Andrew Yang pitches universal basic income in downtown Detroit

Andrew Yang speaking in Detroit | Derek Robertson

Businessman and longshot 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang appeared in Detroit’s Cass Corridor Saturday night, making the argument for his campaign’s signature policy of a universal basic income (UBI) for every American.

Yang argued that Democrats’ failure in 2016 to sufficiently respond to the economic hangover the 2008 recession left in its wake led directly to now-President Donald Trump’s election — carving a path straight through the Rust Belt to his 304 electoral votes.

Andrew Yang in 2018 at Launch Pad in New Orleans. | Stephen McCarthy/Collision via Sportsfile, Flickr

“Donald Trump’s our president today because we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa and other states, and those are all the states Trump needed to win and did win,” Yang said to a crowded patio at the Detroit Shipping Company food hall.

“Unfortunately, what we did to the manufacturing jobs we will now do to the retail, call center, fast food jobs, the truck driving jobs, and on and on throughout the economy.”

Yang then tailored his pitch for the “Freedom Dividend,” a $1,000 universal monthly payment to every American adult that would supposedly ameliorate the effects of that economic shift. He argued that it would most help communities like Detroit that were hit hard by the nation’s overall decline in manufacturing employment.

“This town very much is ground zero for the automation of jobs,” Yang said. “If you look at this city that had a population of 1.4 million in its heyday and now is a little less than half that, if you see what happened to Michigan’s economy… it’s going to happen to all these places in the interior that we are sucking dry.”

A poster of Andrew Yang | Derek Robertson

Yang was born in New York to Taiwanese immigrant parents. He built his wealth working at a series of startups and software companies before becoming the CEO of standardized test-prep company Manhattan GMAT in 2006 — just a few years before its acquisition by testing giant Kaplan. He then founded Venture for America, a firm aimed at funneling elite college graduates to nontraditional career paths and locations.

Yang pointed out that Venture for America has worked with businesses in Detroit since its inception, and that he “came here trying to do all [he] could to make this place better and more vibrant. … I had a very very small part in all the growth.”

The businessman announced his candidacy in November 2017, but failed to gain much traction until earlier this year when a few high-profile media appearances inspired a new wave of support among mostly younger, meme-savvy fans on the internet. He also has amassed enough individual donors to qualify him for this year’s televised primary debates, two of which will be held in Detroit in July.

The crowd waiting for Andrew Yang | Derek Robertson

Judging from the audience’s reaction, a huge number of those fans first learned about Yang through the Joe Rogan podcast hosted by the former “Fear Factor” television host, on which he appeared in February.

One of them was the 28-year-old Mat Weakland from Royal Oak, who described himself as relatively disengaged before Yang’s podcast appearance.

“The last election got me out of [politics] completely,” Weakland said, lauding Yang for having “talked about [U.S. Sen.] Bernie Sanders with respect and talked about Donald Trump with respect.”

“I personally don’t support either of them, but the fact that he can talk about them, and change people’s minds, I liked,” Weakland added.

Nicole Thoel, a Royal Oak health care professional and Weakland’s fiancée, echoed that admiration. She said that despite the fact that she supported Sanders in the Democratic primary and ultimately, Green Party nominee Jill Stein in 2016, she was “cheering on her couch” at Yang’s advocacy for expanding health care access and marijuana decriminalization.

Donald Trump | Gage Skidmore, Flickr

Some of the new fans that Yang garnered from the Rogan podcast appearance, however, were associated with the racist “alt-right” movement, a connection Yang unequivocally rejected.

He put out a statement in March saying that he disavowed “hatred, bigotry, racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and the alt-right in all its many forms,” adding that “for anyone with this agenda, we do not want your support. We do not want your votes. You are not welcome in this campaign.”

Unconventional chants for “math” and “Powerpoint” sporadically broke out during Yang’s remarks, reflecting his self-consciously technocratic approach to addressing income inequality.

“I did the math” is a catchphrase that peppers his speeches, and Yang argued Saturday that “the math” supports his solutions for everything from lagging teacher salaries to the advent of self-driving cars.

Andrew Yang supporters, May 4,2019 | Derek Robertson

During the speech, Yang also reveled in his “outsider” status when compared to the large 2020 Democratic field of more seasoned politicians, lamenting the reluctance of Washington policymakers to take drastic economic action and going on an extended riff about the “soul-crushing” process of campaign fundraising.

He argued he would remedy the latter by adding a $100 campaign donation stipend to Americans’ monthly payments from the government, saying he “[wants] to share this feeling of release I’ve had with every other politician… we need to liberate them and thus liberate our government.”

Andrew Yang merch | Derek Robertson

Yang closed his speech by reiterating his initial point about countering Trump’s victory, saying that the current president “got the problems correct… but his solutions were not what we need, to build a wall, turn back the clock, bring jobs back. I’m saying we have to turn the clock forward.”

Khalif Adegeye, an 18-year-old University of Michigan student, was inspired by the pitch, saying he’s wavering in his support for his first ever primary election between Yang and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii).

“Both of them, their main selling point to me, is that they say, all right, this is wrong. We know this is wrong; we’re not going to B.S. around the issue,” Adegeye said.

“There was a video where Tulsi said this isn’t a Republican problem or a Democratic problem; this is an American problem. And that appealed to me.”

Yang’s appearance came a day after his campaign claims he drew a crowd of around 4,000 to Seattle’s Gas Works Park. After the Detroit event, Yang departed to speak at the closing of the National Organization of Black County Officials (NOBCO) Economic Development Conference.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar | Ken Coleman

Earlier this week, U.S. Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) both spoke to that group in Detroit.

Yang’s appearance is just the latest in a string of 2020 campaign stops in Michigan since the beginning of the year, following President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), former U.S. Reps. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.).

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) will speak at the NAACP’s annual Fight For Freedom Fund Dinner in Detroit on Sunday and hold campaign events on Monday in Southeast Michigan.

Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson covers local government, education, health care and the social safety net, and LGBTQ issues. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington, and before that covered local politics in Chicago. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He enjoys film, the Detroit Pistons and his cat. He once competed in the National Spelling Bee, but was eliminated before any potential ESPN appearances.

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