The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future
Hachette Books, 2018, 304 pp., $28.00
It’s hard not to root for Andrew Yang, whose lack of pretention and sincerity set him apart in the contest for the 2020 Democratic nomination. While other candidates parade their righteous fury, fume at each other, and compete to see who can denounce the President most forcefully and contemptuously, Yang calmly sets forth a political vision that is, at least on its own terms, quite compelling.
As he tells it, we are in the beginning stages of an earthshaking crisis—what he calls The Great Displacement—in which huge swaths of American workers will lose their livelihoods to machines whose capabilities will exceed their own. A minority will help steer these developments and become fabulously wealthy, a larger class of service professionals will make good livings working for them, and some others may find enough breadcrumbs to make their way. But most people will be out of luck, with no honest way to make a decent living. “Efficiency doesn’t love normal people,” he drolly tells his readers. The poor souls who are not extraordinary will need a lot of help—indeed, they already do.
The stakes are existential; in his book, The War on Normal People, Yang says that “without dramatic change, the best-case scenario is a hyper-stratified society like something out of The Hunger Games or Guatemala with an occasional mass shooting. The worst case is widespread despair, violence, and the utter collapse of our society and economy.”
Yang offers himself as an emissary of a different future, in which Americans have rediscovered their common humanity and honored it through egalitarian redistribution in the form of a basic income. We may feel trapped in our merciless meritocracy, in which the smart people work overtime to make the normal people superfluous, but we can use the immense wealth that our technological intrepidity has yielded to relieve our common estate, thereby bringing forth a new birth of freedom.
Bracing as all this may be, we don’t actually live in the world that Yang describes. Our technological progress is more like a trickle than a raging river, our meritocracy isn’t half as meritorious as he believes, and the people who have a basic income’s worth of extra cash don’t generally act as if they’ve been unleashed to do great things. The prestigious parts of our world are shabbier than Yang appreciates, and his solutions are dubious.
In spite of all these shortcomings—or perhaps because of them—Yang’s book still has something to offer to contemporary American politics. He has the temerity to think that we could argue about different things, that we could structure our society around something other than paid jobs, and that we could renew a sense of mutual obligation. That sense of imagination hardly suits him to be President, but it makes him one of the more intriguing characters to break through on the national political stage in recent years.
The War on Normal People is a better read than a typical campaign volume. Yang lays out his personal saga as a child of immigrants with affecting candor, recalling the racist slights he endured as an adolescent in upstate New York and the self-doubt they engendered. He adapted by becoming a champion of underdogs everywhere, going so far as to root for the Mets. As he tells it, his affinity for the little guy is what guided his professional progression from test-prep executive to founder of Venture For America, a non-profit that helps entrepreneurs start companies in downtrodden parts of the country as well as placing promising young graduates in their employ.
Rather than just congratulate himself on his resume, as a regular politician might, Yang confesses that it was a return of his self-doubt that propelled his unlikely turn to politics. In 2016 he started to worry that his success was hollow. As he frequented the cities in which his sponsored entrepreneurs were working, like Cleveland and Detroit, he felt overwhelmed by the widespread hopelessness. He felt disturbed by the disconnect between his increasingly cossetted life and the scale of the problem; he worried that he had gone “from the guy who wanted to fix the machine into an add-on to the machine.”
Looking out at the current state of the nation, Yang recites the litany of American carnage in the key of a center-left technocrat: appalling inequality, including racial inequality, even more in wealth than in income; Deaton and Case’s deaths of despair; David Autor’s work showing that manufacturing decline stunted household formation and marriage; Erik Hurst on young men detached from the labor force playing video games. In sum, Americans have responded to shrinking opportunities by “becoming less and less functional.”
What makes Yang distinctive is his zealous conviction that we are on the brink of artificial intelligence rendering huge portions of the American workforce superfluous—that the lack of work opportunities that contributed to social ills in the 2010s is but a foreshadowing of the cataclysm awaiting in the 2020s and 30s. When Silicon Valley entrepreneurs tell Yang about the revolutionary disruptions right around the corner, he glories in their ingenuity but frets for the poor schlubs who will be laid off any day now.
Take call center workers, for example. “The AI experience is about to improve to a point where we’re not going to be able to tell the difference” between machines and humans, he asserts, rendering the latter obsolete. Taken literally, this is a prediction that we are about to become awash in machines that can pass the Turing test and be reproduced at commercial scale—a scenario that seems far from imminent. Yang has extrapolated from a familiar fact—automatic directories are displacing some call center jobs, and will keep doing so—to a truly far-fetched scenario in which machines can understand irregular concerns as readily as human operators. Likewise, Yang predicts truck and taxi drivers will find themselves expendable within ten years, or maybe even five.
