Andrew Yang’s The War on Normal People – An Honest Review

Andrew Yang is running for President of the United States in 2020. He’s a smart, driven, and successful guy who you should vote for and who you should follow on Twitter at @andrewyangVFA – the VFA there stands for Venture for America – a non-profit he started during the great recession which aims to encourage would-be entreprenerus to build innovative startup businesses in underserved cities across the United States instead of taking jobs with banks and insurance companies. He is the author of two books – Smart People Should Build Things (2014) – which paints the case for Venture for America, and The War on Normal People (2018) which looks at the very real danger of the coming wave of automation, the societal disruption it might cause, and the way that the United States can survive and move forward.

I read Smart People Should Build Things a couple of weeks ago. The book’s main point is that the financial industry – consisting of banks, brokerages, insurance companies, and hedge funds has become the dominant recruiter and employer of the top talent in all fields coming out of American Universities – and this massive recruitment is sucking talent away from entrepreneruial and start-up ventures. VFA was started to create an alternative career path where young innovators are mentored in thriving startups and given the training and encouragement they need to innovate and start businesses of their own. The book was a pitch for Venture for America, but also a very real warning about the power of the financial industry to stifle innovation. I”m not going to review the book here except to say it was worth reading and opened my eyes to some problems I hadn’t been aware of before. I mention the book because it was Yang’s experience in working with Venture for America that led to his awareness of the problems he details in The War Against Normal People.

Yang sees the world as being composed of two sets of people. Those who have a Bachelors degree or higher and those who do not. He easily admits that he lives in a bubble. He grew up in a middle class family that put a strong value on education, went to good schools, made a lot of money, and moves between the wealthy bubble worlds of Silicon Valley and Manhattan. VFA put him in a subset of those two extreme bubbles – he was working with young entrepreneurs and young companies in less lofty settings like Detroit, Cleveland, New Orleans, and Las Vegas. Working in those places, he met a wide range of non-University people who were struggling to survive in a world that is increasingly automating and eliminating their jobs. That is what The War on Normal People is about.

In Part I of the book, Yang describes what life is like for ‘normal’ people and defines who ‘normal’ people are. Essentially, normal people are people that have less than a Bachelor’s degree or people with Bachelors who work in jobs where the work is routine and face the danger of automation taking away their livlihood. As in his previous book where ‘smart people’ are defined as people who have degrees and can or do work in finance, there is an edge of elitism in Yang’s definition which he acknowledges – he’s writing about people who don’t exist in his normal circles. He is more likely to fly from San Jose to JFK to watch an NBA game than he is to encounter a truck driver or factory worker – and he admits it. Yang, however, has temporarily left his bubble and looks at the life of truck drivers, factory workers, Uber drivers, pizza makers, young men on disability, and people in America’s out of the way places who are struggling to make ends meet.

Yang shows that it’s not just those without degrees such as call center and fast food workers that are in danger of losing their jobs from automation with robots and artificial intelligence but also those who perform any sort of routine such as lawyers, accountants, doctors, and stock brokers. As Part I continues, the definition of ‘normal’ broadens out to those who aren’t the ultra-rich. Essentially, everyone who relies on a paycheck is in danger of losing their means of support through automation and technology.

