Skip to main content

Humanity and Work in Andrew Yang's War on Normal People

I’m not sure if I’m on the #YangGang bandwagon yet but I’m certainly intrigued. Yang is funny and self-deprecating. His humor is evident throughout his book “The War on Normal People” with lines like “This was back when people dated in college” and his mom’s endorsement of universal basic income (UBI). My favorite chapter is the first, titled “My Journey”. I love how he tells his growing up story in a couple pages and I resonated with his stories of being bullied with ethnic slurs. I couldn’t relate to his entrepreneurial success but admired how he “had gone from being an underdog to one of the guys with the answers, from finding the most marginalized or excluded person in the room to finding the richest person and making him or her feel special” (pg. 9). I love how he visited various cities - Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh among many - and personally witnessed the hollowing out of the middle class. These rapidly increasing negative effects on America’s cities, Yang calls the Great Displacement.

That’s what Part I of Yang’s book is about: how automation will replace many clerical, transportation, and even many white collar jobs over the next 10-15 years. He starts by defining “normal”. If you’re reading this, you’re probably not normal. Normal is a person with some college education, a personal annual income of around $32K, and almost no savings. That’s the median of America. And artificial intelligence (AI) is replacing the routine tasks most normal people are currently paid to do. AI is capable of performing a broad range of routinized tasks and that list is growing each day. Automated cashiers at McDonald’s is one example. Yang devotes the bulk of chapter 5 to trucking. As my #yanggang friend loves to remind me, truck driving is the most popular occupation in 29 states and self-driving trucks, which Tesla has tremendous progress on, will displace many truck drivers. However, if you look more carefully at the statistics, the problem with the Bureau of Labor Statistics data is truck, delivery, and tractor drivers are lumped into one category. Additionally, my understanding of a friend’s truck driving job is a major portion of his responsibilities include the loading and unloading of the heavy equipment he hauls around. There’s a lot of problem-solving for which AI is currently nowhere near addressing. Lastly, as convoys of self-driving trucks take the road, human drivers/operators will still be needed to oversee the journey, troubleshoot system problems, and be stationed at off-ramps/urban areas for refuel, maintenance, and the final leg to destination. But Yang’s point is still compelling. My contention is a matter of timing and degree and the debate isn’t whether AI will replace these jobs but how soon. The timing is important though as the lead time for the transformation offers a window for displaced workers to respond. And yet I believe Yang is right in that many workers today will be unable to start over; that is, move to a new city, learn new skills, and compete with the young and better educated for jobs.  

Part II of Yang’s book is a nod to Charles Murray. Much of these chapters draws on Murray’s work and ideas. This section is startlingly similar to Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010. And of course, Murray has also been a fervent champion of Universal Basic Income (UBI) for decades. However, Murray's proposal pays for UBI by cutting all welfare programs rather than the value-added tax (VAT) that Yang proposes. Murray’s Coming Apart is powerful because it sorts real people based on statistical data into two fictitious towns, Belmont (upper class - comparable to Los Gatos, Saratoga, Los Altos, Palo Alto, etc.) with Fishtown (lower class - comparable to Stockton, Salinas, West Oakland, and Bakersfield). 

Check out the similarity in chapter titles between the two books:  Part II in Yang’s book includes these titles: Life in the Bubble, The Permanent Shadow Class (examples: opioid epidemic and disability benefits), Men, Women, and Children (example: skyrocketing rate of out-of-wedlock childbirth), The Shape We’re In/Disintegration vs. Murray’s Coming Apart: sections titled Formation of a New Upper Class and Formation of a New Lower Class; with a chapter titled: How Thick is Your Bubble (along with a bubble quiz that went viral), and chapters on the disintegration of the lower class in marriage, industriousness, and honesty. I’m not surprised Yang doesn’t mention Murray at all as Murray is a libertarian and writes for a conservative think tank. In this I find Yang tremendously appealing - his approach is bi-partisan, practical, and consistent with his slogan of Make America Think Harder (MATH). Lastly, one highly readable and personal account of the hollowing of the white middle class is J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which Yang quotes from.

