October 2, 2019

FOX | Andrew Yang’s Most Intriguing Idea Doesn’t Include $1,000 a Month

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To the surprise of many, entrepreneur Andrew Yang has so far outpaced numerous veteran politicians in the Democratic presidential primary, bringing in an impressive third-quarter fundraising haul of $10 million dollars and polling at 10 percent among college students. Yang has risen to prominence largely on his plan to institute a universal basic income of $1,000 per month to every American adult. But another of his plans, Human-Centered Capitalism, may be among the most important ideas brought into presidential politics since Bill Clinton’s attempt at health care reform.

More a bold aspiration than a policy proposal, the plan, in summary, is to shift our perspective of national success away from metrics of financial and economic progress, and toward measurement of “maximizing human well-being and fulfillment.” Rather than touting a growing GDP or soaring stock market as proof of progress, Yang seeks to understand our achievement as a society in terms of “median income and standard of living, health-adjusted life expectancy, mental health, childhood success rates, social and economic mobility, absence of substance abuse and others.”

This type of thinking is attractive in a country that, by current criteria, seems to be doing better each year. A decade into a stretch of unprecedented job growth, unemployment is at a historic low, and the country has a record number of job openings. Wages are finally climbing and GDP continues to grow.

But under the surface, we are plagued by problems not easily assessed through standard measurements of the state of our union. For the first time since World War I, life expectancy in the country is declining, a trend now three years running. This can be largely attributed to a sharp spike in drug overdoses, an increase in liver disease and a steady rise in the national suicide rate. Clinical depression among adolescents has climbed 37 percent over a decade. Of course, perhaps above all, the global climate crisis continues to spiral out of control. Government acknowledgment of the crisis varies from considerable to nil, depending on the administration, but it has yet to make its way into our collective assessment of prosperity.

Classical economic theory holds that in a capitalist system, widespread pursuit of self-interest will naturally improve the lot of the entire society. The growth in national wealth is, in other words, an externality of market forces. Under Yang’s plan, “Markets exist to serve our common goals and values.”

To be sure, most candidates in the Democratic primary are shedding light on at least some of the issues that our society continues to face outside of the standard economic metrics. “Climate change” is slowly transitioning to “climate crisis” in the national vernacular. Media focus on the opioid epidemic and concerns about the skyrocketing cost of health care are prevalent and growing. But our official methods of measuring the country’s success have remained stagnant since the Great Depression. Aspects of a healthy country such as environmental stewardship, infrastructure quality, infant mortality and wealth inequality are not sufficiently addressed in a decentralized fashion while the primary statistics the government focuses on are inflation and GDP. We are long overdue for a reassessment of our priorities.

Yang’s campaign slogan, “Humanity First,” conveys both the elevation of workers over the machines who are replacing them at an alarming rate and the need to reverse the diminished importance of health and happiness next to sheer growth. It is high time that we begin to officially judge ourselves on measurable components of national well-being — the health and happiness of each person and community above the number of dollars flowing through our stagnant system. Money is a helpful stand-in, especially when public policy is able to deliver it into the hands of those who need it and reverse wealth stratification. But until we align our government’s accounting and priorities with the most intrinsically human ones, the disconnect between citizen and state will persist, and societal outcomes will suffer.

I have my problems with the Yang campaign. It has not successfully made the case that a man with no experience in government ought to serve as the country’s chief executive. Yang’s reliance on quasi-Reaganesque talking points that diminish the value of government are troubling, especially in an era in which large-scale government mobilization is necessary to tackle problems far too large for individuals or the private sector to address through the market.

The purpose of the primary is to vet each candidate and allow the voters to decide who best represents their interests, and Yang will be given the same treatment as the others on the overcrowded debate stage. Until the belief catches on that our government’s priorities in measurement and action must put humanity first, his presence in the debates, and then in our national conversation will be not just assured, but necessary.

Elijah Fox is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at efox@cornellsun.com. What Does the Fox Say? runs every other Thursday this semester.