This article was published online on April 7, 2021.
Andrew Yang is in the Throgs Neck neighborhood of the Bronx, standing next to a lectern on an empty city street.
He’s just resumed his campaign for New York City mayor after taking two weeks off to recover from COVID-19. The strain of the illness shows. He’s hard to hear through his two masks. He coughs occasionally. He seems tired, though his trademark egghead affability—think “that chemistry teacher the middle schoolers really like” or “the guy who you have to admit leads a good team-building exercise”—is on full display. He hams it up for passersby, posing for thumbs-up selfies, reminding commuters that primary day is June 22, telling people in impressive streetwear, “You look so cool !” with a genuine sense of awe.
From the lectern, he announces a very big idea to the assembled crowd, which includes curious locals, a few journalists, and a gaggle of staffers in masks that say Andrew Yang. It is called the Big Apple Corps. (This also happens to be the name of a popular gay-and-lesbian community marching band.) Yang proposes that the city hire 10,000 recent college graduates to tutor the 100,000 public-school kids suffering most from learning loss due to the pandemic. He cites statistics on the digital divide and on the effectiveness of tutoring. He makes it personal. “I’m a public-school parent myself,” he says. “This year has been terrible for our kids.”
Yang’s pitch to New York City voters is not so dissimilar from his pitch to the broader American public in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary: big ideas, backed with data. He wants the city government to establish a basic income for the half a million New Yorkers living in deep poverty. He wants to create a public-banking network. He wants to transform New York into a hub for cryptocurrencies, and build casinos, and convert hotels into affordable housing. Put the white papers and campaign pronouncements together, and a picture emerges of a hypermodern municipal paradise devoted to social democracy and human flourishing.
The picture of how these big ideas would be funded and implemented is fuzzier. Yang has managed a tech nonprofit, a tutoring business, and a campaign and a half. But he has never held elected office, nor has he led a bureaucracy—let alone one with the scale and political fractiousness of New York’s. He has also committed, if softly, to cutting taxes.
Still, the call to move forward has caught on with New York City voters battered by a recession that has decimated restaurants, bars, theaters, museums, and hotels; traumatized by a virus that has killed 30,000 residents; and only just beginning to emerge from a year of shutdowns and social distancing. Given the horrors of the past year, many of these voters have lost what patience they had for incremental progress and technocratic small ball. Yang is going big. He has a deep campaign war chest and better name recognition than any other candidate in the crowded race. While it remains competitive—Eric Adams, Brooklyn’s borough president, and Maya Wiley, a former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, have significant support—as of mid-March, Yang led the field by a 13-point margin.
Andrew Yang is in Flushing, Queens, touring a window factory and elbow-bumping supporters on Main Street.
“Andrew Yang!” a local garage owner named Steve Chen says, and the candidate stops to admire his sneakers. (Once again: “You look so cool !”) They take a photo; then, as the candidate walks off, Chen shows me a graffiti mural around the corner: Yang’s name in English and Mandarin.
This is a part of New York where he feels especially at home, Yang tells me. His wife, Evelyn, who is a stay-at-home mom to their two young sons and an advocate for survivors of sexual assault, is from here. He was not raised in the city, but rather a Metro-North ride away in Westchester, the second son of Taiwanese immigrants. “When you grow up in a suburb of New York, all of your TV stations and radio stations are New York City–based, all the sports teams—all the teams your classmates talk about in school,” he says. “New York feels like the center of the universe. And then, every once in a while, you go into the city, and it’s so big and overwhelming. You feel like, Wow, this is the center of the universe.”
It took some time for Yang to feel secure in the universe. His suburban upbringing was not always a happy one. After skipping a grade in school, he was bullied, sometimes violently, for being Asian, a dork, a nerd. His early résumé is that of a straight-and-narrow achiever: He went to boarding school at Phillips Exeter before heading to Brown and then Columbia Law. By 24, he was an associate at the white-shoe firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell, earning roughly $150,000 a year. He had made it, in some sense, and in New York no less.