In Part II, Yang looks at how we got to where we are, what went wrong in the United States over the past forty years, and where the greatest danger for societal collapse lies. Much of this section looks at how the system has failed men. It looks at how blue collar jobs and lifetime employment with pensions have dried up, it looks at how the educational system has turned its back on regular guys, and it looks at what happens when a booming industry that provides good family wage jobs dries up and disappears. I have to admit, that despite my political and educational sensibilities being mostly aligned with Yang, the jist of this section jarred me. I’m not saying that Yang is wrong in his supposition that unmarried, unemployed, middle-age white guys are the greatest danger to our future peace and prosperity – but the bluntness of his conclusion jarred me. If I boil it down it goes something like this – white men used to have good jobs where they worked with their hands and got paid well, those jobs have disappeared and not been replaced, the white men who previously did or would have filled those jobs are now off the radar, collecting disability, addicted to opiates, and playing video games (sometimes in their parents basements), they own more guns than anyone else, many of them have military training, they are bored and those who have jobs mostly work in trucking. Next, he points out that trucking jobs are going to be one of the first to get automated along with Uber and Lyft jobs which have become the main gig of many of the middle-aged white men (disclosure: I am a middle-age white man). Finally, at the end of Part II, Yang lays out a plausible but bizarre dystopian collapse fantasy where a trucker displaced by automation leads a revolt against the government which descends into a nationwide white nationalist riot. I felt that this small deviation from the otherwise alarming and very real statistics and facts was the weakest part of the book. Honestly, I would have probably been able to imagine a similar picture without Yang’s help and his brief departure into telling the future diminished the overall impact of his facts.

Part III is where Yang lays out his presidential campaign platform. The cornerstone of how Yang sees us avoiding the dystopia he imagines is the creation of a Universal Basic Income of $1000 per month given to all American citizens. He calls this the Freedom Dividend. This $1000 would ostensibly replace all other forms of welfare and act as a base support for all Americans. It’s a good idea and he lays it out in a logical way without going off the deep end in dreaming up ways to pay for it. His solution, a 10% Value Added Tax (VAT) which would primarily come from those that spend the most. Universal Basic Income is a good idea and Yang goes into the right amount of detail to explain why it is necessary, why it will work, and how to go about enacting it. This is not an easy task and he doesn’t mince words about that – instead, he lays out a very good case for why it is an essesential task.

The rest of Part III is equally inspiring and thought provoking. At one point in the book, Yang lays out a choice that appealed to the geek in me on every level – do we want the future to look like Star Trek: The Next Generation or would we prefer it to look like Mad Max? In the latter, people are primitive savages scrambling for resources. If you’re familiar with the genre, the choice is obvious though if you like dystopian machine culture you might feel pulled to the dark side.

Yang’s vision is laid out as the best world possible with time banking where people are paid social credits for helping each other out and a new kind of capitalism that puts the developement of people over the building of profits – he calls it Human Capitalism – and while some would argue that he’s putting a new face on an old idea – either way it’s an idea that is worth putting some effort into. A big part of the problem with our current system is that it rewards politicians while they are in office and for the rest of their lives when they get out of office which keeps them working for the big financial interests all along. Yang proposes a solution to political corruption and proposes methods that will make politics a game  where the constituents come first – not an easy fix but an important one.

He doesn’t stop there though – Yang has ideas about how to fix medicine and a big part of it is taking away the profit incentive and havinga conversation with prospective doctors that goes something like this “You can heal people or you can get rich, but you can’t do both” – again, not an easy fix but one that needs to happen.

Finally, Yang devotes a very short chapter to the problems with higher education (and education at lower levels as well) – in my opinion, this is where Yang really shines. His critiques of universities and learning institutions are powerful and his proposed fixes are simple and logical. He quotes Malcolm Gladwell in his famous quip about Yale being a Hedge Fund with a universtity attached to it which it needs to drop and then proposes solutions from new types of schools to new ways of thinking about education. This chapter could be his next book. I hope it is.

In summary: Andrew Yang is a smart guy with some very good ideas. I think he’s an ideal person to become our next president (if we actually get the option to vote again). His critiques are spot on and demonstrate what has gone wrong with America and offers a pretty bleak vision of what is going to go wrong next. Thankfully, he also offers solutions. Yang, early on, admits he is trapped in a bubble and points out that those reading his book are probably in similar bubbles, college educated, decent income, technologically minded – he’s right. I’m not sure how we can get past that fact – you, if you’re reading this – probably the same. I applaud Andrew Yang for his courage and vision – he will get my vote. Every American should read this book – but they won’t. Not even close – and I’m not sure what anyone can do about that. That’s the problem- ultimately. So, last words on this from me. Buy the book, read the book, vote for Andrew Yang in 2020.

What do you think?

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