Part III was the hardest for me. The bulk of it is devoted to explaining UBI. Yang’s proposal is the US government would give $1000 monthly to adults aged 18-64. Receiving this “Freedom Dividend” would mean forgoing other welfare payments like disability. I did not find the celebrity endorsements of UBI compelling. For example, Bill Gates says “A problem of excess [automation] forces us to look at the individuals affected and take those extra resources and make sure they’re directed to them in terms of re-education and income policies”. This statement agrees with Yang on the problem but falls way short of affirming UBI. There’s a quote about how the government doesn’t do many things well but mailing people checks is one thing it excels at. I would agree with that. The premise of UBI is putting money in people’s hands gives them the freedom to decide how to best spend it. It is based a trust in people to make good choices. Yang suggests prospective entrepreneurs might have greater courage if they had a cushion of $12,000 a year. He has a chapter on Digital Social Credits, where people earn points for doing altruistic tasks (i.e. fixing someone’s fence) and then use the currency to purchase goods and services. I was repulsed. It seems like #virtuesignaling on steroids. This would be social media at its absolute worst. 

The chapter that disturbed me most is titled Humanity and Work. It’s only 6 pages but the theology of work is vital to me as a pastor. Yang argues getting humans to work is a pain in the rear. We complain, are unreliable and dishonest, have bad days, call in sick, need training, etc. We avoid work but we know we have to do it. Yang wrestles with the implications of robots as far superior workers than humans. The closing line is this: “The challenge we must overcome is that humans need work more than work need us.” There’s something profoundly biblical about this statement. God designed humanity to labor and cultivate Eden. But the ground - representing man’s labor - was cursed because of Adam’s sin. Work will always be a pain for us and yet we were designed for it. Decoupling income from work, as Yang proposes, has considerable risk. My hope is that, regardless of who attains presidential office, the church would empower normal people to have a valued place. A valued place is an esteemed role within a community that contributes to others’ needs. For example, many grandparents have a valued place in a family by helping raise grandchildren though they don’t earn a penny. In the years to come, this type of service, whether tied to wages or not, may become the new definition of work. But for me, it’s not an option to get rid of it.  


Popular posts from this blog

A Dad's Review of Passport 2 Purity

[3,100 words, 11 minute read] The sex talk is one of the most dreaded conversations parents anticipate having with their children. To make things easier, an entire industry exists to help parents with sex education. Dozens of books have been written to help parents navigate this treacherous topic with their progeny. One of the best known among evangelicals is called the Passport 2 Purity Getaway package . It is produced by FamilyLife, a division of Cru (former Campus Crusade for Christ) and consists of a five lecture CD package including a journal and exercises designed as a weekend retreat for a pre-pubescent child and his/her parent(s). Passport 2 Purity was not my initiative. Our trip came about because Judy had heard from several home-schooling mom friends how they had taken their daughters on a road trip to go through the CDs. She even heard how a mom took a trip with husband and two sons to through the curriculum. So a couple months ago, Judy suggested we take our two older boy

Why Asians Run Slower

My brother got me David Epstein's book The Sports Gene . It is a fascinating quick read. If you're interested in sports and science, it will enthrall you.  I finished it in three days. Epstein's point is that far more of an athlete's performance is due to genetics than due to the so-called "10,000 hour" rule promulgated by books such as Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin (both which are very good). The 10,000 hour rule states that any person can reach expert level of performance in a sport if they devote 10,000 hours of deliberate and intentional practice.  That's a lot of hours. Most people aren't capable of anywhere close. And that's precisely Epstein's point. Someone who devotes 10,000 hours of sport-specific practice is likely genetically gifted for the sport in extraordinary ways AND genetically gifted in their ability to persevere and benefit from practice. Therefore, a person who can pra

Short Buffed Asian Guys (SBAGs)

I've always wanted to be tall. That didn't work out so well and I've settled for getting bigger. So now I lift weights, a pastime that I've taken up in fits and starts over the years. I thought about drinking protein shakes to get huge. Judy said no. She said I don't want you to become one of those guys. The Short Buffed Asian Guy (SBAG). It seems I'm not the only one to consider this approach. Legions of SBAGs testify to this. And it seem like the shorter you are, the more muscular you have to be in order to compensate for one's lack of height. I don't know any tall buffed Asian guys (Jeremy Lin does not count - he clearly has a neck). So what's with this phenomenon? First, Asian men are on average shorter than American men. And in my book, anyone 5'8" or under is short (which includes me). There are all kinds of insecurities that go with being short, especially for men. You look up to people. You make less   money . You fee