It's time to take Andrew Yang's policy ideas seriously

Yang runs on good, popular poverty-focused policies. His opponents mostly don't.

This piece is written by Marc the Intern, not the usual Matt-post.

Andrew Yang has a good chance at becoming mayor of New York City, which has caused a fair number of people to assume this is because he’s a celebrity or because he gives off good vibes.

And while he is a talented politician who’s well-known, the clearest reason he’s most likely to win is because he runs on popular, progressive policies he came up with, most notably his “basic income” proposal to give 500,000 needy New Yorkers an average of $2,000 per year.

The Vibes

Ben Smith wrote a really good piece on Yang for the New York Times entitled “Help, We Can’t Stop Writing About Andrew Yang.” In the article, Smith writes,

Mr. Yang’s good cheer and good vibes — at a cultural moment when vibes, as The New Yorker’s Kyle Chayka wrote recently, are standing in for more concrete judgment — may be what some weary voters crave now.

I’m not sure if our current era is one in which “vibes” are more important than they’ve always been. Charisma has been a factor in democratic politics forever, and it’s never been the case that super-detailed policy proposals are a necessary ingredient for winning — oftentimes, words that elicit happy feelings are more effective.

Yang is very good at eliciting happy feelings. He’s likable and able to laugh at himself; he would make jokes about Asian stereotypes during the 2020 presidential election to seem approachable and not-woke. His easygoing personality and effortless avoidance of “faculty lounge politics” originally attracted me to him sometime in 2019, and I eventually knocked doors for him in New Hampshire where I go to school as the first presidential candidate I could legally vote for (and then he dropped out before I could vote for him anyway).

So, yes, Yang is a talented politician and this has helped him in the race. But he also does have a policy agenda that includes appealing ideas and he’s good at focusing on those good, popular policies whenever he interacts with the public.

Cash for the poor

The US has a much higher level of relative poverty than other rich countries, almost entirely thanks to our comparatively meager welfare state. There are many things America could do to start fixing this problem, but the most effective solution is to give more cash to more people.

The pandemic and our associated government response has made this extremely clear. We started giving more cash to more people — and it really worked. In the midst of a pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands and an economy that was literally shuttered, poverty fell and disposable income went up as America turned into a temporary welfare state juggernaut.

Unsurprisingly, the way to lift disposable incomes was to just give people more money, thus lifting their incomes.

And the money wasn’t just effective; it was popular too. The $1400 stimulus checks in the American Rescue Plan polled at 78-16 in a March Data for Progress poll.

You’d think with the soaring popularity of income-restricted cash transfers, more candidates would latch onto the idea, but in New York City, they haven’t. Natalie Wallington at City and State, a local NYC news outlet, has a really good article breaking down the various mayoral candidates’ cash transfer programs. Here are the basics:

  • Yang is proposing that the 500,000 neediest New Yorkers receive $2,000 a year.

  • Maya Wiley is proposing that 100,000 needy informal caregivers each receive $5,000 a year.

  • Shaun Donovan is proposing baby bonds, where each baby born in a family that makes less than $150,000 gets a locked savings account with $1,000 in it, plus up to $2,000 added yearly depending on how low their parents’ income is. When the child gets his G.E.D. or finishes “an apprenticeship,” the money becomes theirs, but only to spend on college, a home, starting a business, paying off debts, or “other methods of achieving economic security,” which presumably don’t include paying rent or buying food.

  • Eric Adams is proposing that the city match 60% of the earned income tax credit (EITC) for New Yorkers who make under $30,000 and 30% of the EITC for those earning between $30,000 and $50,000, paid in monthly checks.

  • Scott Stringer, the original favorite of the institutional left, and Dianne Morales, the favorite of the activist left, along with the remaining candidates, have no cash transfer policy ideas.

So in the era of stimulus checks, the three “left” candidates (Stringer, Morales, Wiley) have come up with nothing, nothing, and a cash transfer that requires extremely poor people in one of the densest places on earth proving that they are informal caregivers so they can be included in the 1.5% of New York City adults who will receive the transfer. From the more moderate candidates, you have two proposals that strongly favor the middle class and not the poor. The EITC is a trapezoidal program that gives little or nothing to the poorest people by design. And most poor people won’t use Donovan’s bonds since they mostly don’t go to college or put down payments on homes (recall that this is New York City, one of the most renter-heavy places in America). And nobody will receive any money from the bonds program until 18 years from now, and all those who will are not alive yet.

