the self-interest of the people that they represent to get on board with your vision. And that you’re willing to compromise and work with them. That is the way I would lead as president.
Donald Trump does not speak for every non-politician or nonmilitary officer. But there is a deep need, and you’ve seen this, because you spent time in D.C., the D.C. establishment will not generate big solutions.
One of the reasons why Donald Trump is our president is that millions of Americans feel like our government is unresponsive to our needs and the needs in our communities. [Yang has frequently said that automation contributed heavily to Trump’s win, because voters feel disaffected and worry that the futures of their jobs and industries are in jeopardy.] They’ve been casting about for some sort of change agent for years. And it’s not just Donald Trump’s victory; it was Bernie Sanders outsized success. In some ways, it was even Obama’s victory in 2008. If you remember that campaign, it was oh, hope, change. It was not, get the most experienced person in the seat as possible, because we are decades behind the curve in addressing the problems and challenges that are tearing us apart. Now ——
KK: Do you feel like President Obama achieved the change that he had promised in the 2008 campaign?
AY: I think that he did a lot of great things and he did a lot of what he could, but to the extent that there was a missed opportunity, it was in the wake of the financial crisis. [A critique of Obama’s financial policies by Matt Stoller, of the Open Markets Institute, argues that the Obama administration let banking executives off the hook for their role in the financial crisis and enabled 9 million foreclosures.] And it’s very hard to Monday morning quarterback a team when they literally felt like the economy itself was at stake, but we should have done much more to recapitalize homeowners as opposed to the banks. We could have kept many more people in their homes. We could’ve kept many of these communities ——
BS: Without a doubt.
AY: — more strong and more whole. There’s a saying, I think it was actually, and maybe in this … no, it was an earlier administration, but a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. [“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste” is a quote attributed to the Stanford economist Paul Romer. He made the comment at a meeting in 2004, referring to the competition America faces from the rising education levels around the globe. Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, later echoed the statement after Obama’s election.] There was a crisis. There was a massive opportunity to help rebalance our economy, but we instead recapitalized the banks to the tune of $4 trillion. And what I say to Americans around the country, I say, “Hey, do you remember voting for the $4 trillion bailout of Wall Street”? And it gets this laugh. But then they answer, “Wait, we did that”? And it’s, “Of course we didn’t vote for that.”
So, that to me was the biggest missed opportunity in the Obama administration, and it happened very, very early on. I wish that they owned and reflected a little bit on the fact that maybe they could have done some things differently at that stage, because we’re still angry. This country is still angry. I was so shocked by what happened in the financial crisis, I quit my job and started a national nonprofit and ran it for seven years. I had — my wife was pregnant. I mean, what happened to this country then is still tearing us apart. [Yang started Venture for America in 2011, shortly after selling his test prep company to Kaplan. He said that he saw, in the wake of the financial crisis, how certain communities were rapidly losing jobs and wanted to create new work opportunities in those underserved areas.]
Lauren Kelley : Mr. Yang, can you say who is on your short list for running mate?
AY: I love this question.
LK: So do we.
AY: Well, one of the joys of running for president is you get to know incredible people on the trail, including some of the other contenders. I’m on the record saying I would prefer to have a female running mate. [Yang confirmed this summer that he would like his running mate to be a woman.] I think teams run better if you have men and women leaders at the highest possible levels. I joke, but it’s mostly true, that if you get too many men alone for too long, we kind of become morons. So we need to keep that from happening at the highest levels.
MC: He has my vote. All right. [LAUGHTER]
AY: But at the same time, in order to have someone at that level of relationship, you need to have as much trust as possible and I’m still developing that kind of relationship with some of the other, not just candidates, but also people who could be running mates that are not currently running. [Yang has scored internet points with some tweets paying tribute to former 2020 Democratic rivals, for example by tweeting “I miss Beto.”]
LK : So no names yet.
AY: No names yet, no.
KK: Do you feel like you need to have a running mate who has operated in Washington before or who has previous government experience?
AY: Almost certainly, yes. And you saw it a little bit with Barack Obama where he tapped Joe Biden in part because Joe had very deep relationships on Capitol Hill. If you had another outsider like me, we’d still be trying to figure out who to call. So, you need to have folks who have deep relationships on Capitol Hill from day one.
LK: Speaking of women, I wanted to ask you about reproductive rights as well. You told some of our colleagues in the newsroom that you would consider some executive actions to protect reproductive rights, but I haven’t seen any details about what actions you’re considering. Do you have any details to share with us about that?
AY: Well, I’m all about trying to improve the reality on the ground, to the extent that we can actually put resources and funds to work in communities to make sure that women have access to reproductive rights in clinics. Certainly any way we can make sure that there aren’t any obstacles to the funding of Planned Parenthood clinics around the country. I would take those actions immediately. A lot of the legislative actions, you need a bit more time and a bit more buy-in from Congress, but at the Supreme Court level, I would consider appointing more justices if it was necessary to safeguard women’s reproductive rights. [Yang has argued that more legislative oversight on reproductive issues should come from physicians rather than politicians. He tweeted: “I personally don’t think male legislators should be weighing in on women’s reproductive rights and freedoms.”]
KK: You mean, you would in addition to the nine that we already have?
AY: In addition to the nine we already have. I believe that — so if you look at the Constitution, there is nothing there that stipulates the number of Supreme Court justices. We’ve had fewer than nine, we’ve had more than nine. I think that appointing new justices would be helpful on several levels. It would help depoliticize the process, at least marginally, because if you have 17 justices and one steps down, then it’s not as much of an earthquake. Well, right now we we’re hinging our laws on the health of an octogenarian. It would literally be rational for us to all just to follow Ruth Bader Ginsburg around and just scrub any doorknob she touches. [Justice Bader Ginsburg has had a series of health scares in recent years, including surgery for lung cancer and radiation treatment. She also had surgery for early-stage pancreatic cancer in 2009.] You know what I mean?