Nor is it just low-level or blue collar workers who need to worry. Yang is sure that many white collar workers’ time is running out, including journalists, radiologists, doctors, lawyers, accountants, wealth advisers, and others whose jobs include significant routine components. In the end, he worries that “humans as workers” are just not that good, given our many frailties and needs. (“We need to rest . . . We get bored . . . We sleep . . . We sometimes talk to reporters.”) Our distinctive advantages as workers are passed by without comment, in spite of the important role that people’s preference for dealing with other people is likely to play in preserving jobs for humans.
In short, Yang is unconcerned with Peter Thiel’s critique that we have progressed in the world of bits, but not in the world of atoms. In his estimation, with the digital revolution alone, our labor market has bit off more than it can chew.
Yang’s perspective resembles that of the fictional, nameless author in Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958), who reports on the social forces that have transformed English society by the time of his writing in 2034. Of late, Young’s book has become oft-cited but little read, which is a shame, as it is both brief and thoroughly entertaining. Its sociologist narrator presents his tale in the form of a scholarly essay, and the trick of the book is that its argument is at once plausible, forceful, arrogant, and almost entirely devoid of self-knowledge—it is written by a brilliant idiot.
Yang rather ham-handedly tips his hat to Young, writing: “The meritocracy was never intended to be a real thing—it started out as a parody in a British satire in 1958 by Michael Young.” Anyone who has read The Rise of the Meritocracy should instantly reject that description, though, given how much historical evidence from the real world up to 1958 is marshaled there, alongside fabricated (but plausible) evidence from the then-imagined-future. Young is especially interested in the advances made by standardized testing and job placement in postwar Britain, and he envisions a world in which “intelligence has been redistributed between the classes” through enhanced mobility.
“Today,” he goes on, “thanks to assortative mating in a handful of cities, intellect, attractiveness, education, and wealth are all converging in the same families and neighborhoods.” Whoops, that’s not Young, it’s Yang, describing America in 2018! We may grant him education and wealth, but intellect and attractiveness? Young envisions his upper class as the product of generations of sustained eugenics, gently imposed from above, but our own upper classes are as likely to practice bottom-up dysgenics through ever-later childbearing.
Put that aside, though. There are other features of the world of Meritocracy 2034 that diverge even more obviously from our own world, but which Yang seems to imagine apply. In Young’s world, the narrator can lament the paltry three percent productivity growth of 1945-1975 as subpar; in our own world, a return to such numbers would be cause for celebration, as recent years have given us less than one percent growth in output per hour worked. In Young’s world, the smart and well-educated (which are, by then, the same group) have overhauled their society entirely, including its educational and political systems, to make the most of scarce talent, wherever it might emerge. The reliability of this system is so great as to have induced a rise in fertility, as people put their hopes in their children’s ascents. The elites have cleverly arrested the system’s natural tendencies toward gerontocracy. And they have so thoroughly reduced social conflict as to allow merit-selected civil servants to take “a more active part in politics to make up for the devitalization of the two-party system.” It would take some kind of funhouse mirror for that to seem like a reflection of contemporary American society.
Even in this heady future, where the meritocrats really are that great and consciously engaged in largely successful social engineering, efforts to maintain social cohesion through the egalitarian distribution of wealth are doomed to failure—the final footnote of The Rise of the Meritocracy reveals that the treatise’s author was killed in a revolutionary uprising by the lower, cared-for class. But Yang thinks highly enough of the smarties in our own day and age to think that they can hold things together by simply sharing the wealth.
Yang’s political brand is based mostly on his “Freedom Dividend”—a basic income of $1,000 per month for every American aged 18-64, indexed for inflation, and (in some unspecified way) protected against reduction except by “constitutional supermajority.” As Yang points out, basic income has entered the American political lexicon before, being proposed at various moments by Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Nixon, and Milton Friedman (who sought it as a negative income tax). Today, it has an eclectic (if Bay Area-centric) following.
According to Yang, an extra $12,000 a year would work wonders. People won’t quit their jobs, but the basic income would nevertheless “be perhaps the greatest catalyst to human creativity we have ever seen,” and supercharge entrepreneurship amongst young people. Displaced workers would have the needed financial security to make retraining possible. With the extra money in circulation, the consumer economy could weather the “automation wave.”
Notwithstanding the tensions between some of these claims, one of the biggest questions that must be confronted is whether Yang’s basic income would introduce any extra money at all. In one of the book’s more remarkable passages, he explicitly claims it won’t:
UBI doesn’t actually grow the government. […] It is less an expenditure and more a transfer to citizens so they can use it to improve their lives, pay each other, patronize local businesses, and support the consumer economy. […] By definition, none of the money would be wasted because it goes to citizens. It’s analogous to a company giving dividends or moneys to its shareholders. No one regards that as a waste of money, because the shareholders theoretically are the owners of the company. Are we not, as the citizens of the United States, the owners of this country?