With poverty proposals like these, I think it’s no wonder that Ritchie Torres, the congressmen who represents the poorest district in the country, is Yang’s campaign co-chair, endorsing him the day he announced with a speech that cited Yang’s “basic income” plan.

Marketing matters

James Poniewozik at the NYT has a theory that Yang represents the viability of “post-embarrassment” politics because he sometimes says stuff that media cool kids think is embarrassing, yet he is still winning. I would put more weight on the fact that Yang frequently talks about his popular ideas.

Here’s an excerpt of Yang’s first speech as a mayoral candidate:

The first part is core to what I've stood for since I started in public service, we need to make New York City the COVID comeback city, but also the antipoverty city. As mayor, we will launch the largest basic income program in the history of the country right here in New York. We will lift hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers out of extreme poverty, putting cash relief directly into the hands of the families who desperately need help right now.

This is the type of move that our city leadership must make in this pandemic. Cash relief is literally the difference between a family eating and a family going hungry. It's the difference between being homeless and having a roof over your head. Two years ago, no one would have fathomed Congress would ever directly send tens of millions of Americans around the country money with no strings attached. But last year, our federal government sent $1,200 to tens of millions of Americans, and it helped stabilize families and the economy. And $2,000 may be on the way, New York.

Here’s Yang’s first ad, where he talks about cash transfers, opening up schools, and a public bank to help small businesses.

Cash transfers are popular; school reopening was popular in NYC about two months ago before vaccines were completely available; and small business relief was the only thing more popular than stimulus checks in the American Rescue Plan.

For comparison, Stringer’s ads (1, 2) flex his government experience. Yet he’s running in a place where the government failed miserably to protect people recently, with over 33,000 New York City residents dying of COVID and a 97% increase in shootings last year. One of Stringer’s ads features his endorsement from the United Federation of Teachers, NYC’s teachers’ union, who hasn’t backed a winning candidate for mayor in 32 years!

After all, the views you need to get the UFT endorsement are often ones most voters don’t share. People like teachers, but Stringer got the UFT endorsement by being skeptical of school reopening and critical of charter schools. But New Yorkers wanted to reopen their public schools months ago, and NYC Democrats overwhelmingly favor more charter schools in NYC and have overwhelmingly favorable opinions on charter schools.

More candidates than just Stringer struggle on messaging. Where Yang’s biggest budget item is “A Basic Income for New York City,” Maya Wiley’s second biggest budget item (featured in her “New Deal New York”) is a $2 billion plan artfully named “Building Social Infrastructure through Physical Infrastructure.” Where Yang proposes “A Human Centered Economy,” Morales proposes “An Intersectional Agenda.”

Yang talks about helping people in easy to understand terms. Wiley and Morales sound like they’re talking to program managers at progressive foundations. That’s why he’s beating them. It’s not because he gets extra publicity from saying things media people don’t like.

Ranked choice should benefit Yang

This year, New York City is using Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) to select its mayor, which should give an advantage to candidates with high name recognition. The way RCV works is that each voter lists their top five candidates in order and then votes are counted across many successive rounds, with the lowest-performing candidate eliminated each round. If your first-choice candidate doesn’t perform well and gets eliminated before the last round, your vote goes to your second-choice candidate, and if that candidate also get eliminated before the last round, your vote goes to your third-choice candidate and so on.

That’s a bit confusing though, so here’s a picture from the most recent Yang internal poll, which included an RCV simulation to show you how the sausage is eventually made.

Though this poll doesn’t demonstrate it, I think Yang has a small RCV edge. When people have chosen their first two or three candidates and are searching for a fourth or a fifth, I think they’re more likely to go for the face they’ve seen on TV.

Even in a recent RCV poll that shows Yang winning the first round and then losing to Adams in the final round of RCV,1 Yang beats Adams in total favorability and trails in number of respondents who’ve never heard of him (9 to 24). This is a good recipe for having an RCV advantage. It also helps that even though Yang has mostly been criticized from the left, his biggest rival is pretty clearly running to his right.