JW: You remember what happened the last time a president tried to do this, right?
AY: Yeah. And I think in some ways, there’s some positive lessons to be drawn from that time, because there were some significant accomplishments during that era. [President Franklin Roosevelt tried to advance a “court-packing” strategy to ensure favorable rulings on New Deal legislation. He wanted to appoint up to six additional justices, one for every justice older than 70 years. The plan was unpopular in Congress and among the Supreme Court’s justices.]
KK: So, can you give us some names of people you would nominate to the Supreme Court?
AY: That’s a fun exercise, too. I haven’t gotten into the judicial appointment shortlist yet, but safeguarding women’s reproductive rights would be one clear criteria. Because women’s reproductive rights are fundamental human rights in my mind.
I think it’s actually unfortunate that I get asked about those sorts of questions, in the sense that I feel like men should leave the room and let women decide what to do with your bodies. I have a feeling I know what you would decide, and then we could come back and say, “Hey, what did you decide”? I also think that if men got pregnant, this would be a very, very different conversation. And we’d have a completely different approach to these issues. So, I don’t have a short list of Supreme Court justice appointees, but safeguarding women’s reproductive rights and having an evolving sense of the law would be very important.
We need to modernize the court. Lifetime appointments might have made sense at one point a long time ago, but when the Constitution was drafted, people did not live as long. And also, people stepped down from the Supreme Court for any of a range of reasons. They did not wait until they were at death’s door. This is not a way to run a 21st-century society.
We should have 18-year term limits, increase the number of justices, make it so it’s predictable that you lose an election, the other party might get one or two justices, and then we don’t need to literally be monitoring the health of our justices. Or, the most ridiculous thing is you’re literally looking at the age of the person you’re appointing being, “Ooh, this person will be there for 30, 40 years.” What kind of system do you want where you’re having a society decide 30 years ago what women’s rights are today? Doesn’t make any sense.
JW: Are you concerned that you wouldn’t be triggering a sort of a war of — a back and forth between Republicans and Democrats, who were continuing to add justices to the bench with each new administration to satisfy their own policy priorities?
AY: If you have term limits, it is bipartisan. Because —
JW: Right, but you’re talking about expanding the court, too, and if you expand the court, as you say correctly, that it’s a federal law, there’s nothing in the Constitution about the number of justices. You expand it to 13, the next Republican who comes in, who is furious about women having too many reproductive rights, will expand it to 17 to overturn the rulings you just got. [Court packing isn’t a violation of any part of the Constitution, but it is widely debated with critics pointing out that it would trigger severe political backlash.] So, how doesn’t that just become — doesn’t devolve into —
BS: An arms race.
AY: Well, I would suggest that one side has been acting as if it is an arms race. And so, in that environment, it’s only appropriate to respond in a way that you think would help move the country and our legal system in the right direction. Can I talk — oh.
Jeneen Interlandi: Oh no, go ahead.
JW: I just wanted to tie together the question — a question from Lauren and a question from Michelle, and ask you about Washington, both with regard to Supreme Court confirmation process and your agenda more generally. You said at the very beginning of our conversation, in response to Katie, that you don’t need a — you were talking about various [cross talk].
Yeah, you said you don’t need 80% of Congress, you need a majority. And I would push back and say neither of those is correct. You need 60% of the Senate currently. The question is, how do you plan to get things done, even if you had a Democratic majority in the Senate? Which I think is right now less than an even chance. How do you propose getting your agenda through Congress when the filibuster is in place?
AY: To your earlier concern, I think we should examine the filibuster. I think that gridlock is bad for anyone trying to get anything done and solve problems. This might be controversial in this room, but I am for the restoration of earmarks, because it helped make legislation possible. That if I was a congressperson in a district, and there was a bill being passed, it’s, “Hey, at least I can get some pork for my local museum.” And that’s a very small price to pay for a functional legislature. So, getting past the filibuster to me is one possible necessity, and the restoration of earmarks could be another. [Earmarking allows Congress to appropriate discretionary funds for specific projects. Yang supports them because he feels they allow representatives to generate revenue for their constituents to offset costs their area might experience from a given piece of legislation.]
JW: And let me just, one last follow-up on that. If Democrats don’t take back the Senate, how do you feel with the Supreme Court — how do you, I mean, put aside expanding the number of justices, how do you even get a justice onto the court in the first place?
AY: It’s obviously much harder. I’m all about trying to maximize the possible. And so, if we don’t get a majority — I expect the Democrats will win a slight majority in the Senate. I’m very optimistic that way, but we’re going to get done what we can get done with the branch of the government we have control of. And I will say too, I believe that we can get some things done that are traditionally bipartisan, regardless of who has control of the Senate. To me, I cannot believe that we did not get infrastructure done during the first couple of years of the Trump administration. I thought at least he would build some bridges and roads, and I was even willing to accept the Trump name on those bridges and roads if it got some bridges and roads built. I was, “At least we’re going to get this.” [The editorial board recently called for the Trump administration to break the impasse on funding for the proposed rail tunnel under the Hudson River in an editorial titled: “Build the Donald J. Trump Tunnel.” The vital infrastructure project has stalled because of political infighting.]
KK: We’ve called for that, too.
AY: Really? So, we have to get done what we can get done. And if we have to focus on things that are traditionally bipartisan, I’d be excited to lead with that. I mean, I’d be much more excited to lead with a much bigger agenda to balance out this economy, to work for people. And I will say that’s bipartisan, too. When I go around to Americans around the country, if you were to go to a room of Republicans and say, “Hey, how do you feel about Amazon paying zero in taxes”? They’re not excited about that. They feel like this economy is rigged against them and their families, and they’re generally correct, and that is bipartisan.