But Yang hated corporate law, and had long harbored the ambition to work for himself. Despite owing six figures in student loans, he co-founded Stargiving, a start-up that helped celebrities raise money for charity (tagline: “Where stars and charity click”), before leaving Davis Polk. Stargiving failed, as did other whiteboard-stage products Yang worked on. He joined the online-tutoring firm Manhattan GMAT in the early aughts and eventually became CEO; Kaplan bought it in 2009, making him a millionaire.
In 2011, he started Venture for America, a glitzy, technology-focused twist on Teach for America: The nonprofit aimed to embed top college graduates at start-ups in places such as Cleveland, Detroit, and Tulsa, distributing the talent too often monopolized by the country’s winner-take-all coastal labor markets. This effort attracted significant attention; the Obama White House named Yang a “champion of change.” But it, too, floundered, generating just a few thousand jobs.
Still, Venture for America proved a springboard for Yang. It allowed him to build relationships in Silicon Valley, on Wall Street, and in Washington. And it helped him develop a political ideology of his own, something he would later call “human-centered capitalism.” In particular, Yang was starting to worry that advances in artificial intelligence and robotics would wipe out jobs for a wide swath of Americans—from radiologists to truck drivers—much as advances in machinery had wiped out jobs for farmers and boilermakers decades ago. The way to turn a jobs dystopia into a technological utopia, he came to believe, was a 500-year-old idea called universal basic income, or UBI. Also known as: The government just gives everyone money.
I should note here that many preeminent researchers of technological change and labor markets do not share Yang’s vision of a robot-driven jobs apocalypse. They argue that in the past, machines have not taken away work so much as freed up humans to do safer, less drudging, more creative work. (Yang counters that today’s advances in code are of a different sort than yesterday’s advances in tractors; the pace of change is exponential now.)
Whether Yang is right or wrong about the robot jobs apocalypse, the notion of giving everyone $1,000 a month (the amount of his proposed “freedom dividend”) is not as outlandish as it might seem. What he has put forward is functionally a fail-safe social-insurance program designed to promote the dignity of all Americans regardless of future economic transformations. That vision was central to his presidential campaign, which was padded with more than 100 other policy proposals, including publicly financed marital counseling.
The campaign worked, in its way. The media loved Yang and his colorful notions (it helped that he said yes to just about every interview request). He won a few prominent supporters, and as his netroots developed, thousands of people (mostly young men) added “Yang Gang” to their Twitter bio. On the trail, he played up his tech-dad persona—awkward, self-deprecating, enthusiastic.
Although Yang dropped out of the race in February, a week after the Iowa caucus (in which he failed to secure a single delegate), he outlasted many better-known candidates. He had gone from no-name nonprofit executive to political celebrity. And his singular, popular message had contributed to a swift change in Washington’s attitude toward cash benefits—see, for example, the UBI-for-kids program in the latest stimulus package, which will send hundreds of dollars a month per child to most parents.
From the moment he dropped out, Yang says, he wanted to get back into politics, with a goal of accumulating as much personal influence as possible. (This is the first time a politician has ever admitted as much in my presence.) He toyed with trying to join the Biden administration, but the decision to instead run for mayor ended up being an easy one: Why work for the boss when you can be the boss? He started tailoring his blue-sky presidential ideas down to city-executive size. He hired a team of political heavyweights, including a former adviser to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to steer his campaign, and he restarted his funding apparatus. And in January, despite the COVID‑19 lockdown, he launched an aggressive schedule of in-person campaign events.
His sudden dominance of the race confounded many local political hands. Not only did the guy lack relevant experience, but he wasn’t even really known as a New Yorker. He also made a number of gaffes, such as saying that he’d spent much of the pandemic shutdown in his country house and describing what appeared to be a gleaming, wide-aisled supermarket as a “bodega.” But Yang says that such complaints don’t matter much to voters. What matters are ideas. New Yorkers like his—and other politicians keep failing to deliver their own. “A lot of the people we’re going to be helping, frankly, are not that plugged in to the political process,” he says.
