A lawyer and veteran of the startup world (but don’t call him a VC), Andrew Yang rose to national prominence during his 2020 campaign for president. A hard-fought battle in a crowded field, Yang made a name for himself as an outsider candidate, heavily favoring a technocratic approach to policy that reflected his entrepreneurial background.
His approach earned a sizable following through a self-stylized Yang Gang of supporters. In particular, his “Freedom Dividend” proposal helped reintroduce concepts of universal basic income (UBI) back into mainstream American discourse.
Yang dropped out of the race in February 2020, after failing to crack 3% in the New Hampshire primary. At the time, he told supporters, “we’re just getting started.” In January of this year, he announced his candidacy for mayor of New York in a bid to succeed fellow 2020 presidential candidate Bill de Blasio. Once again, Yang has entered a crowded field. This time, however, he does so with national name recognition that has helped propel him to the top of polls.
Like the presidential election before it, the New York City mayoral race comes at an unprecedented time. More than a year after becoming the epicenter of the pandemic, the city is still reeling from the impact of COVID-19. It has made for a unique campaign, with candidates relying on social media more than ever — to sometimes mixed results.
As the United States’ largest city looks to reopen, the next mayor will face unique challenges — and, perhaps, opportunities. We spoke with Yang over Zoom to discuss his hopes for the city and the role technology might play in getting there.
You are on record as being supportive of the Amazon Union. They were dealt a big blow recently with the vote. In 2021, what do you think is the best course of action for blue-collar and gig workers going forward?
Anyone who’s been keeping up with me knows I am deeply concerned about the impact of technology on blue-collar workers, in particular. If you look at anything from trucking to retail, to even things like butchering and meatpacking, we’re automating them away, much more quickly.
There are some instances where unions can help, but if you look at the macro-environment, the proportion of American workers who are unionized has gone down by about half. And so, we should do much more for workers who right now don’t have benefits in terms of portable benefits programs.
I think versions of freelancing and the gig economy are here to stay. And a lot of those workers don’t have meaningful benefits in terms of healthcare or retirement or other provisions. We essentially are running an industrial-era economy that has transformed, but our institutions haven’t caught up, and we need to try and get them to catch up as quickly as possible.
We’ve been seeing a lot of union movement in tech. Kickstarter is a good example. Do you think unions should play a role in both blue and white-collar tech jobs?
I was for the union drive in the Amazon warehouse, because I think it would have created really positive pressure on Amazon to treat workers better in many different environments. I’m for really rethinking a lot of the things we’re doing right now, where if you look at top-line, Keynes predicted that by now we’d be so wealthy that we’d be working only 15 hours a week. And he was right about the top-line growth. We are as wealthy as he predicted, but our work weeks are getting longer, not shorter. And that’s having adverse consequences for people of every background, white collar, blue collar.
I think we should be exploring bigger modifications, like a four-day work week, which studies have shown that we can get the same amount done in four days in many, many environments. And then our mental health would improve. Our outlooks would improve. So I think we should be thinking bigger. And right now unions have been a path of the middle class for many, many Americans, but I don’t think it’s going to be unions alone that can solve some of these problems, particularly in many environments where unions aren’t terribly prevalent.
You recently said that letting Amazon and its 26,000 jobs walk away from New York City was not a good thing in reference to HQ2. But you, along with other Democratic politicians, have criticized the fact that they don’t pay federal taxes. If a company like Amazon were to relocate or bring a substantial number of jobs in New York City, how would you hold them accountable?
I guess there’s a difference between the local impact and the federal impact. I don’t think it’s a good thing that a trillion-dollar company doesn’t pay any federal taxes, but if you are a locality and someone comes along and it’s going to be good for your community, then you say, “yes.” I want to make the case that New York City loves business. It loves businesses big and small that are based here. And it wants more companies to know that New York City is the best place to build a world-class company and culture. So, that would be my stance as mayor, if a large tech company wanted to come to New York, and if there’s a large tech company that’s reading this right now or a small one or an entrepreneur, come to New York! Early next year, if I’m mayor, I’m going to be doing everything I can to help you.
A lot of the pushback that they were getting were around incentives. Is there a way to bring a company like Amazon into New York without offering that?
I don’t think it’s good when localities end up bidding against each other to try and bring in various companies. One of my proposals when I was running for national office was that we should actually make it impossible to do so by making any benefits that are provided to a company in that manner themselves taxable, at a rate of a 100%.
So, the entire thing becomes a non-starter and companies then would be based where they think it’s most advantageous to their organization to be based, not by pitting cities against each other as to who’s going to bend over backwards the most. I think that would be a better system and people were upset about the level of subsidies that were supposed to be directed to Amazon with HQ2, and that was legitimate concern.
And some of the local impacts were also of legitimate concern. But again, big picture, you cannot let an employer that’s going to create 26,000 high-paying jobs and probably an additional 100,000 or so service jobs walk away. You have to say New York City is the place for you.
Among U.S. politicians, you’re probably the most closely associated with the concept of UBI. Is that something you see being implemented on a city level?