JI: You’ve proposed legalizing gambling at the federal level, regulating it.
JI: Yeah, online gambling.
AY: Just online poker.
JI: Yes. Regulating it heavily and using the revenue to treat gambling addiction. Can you talk through that? You say on your website that you think gambling addiction doesn’t get nearly enough attention, and it is a really important issue. How does legalizing gambling, even if you use the revenue, not make that problem worse?
AY: Any American who wants to gamble online on a poker site can do so from any state in the country right now. If it’s illegal in your state, you just end up using an offshore betting site, which is shady, has problems, but it’s not going to ease your gambling addiction at all. So the question is, do we want Americans, in the vast majority of the country, on offshore betting sites, dealing with shady characters and generating no revenue and still being addicted? [Yang’s campaign estimates that federally regulating the U.S. online poker market could raise $2.2 billion just in its first year. The campaign also argues that federal regulation would make it easier to combat money laundering.] Or would we prefer that they do business with American firms, where we do have better regulations, we know they’re not getting cheated, we know they’re not getting exploited, and you generate tax revenue that you can use to treat gambling addiction.
JI: So, what steps would you take to take that money and create a gambling addiction treatment program or system? So, what exactly would you do to get from A to B?
AY: I mean, you could make it so it’s analogous to what happened in the tobacco industry, [Obama signed into law the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in 2009, which gave the Food and Drug Administration authority to fully regulate the sale of tobacco products.] where there’s a certain level of revenue that gets set aside and then you have various public service announcements.
JI: In that system, a lot of that money didn’t actually go to treating tobacco-related health problems. A lot of it went to shoring up state budgets, and some of them even went to the tobacco industry actually, [In 2007 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that states direct 14% of funds from tobacco taxes and the national settlement toward anti-smoking campaigns, but most states have funneled it toward other areas, from agriculture to literacy.] so I don’t know if that’s the best model.
AY: Oh, you might not want to push the money to the states and then have them determine how to use it in their budgets. You could empower a national program or an agency to help administer it at the federal level, if you didn’t trust the states to actually use it in the right way.
JI: I actually really quickly want to go back to a question that Binya was asking you. You said, you gave us the example of parents with two kids and you’re on food stamps and you’re worried about your kids’ future. And at the end of that explanation, you said that you are not for curtailing social supports, but isn’t your plan such that, that mother, aside from what the kids would get in the future, that mother would have to choose between the food stamps and the actual UBI, right? Is that correct?
AY: That is correct. But when I’ve dug into it, very, very few Americans are getting $1,000 in food stamps. And most of the people who are on government assistance live in fear of losing that assistance because there are various requirements that tend to come with it. And when, if you ask them, say, “Hey, would you prefer $1,000 unconditional that you can rely upon,” they actually think that’s too good to be true.
JI: Sure. But to Binya’s point, it’s still a trade-off. So, if I’m on food stamps, I’m getting less of a benefit than, say, Jesse, who’s not on food stamps.
AY: Well to me, playing the relative benefit game, I mean of course in any large scale national program, it’s you can’t calibrate it precisely to everyone’s individual situation. To me the test is more, is that person going to be better off tomorrow than they are today?
KK: So I want to move on. We have some more personal questions for you.
KK: I think Mara’s going to kick you off.
MG: So, if you become president, what government secret are you most excited to learn about?
AY: Definitely aliens, of course.
AY: That’d be my first question if I got in there, I’d be, “All right, let me see them. Let’s see what we’ve been hiding all of these years.”
KK: And, who has broken your heart?
AY: Wow, these questions are really fun. Who’s broken my heart?
BS: Don’t be tactical now.
AY: This is — I mean, this is going to make me very sad to say, but I feel like I had an arc or a relationship with President Obama, where it was inspirational when he won. I was celebrating with my wife in the streets. And then over the years I began to feel like we’d missed a great opportunity. So, I’d say there was some heartbreak attached to that. And I worked with the president afterward, and I still admire him a great deal, but I think we could have done a lot more, and I don’t think opportunities like that come along very often. [The Obama administration named Yang a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship in 2015 and a Champion of Change in 2012.]
KK: For millions of Americans, church and religion are the centers of their communities. Do you believe in God? Do you go to church regularly? Who are your spiritual advisers?
AY: I grew up in an entirely secular household. [Yang was raised in New York; his parents immigrated from Taiwan.] My parents did not talk about God in the house, but I had this instinctive belief in a higher power. I had many Christian relatives. I went to church over holidays growing up quite often. And then I married my wife, Evelyn, who’s Christian. And so, we’re raising our kids in a Christian church. I go to church when I’m home, which is not very often unfortunately nowadays. I enjoy it. My faith is still very much a journey, but I’m unreservedly thrilled about the impact it has on my wife, my boys, my family, my community.
BS: Which denomination?
AY: It’s a progressive Protestant church. [Yang and his family began attending Sunday services at the Reformed Church of New Paltz after they purchased a home nearby in 2015. ] We primarily go upstate, where we have a house in a town called New Paltz. They’ve got a rainbow flag up front. It’s a very welcoming community.
MG: Actually just a quick follow-up. When was the last time you rode the subway?
AY: I rode the subway maybe six weeks ago or so. It’s become much more of a pain in the neck now that I actually get recognized. I confess that that’s been the biggest adjustment in running for president. Because I was, “No, I’m not going to get recognized on the street.” Of course, keep in mind, when I started my run I was completely anonymous. I mean none of you had ever heard of me. And also there is, and this is not to make too much of it, but there’s also this invisible Asian man thing. That you feel like all you have to do is just not want to be seen and then you disappear, and that doesn’t work anymore.
