The War on Normal People – Andrew Yang

I love a plucky underdog.

That summarizes my opinion about Presidential hopeful Andrew Yang. But to be perfectly honest, that isn’t what I really want this review to be about. However, I doubt to what extent I can pull that off, largely because the two things that this book is about (work-force reduction as a consequence of automation and Universal basic Income as a solution to the aforementioned problem) pretty much are Andrew Yang’s platform.

Well, that’s not fair. Those two things are largely what his platform has been reduced to and characterized as.

But those two things are what his book is about. The book looks at the aforementioned problem and solution in light of some contemporary American ills. It argues that wealth has moved to far away from the populace and into the hands of a determined few individuals and corporations. Economically speaking, the American population in certain areas will no longer have the capital to function, and this poverty will in turn cause increased social ills. It is the prediction of a very real problem, although there are plenty who see Yang as some kind of prophet of doom. However, you only really need to look at what happens when, for instance, Walmart comes to a town, becomes the only supplier of good in that town, and then closes up shop when the town is dry of funds.

Economies are delicate Ecosystems, or a little more poetically in Greek; Οι οικονομίες είναι ευαίσθητα οικοσυστήματα.

I’ll say now that I cannot answer what is likely the accusation on most people’s mind: is this book just an overpriced promotional pamphlet for Andrew Yang’s shot at presidency? I came away with the impression that it mostly was not. Largely, I felt that the book is borne out of a genuine concern for these two potential problems. There were lines here or there that felt needlessly personal, as if meant to humanize an author concerned with more than just the issue. But the issue at hand is foremost in this book.

One of the most interesting tidbits in the book was the part that explored the history of the idea of a Universal Basic Income. It is certainly a much older idea than most people give it credit for, and a lot more bipartisan as well (though I am sure this will change were Yang to be elected). Knowing this helps dismiss the people who immediately call this idea ‘socialist claptrap’ (that’s a real Amazon review, people) for what they are – people who haven’t bothered to inform themselves about the issue and are letting themselves be moved by their emotions.

Independently of Andrew Yang and his attempt at Presidency, I came across the notion of the problem of automation and a Universal Basic Income as a solution. I can recall having these conversation almost eight years ago, so there is really nothing new about either of these ideas. What is contentious is to what extent a Universal Basic Income will actually do anything to alleviate the stresses of automation. A number of friends and family work in, worked in, or have studied economics, and so I have a number of people with whom I can have this conversation. Largely, it is not a productive one, and I can bring it up because it is relevant to how this book is discussed. There seems to be a number of consistent answers to bringing up these points.

  1. Full automation won’t ever happen.
  2. Universal Basic Income won’t fix it.
  3. People said that in the past and it wasn’t true then.

None of these is any good as far as answers go. The first amounts to saying ‘I don’t believe this is a problem’. Fine, but I asked you to engage in a hypothetical. If you were to ask me how I would survive the zombie apocalypse, you wouldn’t be satisfied by my informing you that zombie aren’t fucking real.

The second answer never gets beyond that. I ask ‘why’ they believe that and they usually just repeat the statement itself, or say ‘Because.’ I would love to hear a good argument against it.

The third point is merely a failure of imagination that fails to recognize that circumstances change. I don’t feel like I need to repeat the horse analogy here, but the differences between what is happening now and what happened during the industrial revolution are pretty stark, and the above link elaborates on them better than I could.

If you think these people are stupid, they aren’t (two of them held PhD from respected Universities). Not everyone is good at arguing. But I think it does show to what extent people let their emotions do the arguing for them.

There is one good argument against Universal Basic Income, and that is suggesting that it will cause inflation (“After all, if everyone has an extra 1000$ a month, wouldn’t a landlord know that he could afford to ask for and additional 1000$ a month?”). I don’t find this entirely convincing, and Yang provides a rebuttal for it in this book.

Am I actually routing for Andrew Yang? I don’t know. I like him over plenty of other candidates, but ultimately I will support whomever I think has the best chance of eliminating Trump. But I think this book is worthwhile regardless, if nothing else as a primer about automation and at least one potential way of fighting it.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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