There’ve been dozens of cities at this point that have either already rolled out some kind of basic income trial or are exploring doing so. And I’ve committed to making New York City the home for perhaps the biggest basic income trial outside of our federal government, sending everyone stimulus checks (which by the way I loved). And I think that cash relief and other measures are the future. So of course, I’m going to make New York City the site for one of the biggest basic income programs and in the country. And I think people are increasingly recognizing that it’s the best way to give many people a chance to be healthier, mentally healthier, more stable, more enterprising, more creative, more nurturing.
Some of the pushback against UBI is around the loss of a social safety net. Do you think that there’s a way to implement it in New York City without getting rid of some of these existing benefits?
Yeah. The program we’re looking to roll out in New York targets the extreme poor, and would have no interaction with existing social safety nets. And I think that, again, cities around the country have made this work. And in no case that I’m aware of, has it actually interfered with someone’s ability to aid get from an existing program.
Can and should government effectively regulate against the implementation of robotics and automation when it comes to job loss?
I think economy-wide, that would be a completely ineffective strategy. It’d be almost impossible to implement. There might be an isolated case where you could do something that would make sense, but even then, I don’t think it’s the best way to go. I think the better approach is to try and speed up the evolution of our economy so that it works for more and more people, even as technology is advancing. And I do believe cash relief and universal basic income are the first big step. And we all know the pandemic has accelerated many of these trends. Anyone that reads TechCrunch knows that automation technologies have been elevated in terms of corporate priorities.
You tweeted that you would invest in making the city a hub for BTC and other cryptocurrencies. You’ve also been pretty vocal about climate change. Is that a hard square to circle?
Most of the cryptocurrencies that are out there, frankly, have already been mined. And so it’s not like you necessarily are looking at consuming tons of energy, if you say that the world’s financial capital in New York City is going to be very friendly to cryptocurrencies. And we’re talking about a trillion-dollar asset class at this point. If you are the financial capital, you have to make sure that your city is among the leaders in developing applications. I’ve been in touch with various people from the cryptocurrency community about ways that we can make New York City a proving ground for some of the applications that people have been working on.
Beyond cryptocurrency, what role do you see technology playing in bringing people and businesses back to the city, following the pandemic?
I was talking to my friend, Eliot Horowitz, who is one of the co-founders of MongoDB, and he’s starting a new company around robotics. He says that when he’s trying to recruit people for his new company and says, “we’re headquartered in New York City and you would be based here” they are excited about it. A lot of people want to live in New York City.
New York City has the potential to be number one in technology, in part because I think the next generation of technologies will very much interact hand in hand with other industries, like the way that Peloton is a tech company, but it’s also a fitness and a exercise equipment company. You can see that New York City remains the hub for finance, but also for culture and branding and tourism and fashion and art and other industries.
This is going to be an incredible time for New York City to take advantage of its stature and the breadth of diversity of our economy to be competitive for any tech company.
For a lot of companies working from home is becoming the standard. When so many tech companies in particular are opening up to remote work, how do you keep people excited about coming to a place like New York when they could potentially work from anywhere?
I think right now a lot of people are still adapting. If, let’s say, you’ve worked remotely for a year (and that can mean a lot of different things), but a lot of people want to be able to go outside and experience the food, the culture, the nightlife, the companionship of a place like New York. And one thing that I know that tech companies prize is the ability to innovate and create. And studies have shown very consistently that workers are more creative and innovative when they’re together in the same office. That’s even true for academics producing research, that academics in the same physical proximity produce higher-level research.
And technology is the kind of industry where if you have even a tiny, competitive edge, it can be worth an incredible amount. And so if you imagine that Zoom is essentially like an equalizer, like a place like New York City will be a competitive edge and Eliot Horowitz is already experiencing that. I think that there are a lot of other companies that already know that. I talk to CEOs who are champing at the bit to get people back into the office for this reason.
Does that mean some form of incentivizing businesses to bring people physically together into offices?
I wouldn’t rule anything out where New York City is concerned, because that is going to be central to our case. New York City is a premium environment, and there are ways that we can help establish that premium by helping people understand just what we can do for companies that are trying to grow and compete.
What are your top cybersecurity priorities for New York?
It’s tough because, the fact is a lot of these systems are vulnerable right now. A lot of public agencies haven’t really properly invested in cybersecurity. So my priority would be to identify, frankly, the elements of New York’s infrastructure, that if they were hacked, it would be especially crippling and devastating, and invest in countermeasures trying to protect those assets as quickly as possible. Frankly, recognizing that it’s impossible to be a hundred percent secure in a lot of these arenas, but we can control our risks better than what we’re doing right now, I’m sure.
You got pushback against the food cart comments on Twitter earlier this week. Do you have any regrets about the ways in which you’ve used social media during the campaign?
If you look at my social media, the vast, vast majority of it is promoting being out and about New York City, whether it’s a restaurant that my wife and I are having dinner at, or attending a Yankee’s game at Yankee Stadium (though I am a Mets fan). when I walked the streets of New York City, people are really excited to see me most all the time. And then I’ll often take a picture with them, and I posted one today that I think made that person very happy.
So I think that my use of social media is hopefully giving people a glimpse into where New York is heading, and the fact that frankly, we can activate a news cycle based upon social media is something that I think is very positive, generally. And it’s something that I hope to use to benefit New York when I’m mayor.