When I’m on the subway, people will look at me and then look at me. And then eventually someone will inch over and say, “Hey, you running for president”? And then I’ll say, “Yes, I am.” They’ll say, “Yeah, yeah, I like you. Thousand bucks a month,” something like that. And then they want to take pictures. And then as soon as someone breaks the seal, then it’s safe for everyone to do it. And so, then I’ll be — and then there’s this uncomfortable period in this subway car after you’ve taken the pictures with him, you’re still sitting there. And so then they’re, “So, where are you going? Or, how’s Bernie”? Or whatever the questions are. And so, I have not been riding the subway lately, but I’ve ridden the subway an awful lot over the years. Now my preferred mode of transportation is the bike, because if someone recognizes me, it’s generally too late.
KK: I thought you were going to say it’s a lot harder to ride the subway now because of the breakdowns of New York infrastructure. [In 2017, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency in New York’s subway and pledged $1 billion for improvements. The editorial board has repeatedly called for action to make the subways workable for this paper’s millions of readers.]
AY: That too. I mean, it’s rough. But I mean, New York’s going through — I just want to bring some things to you from experience. Like yeah, the infrastructure breaking down. I mean, we’re coasting on the investments made decades ago and they’re starting to fall apart. But also what you all do in terms of journalism — I’ve been campaigning around the country and over 1,200 local papers have gone out of business because the local establishments that used to advertise are gone. All of their classified revenue went off to Craigslist and democracy works much less if you don’t have local journalism. [A report released by PEN America in November found that more than 1,800 local print outlets have closed since 2004, and at least 200 counties have no newspaper.]
This, to me, is an emblem of what’s gone wrong in American life. Where the market is all knowing and all powerful, and if the market decides that local journalism has zero value, then it has zero value. And that is not the way forward for us. We need to make our own independent determination of our own value as people, of the value of local journalism, of the value of arts, of the value of volunteering, of caregiving, of — like all the most important things in American life. And so you, in many ways, you’re like the guardians of this incredible journalistic tradition, and it’s like a unique privilege because the people who’ve pursued the same vocation in other parts of the country are just seeing it disappear.
KK: Do you believe in government subsidies for journalism?
AY: Yes. I have three major pro-journalism proposals on my website, including federally funding journalists for every congressional district, billions of dollars in grants to help transition local journalism. [One criticism of government subsidized journalism is that it could stifle the media’s capacity to serve as a watchdog.] Matching grants, so you’re not like saying, “Hey, we’re going to do this.” But matching grants to help transition them to cooperative models of ownership to nonprofit and philanthropic models.
You can build it around the town library, because a lot of them have this bulletin board that serves as the skeleton of a local paper when the local paper has gone out of business. A lot of these papers would be able to get by if they did not have to generate stock market level returns for hedge fund owners and private equity owners. If you had a cooperative model and it’s made a certain amount of money, spent a certain amount of money, ran as a nonprofit, you could restore and sustain local journalism and thousands of communities, but it will not happen without government support. It just won’t.
KK: Think you might be overly optimistic. Maybe we’ll move on to foreign policy, if you don’t mind?
AY: Sure. Yeah.
Alex Kingsbury: Another thing the country’s invested in quite a lot is the military, and as commander in chief, you’d be in charge of that. Can you tell me how many aircraft carriers the United States Navy has?
AY: Oh my gosh.
AK: Whether or not the Navy is big enough to meet its commitments with the Chinese and the South China Sea? What’s going on in the Persian Gulf? What do you think?
AY: I think the number of aircraft carriers is either seven or nine. [The correct answer is 11.] I confess to not knowing precisely. In terms of our investment, we’re spending $650 billion plus on our military. Certainly more than any other country, but I think more than the next four countries combined, and we have to examine, at this stage, whether that $650 billion is making us safer and more secure.
What are the true threats of the 21st century? Climate change is number one, and then cybersecurity and AI, loose nuclear material, military drones in the hands of nonstate actors. It’s very hard to secure a location from something the size of a flying vacuum cleaner. That’s very, very difficult. So we’re entering an era where it’s going to be much easier to be offensive than defensive, and you don’t need massive levels of resources to cause significant levels of damage. To me, a new aircraft carrier does not make our elections any more secure from Russian hacking, which is the most direct threat to our democracy upcoming in this cycle. We’re spending money on the threats of the 20th century, and we need to try and modernize our approach as quickly as possible.
AK: The president at the moment is at a NATO summit, or he might’ve left —
AY: I saw the headlines about how people were making fun of him. [Trump canceled a planned news conference at a NATO gathering in December after a video circulated that showed world leaders including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and President Emmanuel Macron of France in what appeared to be a conversation mocking Trump.] I was like, “Oh man, this is really — we really have to put an end to this administration.”
AK: But one of his priorities has been to get our European allies to spend more money on their own defense. And I wonder if you think that that’s a worthwhile goal and how you might go about it, if you agree that that’s something that should be a priority for the United States.
AY: To me, one of the worst things you can do in a relationship is if you have this long-standing understanding or a friendship or partnership, and then you try and change the understanding at a particular point in time and do it unilaterally.
We need to let our historic allies know that our commitments are good, and that if we want to make a change, we want to do it in a way that’s not pulling the rug out from under you but actually consultative. If we want other people to invest more, then we have to try and sit down with them and drive them to do so without questioning our commitment to NATO wholesale. But to me, trying to nickel-and-dime our relationships with our historic allies is not the best way forward. I think it was James Mattis that said that if you invest more in diplomacy, you have to invest less in ammunition, which should be the goal. [In response to announcements about . Trump’s planned cuts to State Department funding, retired generals wrote a letter to lawmakers citing Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ 2013 comment, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”] So we need to make sure our partnerships and alliances are actually strong, stable and secure, and then we can put pressure on Russia and China with more of a global consensus, and maintain the international world order that’s benefited us for decades that now is falling apart because Donald Trump is so erratic and unreliable, even with the people we’ve been allies with for decades.