Who is moderate and what is progressive

In many articles about the NYC mayoral race, you will see Andrew Yang called one of the most “moderate” candidates in the race. To some extent, I think Yang has purposely sought out this reputation a bit, knowing that in the aftermath of COVID, New Yorkers may prefer someone safe and not too extreme. But calling Andrew Yang a moderate is really quite ridiculous, and I think it reflects some big problems in Left-of-Center World.

In 2020, Yang ran for president with a net worth 2.5 times smaller than Bernie’s and 9 times smaller than Elizabeth Warren’s, proposing a universal basic income for every adult citizen that was about the size of the federal poverty line. The proposal cost almost $3 trillion a year, and the entire federal government spent $4.4 trillion in 2019.

Some are worried Yang is afraid to raise taxes. Bradley Tusk, whose company runs Yang’s campaign, told Fox Business in April that Yang “opposes tax increases.” But I think it’s better to look at policy proposals rather than trying to parse advisor’s statements. A key Biden advisor told the Wall Street Journal last August “When we get in, the pantry is going to be bare. When you see what Trump’s done to the deficit in terms of just — forget about Covid-19, all the deficits that he built with the incredible tax cuts…we’re gonna have limited funds.” Biden himself even told donors that if he won, “No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change” and then he signed a $2 trillion stimulus package that in fact changed many millions of people’s standards of living! Since that Tusk interview, Yang has proposed a tax on vacant lots to pay for the basic income plan, which I guess means he does not oppose tax increases. Tusk was pandering — it’s politics!

The other key front on which Yang is considered “moderate” is on defunding the police. Not coincidentally I think, the only people with a chance in the race (Yang, Adams, Garcia) have opposed cuts to the NYPD, but the three candidates considered to be left-wing (Stringer, Wiley, Morales) have all proposed cuts of various sizes.

Here at Slow Boring, we’ve written on defunding the police a couple times, and I don’t think it’s a good idea. But on top of that, I also don’t think it’s a progressive idea, and the fact that it became one and somehow can’t unbecome one points to the biggest problem in the progressive movement: its extremely recently enshrined, yet unshakeable orthodoxies.

While Yang funds his cash transfer to the poor with a tax on vacant lots, Maya Wiley —“[one] of the most progressive candidates in the race” according to the New York Times — funds her cash transfer to poor informal caregivers with massive cuts to the NYPD and to Corrections. If you will, imagine explaining to someone who knows what words mean but who was in a coma for the last year, that the progressives are the ones who want to divert money away from public safety to pay for cash transfers, while the moderates want to tax unproductive landowners to pay for it. That person would be dumbfounded! We should be too. That’s now how words work, and it’s certainly not how progressives win.

But do progressives really want to win? At many times, it feels like the point of the progressive movement in 2021 isn’t to gain power and then enact reforms to ameliorate suffering, but rather to impress each other by saying the most inoffensive words in the most inoffensive order and then if you predictably lose in a landslide, so what, because everybody who didn’t agree with you from the start is racist anyway.

And to NYC progressives who do really want positive change, I’m sorry your organizations keep endorsing such unskilled politicians! At least with your vote, you can do what “progressive” Mayor Bill de Blasio doesn’t want you to do2 and rank Yang above Adams, so you have some say in your mayor being more left-of-center.

Yang has a really good chance of winning because he is the type of “progressive” that lots of people can actually like. He doesn’t revel in charter school hatred in a city that loves them and he doesn’t promise police cuts during violent crime surges. He proposes that we give cash to poor people — then, he talks about it a lot.

1

I wouldn’t take this poll to the bank. It had a sample size of 500, which is really small, and RCV compounds the margin of error since the exact order in which candidates get eliminated matters greatly. In addition, the way RCV comes down in this poll is super weird, and I’m guessing it denotes some especially out-of-the-ordinary respondents — Yang leads Adams in the first round, but his lead disappears at the round where Dianne Morales is eliminated. I don’t think there are actually a lot of people ranking Morales first and then Adams second, given that Morales is running on slashing the police budget and Adams is running on being tough on crime. And this poll is one of the better neutral polls in the race, to give you a sense of how poor the polling is in this contest.

2

According to The Atlantic’s Edward-Isaac Dovere, “De Blasio is determined to stop [Yang], but has been trying to avoid making his efforts public. He convened a meeting of some of the city’s most powerful unions earlier this year to urge them to consolidate their endorsements behind Adams—the Brooklyn borough president, who is wrestling with Yang for the top spot in the polls—for the sake of stopping the upstart.”