Yang’s campaign is almost certainly helped by the fact that, plugged in or not, many people have growing hopes for what the government can achieve. The left has moved dramatically leftward since the Obama years. Democratic socialists are getting elected; Congress is shrugging off concerns about deficits; once-moderate politicians are talking about New Deal–scale policy solutions. The pandemic recession has accelerated this trend almost everywhere, but it has been particularly conspicuous in the country’s brashest, most populous city. New York has always seen itself as a laboratory for civic innovation. (Tellingly, one of the most popular things the deeply unpopular de Blasio has done is implement universal prekindergarten.) But the appetite for big solutions to big problems feels especially acute right now. Even before the coronavirus catastrophe hit, New York was losing 2,600 residents a week thanks to its affordability crisis. Post-pandemic, many New Yorkers are desperate for the city to reassert its indispensability and verve.
As Yang continues his trek through Flushing, he talks up his vision and listens to voters’ concerns. At one point, he ducks into a boba-tea shop. “I really like this place!” he says, beaming as he pulls a piece of paper from a lacquered box on the establishment’s back wall, a Taiwanese tradition called drawing lots. As supporters crowd the shop, he reads from the slip, which features both an adage and a forecast of future luck: “It says: Don’t feel alone; rely on friends to get through tough times, ” he announces.
“Average good luck,” a woman in the crowd adds, peering at the forecast on Yang’s paper slip. “It’s very difficult to get very good luck.”
“Average good luck!” Yang says. “That’s kind of poignant.”
Andrew Yang is on the ferry to Staten Island.
Wearing the same style of striped scarf he wears every day, he beholds the Statue of Liberty, mugging and saluting. “Look at this!” he says. “Very patriotic!” His campaign photographer snaps a few photographs of him staring into the middle distance.
I note how far we are from where we started. I mean that literally. Getting from Throgs Neck to Staten Island can take hours, unless you have a helicopter or a motorboat. In the five boroughs, more than 8 million New Yorkers live, among them 1 million public-school students, almost 60,000 homeless people, 325,000 public employees, 2 million homeowners, and 113 billionaires (give or take). Being the mayor for all these people is often described as the second-hardest job in American politics, and it may actually be the first.
Over several conversations, Yang and I talk through his plan to build a kind of city-state with a pro-business orientation, agile social services, and excellent physical infrastructure. Sort of like the Fiorello La Guardia administration, remade for our late-capitalist age. The bureaucratic obstacles are real, Yang tells me. The city’s budget, with its $4 billion shortfall, is also a problem. But he quickly pivots to his plans to pull in more state and federal resources, his willingness to find “modest value-adds,” and his desire to milk the city’s billionaires and work with its nonprofits.
Yang is sitting with me inside the ferry, digressing about the ingenuity of New York’s philanthropies, when we see a man on the deck outside raise his walking stick and strike a Getty photographer. The photographer, Spencer Platt, has been following Yang on the campaign trail; the attack is random and unprovoked.
“Oh my God!” Yang shouts, and we rush outside, where Platt and the assailant are scuffling. The attacker turns around to see Andrew Yang, in his Andrew Yang mask. “Yang for New York!” he says, starstruck, as Platt escapes. “You are the man! Would you like me to support you?”
“I would like that,” Yang says, his body tense but his tone warm. He examines the man’s elaborate gold necklace. “Is that one of those Bullets 4 Peace necklaces?” he asks, referring to a line of jewelry made from spent casings.
“No!” the man says, thumbing it. “I can’t believe I’m meeting Yang from New York! May I take a picture?”
The two take a photograph, a random act of violence morphing into a campaign meet-cute. A few minutes later, two police officers arrive to question the man, but do not detain him. After the ferry docks on Staten Island, we watch the guy dance his way out to the street, as Yang chats with the officers about vaccines.
Later, press accounts of the walking-stick incident will attempt to make narrative sense of it: Andrew Yang intervened to stop a man assaulting a photographer on the ferry. That version of the story will not be wrong. But the moment is strange and anarchic, and as I see it, what happened is not so much that Andrew Yang stopped the assailant, but that the assailant was distracted by Andrew Yang, with his good nature and data points and unusual political magnetism.
This article appears in the May 2021 print edition with the headline “Mayor Moonshot.”