AK: Speaking of allies, should Ukraine be invited to join NATO? I know that Ukraine’s received sort of undue influence on this election, but going forward?
AY: I mean, that’s not solely an American decision. NATO expansion is something that is fraught and elevates tensions with Russia in particular. I think we should explore it. I’m sympathetic, but it’s not a decision we can make alone. [A recent poll found that roughly 50% of the Ukrainian population favors joining NATO, though Hungary’s foreign minister recently said his country would block Ukrainian membership unless Ukraine changed a policy restricting its citizens’ use of minority languages.]
KK: Do you think — speaking of allies, do you think Turkey is still an ally to the United States, and do you think the U.S. should have nuclear weapons there?
AY: This is what’s so tough right now is that countries are trying to figure out what are the benefits of being an ally of the United States and doing what we want them to do, and then what are the costs. Unfortunately that calculation is going against us more and more. Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. has been stronger than our relationship with many other countries in that region. I think we should invest in that relationship if we’re going to be able to accomplish any of our goals there. And that includes, to me, being a little bit more accommodating about behaviors that we might find objectionable or troubling from them than we might from another country.
Serge Schmemann: Yeah. And staying with relationships and alliances, President Trump has reversed several key policies the United States has had toward Israel. He’s moved the embassy to Jerusalem, he’s recognized sovereignty over the Golan Heights, et cetera, et cetera. Would you reverse those?
AY: Historically, we’ve endorsed a two-state solution, which has always struck me as the best way forward, and I think it’s really unfortunate that Donald Trump has moved us away from that to the extent that he has. I would try to move us back in that direction. [Yang has frequently reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution but has not released any detailed plans about how he would advance an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan or address Trump’s policies in the region. He told the Council on Foreign Relations, “I don’t want to prescribe the specifics of a two-state solution, as the Israeli and Palestinian people both need to be leading any conversation, and I look forward to engaging with all stakeholders.”]
SS: OK. Again, about your responsibilities as president. One of the heaviest ones would be waging war. When you look back on the conflicts into which recent presidents have put us, would you support this? Is this something you would have done in Syria, in Libya, in Kosovo? Would you have sent troops there?
AY: So I have a three-part test for sending troops into harm’s way. Number one, it needs to advance a vital American interest or avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Number two, it has to have a clearly defined timeline where we can look troops in the eyes and say, “It’s going to take this long and you’re going to be able to accomplish our mission and then you’re going to be able to come home.” And not some boardroom self-delusion, like you actually believe that you’re going to get it done and then be able to bring them home in that time frame. And number three, we’re not going in alone; there are allies joining us in the mission. If those three things are in place, then I would consider sending our troops into harm’s way.
Generally speaking, I think we have become overly aggressive and optimistic about what we can accomplish in various foreign theaters. I’ve signed a pledge to end the forever wars because I don’t believe it’s the will of the American people for us to be in a constant state of armed conflict in foreign theaters for years and even decades at a time. [Common Defense’s “End the Forever War” pledge advocates for an “expedient conclusion” to the global war on terror and American military involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, and Yang became the fourth candidate to sign on, in May, following Sanders and Warren (and former Sen. Mike Gravel).] Our Constitution says that it’s in Congress’ hands to declare war, but Congress has completely ceded this authority through the AUMF [Authorization for Use of Military Force] and then just said, “Hey, executive branch, you can do what you want.” And now they want nothing to do with it, and that is not the will of the American people, and it’s not the will of the Constitution. So we should repeal the AUMF and say, “Look, Congress, if we want to authorize armed conflict, it should be on you and it should be the will of the people.”
SS: Concretely, would you have sent troops, say, to Syria?
AY: No. I’d have to look at the facts at the time that that decision was being made.
James Dao: Can I pose a future hypothetical? If the Chinese government were to flood Hong Kong with milit ary troops after you were president an d impose a violent crackdown, similar to, say, Tiananmen Square in 1989, what would you do?
AY: I have family in Hong Kong. I spent a semester there in college, and so when I see those streets wracked with riots and violence, I actually remember being on those streets. And so it’s incredibly jarring, and it’s an extraordinary situation because of Hong Kong’s status as this semiautonomous region that’s being reintegrated back into China.
Our best path forward with China is to try and have them continue to show restraint, but also see that the costs to human rights abuse is not just in Hong Kong, but with their ethnic minorities and the Muslim population of Uighurs, that the costs are higher than their perceived benefits of maintaining social order and stability. In order to have those costs feel real to the Chinese, we can’t just moralize and say, “Hey, do the right thing.” Because at this point they’re looking at us and saying like, “Keep your opinions and value statements to yourselves.”
We have to be working toward China’s second main priority, which is maintaining robust economic growth. So there are two goals. There are two primary goals that are sometimes in tension, of maintaining social order and maintaining robust economic growth. And the best way we can try and contain their behavior in Hong Kong is to say, “Look, the economic costs are going to be very, very high.” And the best way we can do that is to build global consensus around certain norms and behaviors.
At the last debate, I proposed a world data organization, because to me, China’s in position to leapfrog us in artificial intelligence. They’re investing tens of billions in a way that our government is not. It’s a national effort. And they’ve now separated their technology ecosystem from the West’s and they’re trying to sell their software and operating systems to other countries with very limited success right now, but this parallel tech universe, to me, is something that we can actually use to bring China back to the table.
