Let's Talk About Andrew Yang

And the scourge of male know-it-alls

I know we’re all talking about Tulsi Gabbard this week (and I am, too, for CNN), but I want to pause on Andrew Yang, who is inexplicably polling at about 2.5 percent — ahead of not just Gabbard, but Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, and Julián Castro (and the smattering of interchangeable men at the bottom). I say “inexplicably” because Andrew Yang has done literally nothing that qualifies him to sit in the Oval Office. Any reasonably sane person with his resume and political ambitions might decide to run for state office, or even Congress. But it takes true narcissism to decide that the next step after jobs in corporate law, test prep and a Silicon-Valley-style “entrepreneurs can fix it all” nonprofit is the presidency.

Andrew Yang is the candidate of extreme male arrogance and entitlement.

I realize we’re in a populist moment of extreme backlash against expertise, competence, and experience (from the right and the left). But our president should be evidence enough of the dangers of putting someone wholly unqualified and entirely inexperienced but deeply power-hungry in the most powerful position in the world. The one good thing that has come out of Trump’s presidency is that his own lack of experience and understanding in the policy realm means he’s been remarkably impotent when it comes to implementing his agenda. Don’t get me wrong, he has managed to do plenty of harm — but can you imagine the scale if he actually knew how the political process worked, and had any skill at navigating it?

Andrew Yang is not going to win the Democratic primary. But the support behind him reveals something disturbing about the American Democratic electorate. We like shiny, easy solutions to complex problems — like the idea that a Universal Basic Income will solve American poverty. We like male confidence, even if it’s wholly unearned — despite having zero policy or political experience, Yang seems to truly believe he has an answer to everything, from veteran suicide to male circumcision (he is “highly aligned with the intactivists”).

Elizabeth Warren also has a long list of policy stances and proposals. The difference, though, is that she makes no claim to all of them coming exclusively out of her own head. She makes clear that she researchers and relies on experts, and that her presidency would entail pulling the smartest people in any given issue into a room together. She sees policy as a complicated process, best when it’s evidence-based and detailed, necessarily existing in a complex landscape of other policies and realities, and adjusting when necessary. Yang sees it the way tech entrepreneurs approach much of life: As a space for the truly brilliant to hack. He clearly considers himself one of the truly brilliant. He seems to believe that experience doesn’t matter — that he’s smarter than those who have worked their way up the rungs to learn about civil service (and actually serve), and so his own solutions, plucked from the top of his head, will work better.

You see this in his nonprofit, Venture for America, which funded college graduates to move to economically distressed cities, work at start-ups, and try to revitalize their temporary homes — as if all struggling cities need are a few Ivy League graduates working in a small tech sector. You see it in his work with a test prep company — teaching a lucky few the skills and tricks necessary to game the test and meet the metrics.

At the Washington Post Magazine, Maureen O’Connor writes:

Yang’s hunt for the cheat codes to democracy is part of his appeal to supporters. He may lack game in matters of the heart, but he made his (undisclosed) millions gaming the test-prep industry. Disciplined behavior targeting the numeric measurements of success is his thing. Gaming the numbers is also, these days, America’s thing: From the quant revolution in sports, to influence measured numerically in followers, to journalism designed to chase clicks, manipulating the metrics of success is something of a national pastime. Speaking in a junior high school auditorium in Des Moines in April, Yang performed a calculation: “I did the math. Do you know how many Californians each of you is worth?” The crowd laughed nervously, as though uncertain whether it was about to be shamed or pandered to. “Between 800 and 1,000 Californians! How many people do we have in this room? I’m going to call it 250? You look around this room, I don’t see 250 people. I see 250,000 Californians,” Yang told them. “If the Democrats of Iowa decide to embrace a different economic vision, it can catch hold like wildfire and sweep the country.” The crowd burst into applause.

Yang’s popularity comes in part thanks to podcasters Sam Harris and Joe Rogan, men who are obsessed with the betterment of the self in the service of higher performance (and, often, walking quasi-scientific paths to wherever they want to end up). The ethos is the same: highly individualistic, and assuming metrics tell the whole story.

Measuring impact is good and necessary. But assuming public policy can be broken down into numbers and statistics alone is a mistake. We’ve seen this turn in journalism, where the obsession with what pops on Chartbeat subtly sets the tone for what too many publications seek out, assign and publish. The result is seeing writing as “content,” and a push to what is shorter, simpler, more outrageous, less thoughtful. Hey, it’s what people click on.

In the policy space, this threatens to leave a lot of people behind — to see only what people do without taking into account what they want, or what would make society as a whole better off. People make choices under constrained circumstances; policy necessarily shapes behavior, incentivizing some actions over others. If we only look at the choices people are making within this particular policy context, we fail to see what people would choose if given more (or different) options and opportunities. We see this, for example, with women who drop out of the workforce when they have children. Women aren’t monolithic, so there’s no universal “what women want;” we also know that what people say they want is not always what ends up making them the happiest. But the social science research points to a few things. One is that mothers who work outside the home are happier than those who don’t, and children of mothers who work outside the home do better across a variety of metrics. Sons of stay-at-home mothers end up doing less in their own homes when they’re grown; daughters of stay-at-home mothers do worse in school. Financially, women who drop out of the workforce are particularly vulnerable. They don’t accrue the same social security benefits to set them up for retirement; divorce leaves them far worse off than their husbands, who surely said (as Yang says about his own stay-at-home wife) that being a mother is the hardest, most important job in the world, something many men seem to cease believing when it’s divorce settlement time. So: Enabling women to work and parent is good for moms and it’s good for children. It’s also what a whole lot of women say they want.

What women don’t want is the status quo, which demands full-time and wholly unsupported caregiving for children and also full-time and wholly unsupported work just to make ends meet. Daycare is expensive, costing as much as college tuition in many major urban areas (the average annual cost of childcare in Washington, DC is more than $35,000; where I live, in New York City, it’s as much as my monthly rent). Our minimum wage is paltry, and a minimum wage worker employed full-time — itself a rarity, given the increasing commonality of exploitative unpredictable work hours — cannot afford to live in a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States. We offer no federally mandated paid parental leave. No wonder many married women drop out of the workforce when they have a kid. What most women actually want is the ability to work and parent — to take adequate time off to recover from birth and care for an infant; to have a supportive partner who also takes time to be at home and share equally in caregiving; to have high-quality childcare; to have a job that recognizes people have whole lives, not segmented “work” and “home” we balance on a scale. And policy-wise, countries that are much further along on the feminism front have realized that extending paid leave isn’t enough — you have to both incentivize men to take it, and penalize them if they don’t.

Very few of those complexities will show up if you just look at what families do now. And if you look at Yang’s proposed parental leave policy, it doesn’t do the job. It gives two-parent households nine months of paid leave “to distribute how they see fit,” and single parents six months. Here’s what happens when paid leave is distributed between a heterosexual couple as they see fit: The woman takes it, the man doesn’t. She becomes the primary parent, who has an easier time comforting the child at night, who knows the vaccine schedule, who is more competent on the home front. She stays out of the workforce for nine months, making it harder to reenter. He continues to work and move up the ladder. It starts to “just make sense” for her to stay home or to significantly scale back. With her taking care of the homefront, it’s easier for him to scale up professionally. And on it goes.

Experience matters. Ideology matters. Don’t trust anyone offering easy, shiny solutions. And definitely don’t trust anyone arrogant enough to believe that, despite having no relevant experience, they should be President of the United States.

xx Jill