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.