That’s why something like world data organization is so vital. When they had to join the WTO [World Trade Organization], they realized this was going to be vital to their economic growth, so they’re going to have to make some decisions and compromises in order to join the world order. We can create an analogous situation for data and technology and then use that to try and curb some of their worst abuses and behaviors. Now, is this going to happen in time to help Hong Kong? I certainly hope so. I mean, I certainly hope that they don’t flood the streets of Hong Kong with troops any time in the next number of days or weeks. [Yang has been critical of China’s “increasingly authoritarian” behavior and told the Council on Foreign Relations the United States must in reply demonstrate “a model for democratic capitalism.”]
KK: And do you think President Xi is a dictator?
AY: I think he meets just about every conventional definition of dictator. Yes.
Charlie Warzel: You were talking about data and that’s a good segue into some of the — I mean, you’re probably the candidate who sort of runs on understanding the internet better than anyone right now. And I’m curious first about this worldwide data organization. [Mr. Yang has proposed what he describes as “a WTO for data” and has argued that data ownership should be made a property right. Some argue that such an organization could enable more partnership among countries in setting standards for artificial intelligence and data. ] For someone like China, wouldn’t it actually be better for them to sort of hoard that data and hoard that information and keep that closed system?
AY: So this is the carrot and the stick. So imagine if you had data standards that were endorsed by the U.S., the E.U., and Japan, and it had certain technology protocols associated with it. Then China said, “Hey, I don’t want to adhere to that.” Because like you said, they like to hoard data, and one of the reasons why they’re in position to leapfrog us is they have more data than we do and they have essentially nonexistent privacy rights or regulations. They have complete surveillance. That’s one reason why they’ve banned masks in Hong Kong, so that their surveillance technology can pick up who the protesters are. So China has its own vast hoard of data. [There has been a continuing controversy over Hong Kong’s law banning masks to target anti-government protesters. One court ruling found it unconstitutional, but a later ruling temporarily reinstated it.]
But for them the challenge is not even what’s happening internally. The challenge is whether or not they can get developing countries on board with their technology standards to be able to roll them out internationally. So if you’re a third party, let’s say you’re a developing country in Africa or Latin America, then you have a choice essentially between the global standard and the Chinese standard. And if you’re the Chinese, you do not want a standard that only you are using over time, because that’s going to curb your economic upside to all of the software that you’re building. One of the reasons why our tech companies are so successful is that they export it to virtually the entire rest of the world, and China does not want to be in the opposite position.
CW: I’m curious, then, focusing on the U.S., a couple of months ago the general counsel for the NSA wrote an Op-Ed for us and was worried about this big challenge of the government not being able to acquire the tech talent. That Silicon Valley is actually so much more attractive, so much more interesting there. And that when you’re looking at 5G technology, quantum computing, technology, AI, not having engineers in that space and sort of outsourcing that to the private sector is potentially incredibly dangerous. Like how do you actually make people want to come and bring that engineering talent to the federal government, rather than ——
KK: Especially given your proposal for Department of the Attention Economy.
AY: Well, the Department of the Attention Economy would likely be based in Silicon Valley, and it’d be run by a guy named Tristan Harris, [Yang has been the most vocal of all candidates about privacy issues. Tristan Harris, whom he has alluded to in discussing the Department of the Attention Economy, spent three years as a Google design ethicist. He left to found the Center for Humane Technology, a nonprofit that seeks to address the “digital attention crisis.” ] who’s a design ethicist. He started Time Well Spent. So I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that you need to try and bring everyone into the cubicles in D.C. to get the rules —
KK: I meant more make people want to work for government? And I think that’s your question, right?
CW: Yeah. Rather than, you know, a big exit or something like that. Sexy startup.
AY: So the clearest emblem of this is NASA and space travel where we all watched the Apollo 13 movies and we’ve seen the armies of research scientists helping launch these missions. Now where those research scientists? They’re all at Space X and Blue Origin and they’re there working for the tech guys who are putting billions into it. It’s going to be very, very difficult to somehow reverse essentially decades of talent migration into the private sector. And if you’re a talented kid out of Stanford, why would you work for the federal government? It’s like if you’re working in the private sector, you feel like you’re going to go faster, you’re certainly going to get paid more. You’re going to be working with smarter people and you idolize Elon Musk, like who the heck, you know?
KK: Yeah, that’s literally our question.
AY: Yeah. And I will say on a personal level, I spent seven years recruiting some of our top educational products to Detroit, Cleveland, Birmingham, St. Louis. So I have seen that essentially the tide has turned in the direction it’s gone and we should not be relying upon the government as the primary employer of a lot of this tech talent. [Through Venture for America, Yang created opportunities for college graduates in under-resourced American cities — but almost half of VFA alumni left the cities they were placed in through the fellowship.] We have to face facts and say, at this point, most of the intellectual capital is being attracted to these private firms and we need to instead try and support and work with the private firms.
CW: Well, what about when it comes to like the NSA and the technology they have and the surveillance? You don’t want Google doing surveillance of people here and abroad?
BS: Any more than they already are.
CW: More than they already are. Right.
AY: More than they already are.
CW: But doing it in a national security sense. Or do you?
AY: I mean, the question is what trade-offs you’re willing to make, really. The NSA is going to be able to recruit the tech talent that he can recruit and you want to try and ramp that up. So one thing —
CW: They’re worried about it.
AY: They should be, I mean clearly. Because if you spend time on these campuses, you know where they’re going. So one thing you can do that’s very, very fast and immediate is you can become much more flexible in terms of compensation and a type of work environment.
