As the U.S. is scrambling to deal with the forced shuttering of restaurants, bars, theaters, and other businesses, even some fiscally conservative Republicans agree that giving money directly to people might be the best response. Today, Senator Mitt Romney proposed sending every U.S. adult a $1,000 check to help with short-term obligations—rent, groceries, whatever it may be. The idea sounded familiar to followers of the 2020 Democratic primary race, specifically those who have watched the businessman Andrew Yang—who ran an outsider campaign based on what he sees as the need for universal basic income, or UBI.
I spoke with Yang two hours after Romney’s announcement to discuss the renewed push to give people money. The conversation that follows has been condensed for length and clarity.
Adam Harris: Your campaign’s central plank was the “freedom dividend.” Now Mitt Romney is saying we need to send Americans a $1,000 injection. Why was that freedom dividend so important to you?
Andrew Yang: We’ve been in the midst of the greatest winner-take-all economy in the history of the world for the past number of years, where the gains of continued progress and innovation have not been felt in the day-to-day lives of the vast majority of Americans. And that was only going to accelerate in the days ahead, as artificial intelligence leaves the lab, and more companies automate more of their activities. You can see it in the shuttering of 30 percent of stores in malls around the country. People don’t think about that as automation, because it’s not like a robot showed up to the mall. But those stores are closing because of Amazon. And Amazon’s fulfillment centers are wall-to-wall robots and machines. So to me, it was vitally necessary and is vitally necessary to rebalance the economy and have it work better for people and families.
Instead of talking about automation, I should have been talking about a pandemic.
Harris: These coronavirus closures will put a lot of Americans in financially precarious situations. Does a onetime injection of money help? Or is this something that needs to be continuous?
Yang: It would be immensely helpful right now in this time of crisis. I think it should be $1,000 per month of economic lockdown. And the CDC just announced that they’re advising against gatherings of 50-plus [people] for eight weeks. So we should be looking at a minimum of two months at $1,000 per person. But we don’t know if the world’s going to reopen in eight weeks. It’s unclear what data we would have that would enable the CDC or other policy makers to give us the all clear. So it should be $1,000 a month until this crisis is over. And obviously anyone who knows anything about me knows I think it should then just continue in perpetuity.
We should do this right now to help keep millions of American families above the waterline. Seventy-eight percent of Americans are already living paycheck to paycheck; almost half can’t afford an unexpected $400 bill—and that was before we shut down hundreds of thousands of businesses, not just bars and restaurants and theaters. If you look at the ripple effect of every canceled sporting event, every canceled conference; hotels are firing people right and left right now. You’re looking at, essentially, a negation of a significant proportion of our economic activity for a month. There’s really no effective way you can try and make workers whole that does not involve putting money into everyone’s hands.
And this is one thing I find ridiculous and frustrating when politicians talk about making people whole. It’s like, how do you make a parking attendant who just lost all of his shifts whole? You know, he’s not paying a payroll tax now.
Harris: To add to that, the gig economy has always been very insecure. Does providing people with a baseline of money add some security to the system?
Yang: I’m for a universal basic income of $1,000 a month in perpetuity for all American adults. I think it’s necessary in the face of how our economy has evolved where the vast majority of new jobs that are getting created are temp, gig, or contract jobs that get disappeared any moment, are precarious, and do not have any benefits attached to them, typically.
We should have universal health care for similar reasons. The fact is our employment-based health-care system is purely an accident, based on our experience in World War II, where there were pay caps and companies bolted on health insurance trying to attract workers. And now we’re stuck with this completely messed-up hodgepodge where your insurance is tied to a full-time job that exists for fewer and fewer Americans. Because again, most of the new jobs that are getting created are gig and contract jobs. So these are massive economic and social changes that we just have adapted to in a meaningful way. And this coronavirus crisis is going to be devastating for millions of Americans—socially, economically, physically. But a lot of these vulnerabilities existed prior to the coronavirus highlighting them.
Harris: Even with Mitt Romney’s support, do you think it is something that Congress will do? Where do you place the likelihood of this happening?
Yang: I’m getting more and more encouraged. Because if you look, you see a range of economists from Jason Furman to Nouriel Roubini coming out for it. Commentators from Anand Giridharadas to Geraldo Rivera. And now with Mitt Romney coming out, you have Republicans as well as folks like AOC and Ro Khanna. So people are waking up to the common sense that the only way we’re going to help our people manage this crisis is by putting cold, hard cash into our hands as quickly as possible. I’m increasingly optimistic that common sense will prevail and Congress will pass this before too many lives fall apart.
Harris: So that groundswell of support is giving you that optimism?
Yang: It’s common sense. If you are any American who is exposed to any part of the economy, you see it’s being upended by the coronavirus. And you know there are limited ways that your neighbor or your co-worker or your former co-worker are going to be able to make ends meet—and you know that everything policy makers are talking about will be ineffective except for cash. The people know this. Politicians are quickly realizing it. And one reason I’m optimistic that it’s going to pass is: What is the political downside to giving everyone cash? I don’t see it. It’s like, you pass it and you look like a hero; you don’t pass it, you’re a moron. Even members of Congress can see that calculation.
Harris: And if you had one selling point to legislators who were still on the fence about this, what would that be?
Yang: You are going to be able to say to your constituents in your district: “I got money in your hands during this moment of need. When push came to shove, I came through for you.”