But will the money for this “transfer to citizens” appear like manna, or will it also be a transfer from citizens?
Yang is pretty clear about his preference. He wants to see a roughly 10 percent federal Value Added Tax (VAT) instituted, and he wants to repurpose most of the money currently spent on means-tested welfare programs to support the basic income. As he tells it, only those people wealthy enough to spend more than $120,000 per year would be net losers from this combination.
Many of basic income’s staunchest supporters are incensed by Yang’s choices here. His willingness to replace rather than add onto existing social spending programs means that he may effectively be advocating a redistribution away from the poor. Others point out that, whatever his “MATH” (Make America Think Harder) slogan might make you think, his numbers simply don’t add up. He projects the economic effects of the Freedom Dividend based on the assumption that it will be completely deficit-financed, but then his actual proposal is to mostly pay for it with a combination of taxes and spending reductions that would necessarily retard growth.
One suspects that his heart is really with the deficit spenders, even if his posture as a responsible sort-of-centrist technocrat doesn’t let him embrace them openly. He says “inflation has been low for years, in part because technology and globalization have been reducing the costs of many things”—even though such recalibration of relative prices has nothing at all to do with inflation. Regardless, he assures that “Not only would a UBI not cause inflation, but putting purchasing power in the hands of Americans would help address the worst circumstances of where prices have gone up.” Huh?
But Yang isn’t done; he has another kind of monetary magic in store quite apart from basic income. He also advocates the creation of a parallel currency called Digital Social Credits (DSCs). Inspired by communities like Brattleboro, Vermont, which use a time banking system to facilitate a trade in neighborly favors, Yang wants the Federal government to get into the reward point business in a major way. “If you tell me I’m getting $2 to do something, I may ignore it. But if it’s 200 points, I’ll find it strangely compelling,” Yang muses, and then goes on to propose that the Federal government could regulate a system in which “Nonprofits and NGOs would generate DSCs based on how much good they do and then distribute it back to volunteers and employees.” He says nothing about who will assign point values to different socially valuable activities or how, which seems like more than a minor detail.
The silliness only piles up from there. He says people with high lifetime DSC earnings could be rewarded by meetings with “their state’s most civic-minded athlete or celebrity,” and that companies could buy DSCs but “these DSCs would appear as a different color and be clearly purchased, not earned.” Yang is hoping this color-changing form of scrip will instantly boost regular economic activity, too, and do it on the cheap. Remarkably, Yang feels no need to consider the far less sunny example provided by the nascent social credit system in China, which is shaping up as a potent tool for repressing political dissent. Yang’s near silence about DSCs on the campaign trail suggests that he may have realized some of the idea’s downsides since publishing his book.
Some of Yang’s ideas are so bad as to make one wonder if he is on the level. To respond to disintegrating families, he would turn to “an AI life coach with the voice of Morgan Freeman trying to help people manage their differences.” He would like to see the Federal government create a “Department of the Attention Economy” to oversee how everyone is spending their time on the internet. And he would like the President to be able to “claw back the assets” of any corporate leader whose company is assessed a large fine or is “bailed out”—while also having such executives thrown in jail.
If both Yang’s diagnosis and his prescriptions are so flawed, what is there to like besides an appealing demeanor?
Yang is driven by a sense that some kind of human flourishing is being systematically neglected by the shape of American society and politics today. He realizes the inanity of pretending that we can thrive as a society by making our education system so good that everyone can be college-educated and get a high-paying job, and he wishes that we would instead educate every “citizen to live a good, positive, socially productive life independent of work.” He is willing to consider that even some of the people who have “good jobs” are driven by fear of failure more than any sense of what is good in the world, and that it is a problem worthy of political attention if people feel trapped by a system that wants to use them up rather than allow them to thrive as full human beings.
To put it a bit dramatically: Yang is a politician willing to grapple openly with the meaning of life, and with the moral failures of our current dispensation. He wants to reconfigure our society so as to “make clear that we value people intrinsically, independent of any qualities or qualifications.” It isn’t easy to figure out how we can get from here to there. But at least Yang is throwing himself into the effort of moral revival, albeit with a regrettably TED-talk-ified vocabulary. His Venture for America cohorts are asked to affirm that “There is no courage without risk,” and his own willingness to risk absurdity in pursuit of a better world ought to be appreciated as genuinely courageous.
In the end, Yang has a great deal in common with the elliptically described revolutionaries who ultimately bring down Young’s meritocracy of the future. They yearn for a world in which equality of opportunity is restored, not in the sense of allowing all people to rise socially, but in the sense of giving all people the chance “to develop the virtues and talents with which they are endowed, all their capacities for appreciating the beauty and depth of human experience, all their potential for living to the full.” For all of the ways our world differs from Young’s, this yearning is revolutionary in our own time as well. Let us hope we can figure out how to address it before our own 2034 comes calling.