So if you had, for example, a rule that said, “Look, the government is allowed to match whatever salary a private sector employee is being offered, then you’d have more success.” [Yang has said “most Americans don’t want to work for the federal government” and argued that his Freedom Dividend would therefore be more effective than a program like a federal jobs guarantee.] If you said, “Look, you don’t need to move to Washington, D.C., and sit in the thing that was built decades ago, that’s like solace, and you have this giant parking lot and you just feel miserable being there for like a day, let alone a career.”
It seems like a nice place to work. Then you might have greater success. We also saw this happen even with the rollout of healthcare.gov. Remember this? It’s like they had the consultant and then they totally botched it and then they needed to bring in the —
BS: Remember The New Yorker cartoon?
BS: The New Yorker cartoon. They had a secretary with like a floppy disk. With her glasses pulled down and her fingers crossed.
AY: And it’s not just the leading edge NSA-type stuff. If you look around congressional offices or the IRS, they’re all using technology from the ’90s or whatever it is. I had a whiz kid who said he got yelled at for writing a script in a congressional office that automated a task. They were like, “No, we just wanted you to do it manually forever.” So there needs to be a massive modernization effort. Not just in terms of how we recruit tech talent at the highest levels, but how we function even in the basics.
CW: Sort of pivoting off of that, you said that Sen. Warren’s taking sort of a 20th-century antitrust framework to big tech. What does a 21st-century framework look like in that?
AY: The 21st-century framework. First, you don’t use price as your primary determinant of whether or not there are antitrust problems, because the tech companies would say, “What? We would never gouge anyone. It’s free. We’re underselling everyone.” So that you have to get rid of, and that’s not something she’s advocating, but what she is advocating, which I find to be a bit backward looking, is thinking that competition is the answer in these spaces. And competition misses the point in one way and another way. [The Electronic Frontier Foundation, like Yang, has argued that the country’s approach to antitrust regulation is outmoded. In early 2019, the Federal Trade Commission created a new task force focused on monitoring competition in technology markets, which the foundation celebrated as a step toward modernizing antitrust.]
Let me explain. I’m a parent. I’ve got — how many of you all are parents? So if your kids are like my kids, they are mesmerized by any screen that is nearby. I regularly challenge my kids. I say, “What’s more important? People or screens?” And they know the right answer’s people. And then if they say screens, then I hold them upside down by their ankles until they say, “People, people.” And the people that are most diligent about screen time are the tech folks in Silicon Valley. You go there, and all of a sudden there’s not a screen to be had because they know that we have the smartest engineers in the country turning supercomputers into dopamine delivery devices for kids, because that’s how they make their millions of dollars.
So if that’s your problem and you break Facebook into Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, does that somehow make the kids stronger or healthier? No. If anything, it actually ratchets up the incentives to try and further their engagement.
So if that’s your problem, you have to go and try and solve it directly by getting into the guts of the apps and say, “What are the design choices you made?” Let’s calibrate them so they actually balance our kids’ health and not just your financial returns. So that’s one way she’s missing the point.
The other way is that many of these competitive markets end up very quickly accelerating toward one or two winners and saying, “I’m going to break you up.” Does not solve that problem. I joke that it would be cruel and unusual punishment to say you have to use the fourth-best navigation app. Like what is that? Apple Maps. We all hate Apple Maps, right? If you use that thing, you’re like, “Oh.” You curse the gods until you figure out how to get Google Maps going. So going up and saying, “Look, you’re the winner in the space. We’re going to break you up,” it doesn’t revive Main Street businesses, and it doesn’t actually end up solving the competition problem.
If you want to solve the hyperacquisition problem, which is a problem, then you have to go in and say, “Look, you have to not acquire businesses that are in your space with these criteria.” That would be a legitimate stance to take, because right now the business model in Silicon Valley is not to try and outcompete the behemoth. It’s just to get bought by them. [Over the past five years, 90% of AI startups in Silicon Valley were acquired by major companies, according to TechCrunch.] If you get to a point where they’ll offer you $1 billion and you win, your investors win, you’re rich and then these get folded in, and it doesn’t even matter what they do with your business at that point.
BA: You’ve expressed profound distrust of market forces. You just compared the major tech companies to drug dealers, and you want the NSA to outsource national security work to them?
AY: I do not want the NSA to outsource national security work to them. I want them to try and fight fire with fire and actually recruit using some of the same methods, and I want the NSA to try and work with them to the extent that they’re realistic, and they know that Google is going to be innovating in ways that the NSA. will not be able to do.
CW: Going back though, my question is, there’s an issue of power here. I mean, sure. You might not want to. You might not be able to address the problems of Facebook if you break it up from Instagram, and I understand that, and there’s still going to be addictive products, but there’s an issue of the consolidation of actual power, the ability to buy those companies, to make those acquisitions. Just simply the leverage that Mark Zuckerberg can use to have a meeting with Donald Trump that they won’t tell us about, I mean, how do you — if you don’t break them up, how do you get rid of that conglomeration of power?
NF: I mean, is there still a role for 20th-century antitrust?
AY: Yes. All of this is a prelude to say that, should some of the tech companies be asked to divest parts of their businesses? One hundred percent yes. Like Amazon should not be selling its own house brand to its advantage to other goods. These companies do have excessive power and influence. At this point you could argue they control our democracy.
So, and I know The New York Times, I mean you’ve had your issues with Facebook and the rest of it, and they made a change and then all sorts of things happen. [Listening to the tape, we have no idea what this means.]
So, right now, the government is like this flopping appendage behind a lot of this stuff. I mean, honestly. The Office of Technology Assessment was eliminated in 1995. So our legislature is literally 24 years behind the curve on technology, and they don’t understand. They’re totally outgunned. They don’t know what’s going on.
So you definitely need to bring the tech companies to heel and say, “Look, here are the list of problems we’re concerned about.” But the solution to the abuse of power is not to say like, “Hey, we’re just going to try and keep anyone in the country from having the ability to do wrong.” What you have to do is you have to figure out what the abuses you’re concerned about are, and then actually address them directly.
CW: Who else besides you that you’re running against understands the internet?
AY: I haven’t hung out with enough of them to know, but I’m confident I understand the internet better than the [cross talk] —
CW: What’s your gut feeling? Who gets it?
AY: I’m going to say I do not have confidence that any of my opponents get the internet.
KK: We’re running out of time. [One area we had hoped to ask about but ran out of time was climate solutions, specifically diving deep on his plans for nuclear energy.] So I’m actually going to — Jesse has one last question.
Jesse Wegman: I wanted to ask you — I was looking at the pin on your lapel , “MATH,” [The slogan stands for “Make America Think Harder.” ] and I just wanted you to sort of get down to nuts and bolts a little with regard to what you’re trying to do here. What’s your math to winning the —
AY: To victory?
KK: Can we add to that? What do you attribute your fundraising to from last month? Taking in $750,000 in 24 hours.
AY: Well, we put up a goal on the website, and my supporters do not like to miss goals. And so we just had an aggressive goal, and we were $750,000 short in the last day. So then we raised $750,000 in that day and then we made the goal. So it turns out having goals is very positive for human beings, and our campaign’s continuing to grow by leaps and bounds. [Yang surprised the Democratic field with a 257% fundraising surge in October.] That’s one reason why we’re going to shock the world when the voting starts in February.
KK: So walk us through Jesse’s —
JW: So you’re polling in the low single digits now. What’s the math to get you into the top tier and through the first primary states?
AY: Sure. So if you look at the numbers, you’ve seen the same things that we see. You have four front-runners, but the support is very, very soft. Most people are saying they could change their mind. And there are a lot of people that say they still have not made up their mind. Then you have my campaign, which is growing organically. We’ve grown by, essentially, a percent a month over the last period. And that’s without the benefit of any paid messaging or advertising.
We started advertising approximately three weeks ago. The lag time before advertising actually starts showing up in the polls is between three and six weeks. So you are likely to see our poll numbers rise. And more and more Americans are tuning in right now. We’re going to grow and grow and peak at the right time. We think we can do well, particularly, in New Hampshire, upcoming, because it’s an open primary and my campaign has a very strong appeal to independents, Libertarians and many, many disaffected Trump voters. I spoke to half a dozen Trump voters at my events in New Hampshire yesterday and they said that they are crossing party lines to support me.
JW: Do you support ranked choice voting?
AY: Yes. I have all these democracy reforms. So ranked choice voting, make Election Day a holiday, have vote by mail. I would lower the voting age to 16. Make every high school in the country a hotbed of political activity. Sixteen-year-olds can pay taxes, and they’re going to be on this planet longer. They should have a say in where their taxes go. [Yang is the first presidential candidate to support lowering the voting age to 16. A recent poll found that 84% of Americans oppose the idea.]
KK: Michelle, do you have a —
MC: You’ve got a week to make the next debate.
AY: I might have made it while we’re sitting here.
MC: It’s true. I have not checked my phone. But if you don’t, how do you work around this? Do you have a plan B? What do you do?
AY: I expect we’re going to make the debate, but we’ve been growing independent of the debate, I’m happy to say. [Yang’s support has indeed been growing in Iowa in recent months, with some polls finding him ahead of Pete Buttigieg.] And for better or for worse, the influence of the debates seems to be waning along with the viewership. So we’re going to be here the whole way, regardless. Our support base is independent of those appearances. But we’re going to make the debate. I’m going to continue to make my case to the American people. You’re going to see us grow and grow, and peak at exactly Feb. 3.
KK: For our last about minute, Brent, do you want to —
BS: What are you likely to fail at as president?
AY: I will fail at many things, I’m sure. Keep in mind, I am married. So I understand my daily failures.
BS : Your failing.
AY: One thing I’ve learned, even as a candidate, that I’ve struggled with, truthfully, is that an entire organization hinges upon your day-to-day decisions or movements. And I know as president that will be amplified to a very, very high level.
I like being a relatively normal citizen. I like being able to go to places and find things out and have normal conversations. I think that’s going to be a real challenge for me because I’ve seen, even now, people are more likely to tell you positive things or things you want to hear than the bad stuff. And so I think it’s going to be a challenge for me to understand what’s happening behind the smiling faces and the people that work for me and my administration.
It’s going to be hard for me to get out to the American people because anytime you go out, you’re going to be surrounded by a phalanx of press and staff and the rest of it. So I need to find ways to overcome that challenge.
I’m feeling it even now, because I am a layperson who decided to run for president, currently fifth in the polls, and that there’ve been many transitions on a personal level. I think one of my primary qualifications to be president of the United States is that I actually do not socialize very easily. By that, what I mean is, I don’t take myself that seriously. I don’t stand on ceremony. I don’t think I’m better than anyone. And I think that’s the kind of leader we need right now.
BS: You’ve made clear, at least in your early comments, that it’s of primary importance for you to defeat Trump.
BS : At some point, you may decide that your chances of becoming nominee are diminishing. What could you do, outside of being a nominee, to help defeat Trump?
AY: There are many of the candidates that I’ve built a rapport with, I would be thrilled to campaign for. I believe I can help make sure that Donald Trump is a one-term president. Best as the nominee, but as someone campaigning for the nominee, I believe I could be very helpful there, too.
KK: Would you support any Democratic candidate who ultimately won the nomination?
AY: Yes, I would.
KK: All right. Thank you very much for your time.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .