Yangonomics 101
Bloomberg Businessweek|June 21, 2021
Whether or not he becomes New York’s next mayor, Yang has brought his signature idea—to just give people money—into the political mainstream
Claire Suddath

When Andrew Yang said he was running for mayor of New York City in January, people were thrilled. This spring he’d do something like deliver a speech outside a Brooklyn catering company, and a passing jogger would see him, stop, and jog in place for half an hour just to listen to him talk. He’d be outside a food hall in Hell’s Kitchen when a young woman would approach him and, her voice shaking with nervousness, ask him to sign the back of her cellphone case. On a subway platform, a teenage girl squealed when she saw him, then apologized for being too young to vote.

“Andrew Yang is pretty sick,” Alex Arce, 20, a student at New York University, told me in April. Arce and a friend had happened upon Yang as he stood outside a boarded-up restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village and called for a full reopening of New York’s bars.

“We need commonsense regulations!” Yang was saying. “I don’t know about you, but I miss sitting next to people in bars!” At the time, less than a third of the city had been fully vaccinated.

I asked Arce why he liked him.

“I don’t know, he’s just a cool guy,” he said.

What about his policies, anything that he stood for?

Arce thought a minute. “The universal income thing?” he finally offered. “That’s pretty great.”

For someone who has never held government office and has campaigned only once before, when he ran for president in 2019, Yang is extraordinarily adept at getting people to like him. Early this year he was bumping elbows with strangers and leaning in close for photos—which may explain how he contracted Covid-19 in February, just weeks into his campaign.

When the weather was still cold he wore the same thing wherever he went: dark overcoat, blue and orange Mets scarf, and a black face mask with “Yang” printed in big white letters, a sort of Where’s Waldo approach to getting his name out there. It’s the same trick he used while running for president, wearing a lapel pin that said “MATH” to the Democratic debates and tying himself to one signature idea: that every American should get a basic income of $12,000 from the government, no strings attached.

Yang dropped out of the presidential race in February 2020, but more than a year later, 85% of New Yorkers still knew who he was and what he stood for.

“I love it! Basic income! Stimulus checks!” said Glen Kelly, outside the Mets’ Citi Field, where Yang was meeting fans before the first home game of the season.

“That income idea,” echoed Ramon Guadalupe, a few days later, when he ran into Yang at the reopening of Coney Island. “I like that he’s for regular people.”

The irony is that under a Yang mayorship, most New Yorkers wouldn’t actually get any money. The concept that made Yang famous, the thing people love him for, isn’t something he’s proposing for New York. He can’t—the city couldn’t afford it. Instead, he’s running on “cash relief,” a payment one-sixth the size of his presidential proposal, targeting only the poorest 6% of New Yorkers.

“I want to be the antipoverty mayor,” Yang told me. “I’m very excited about it.” He led in the polls for months after he entered the race, and although he’s recently been slipping, he could still win the Democratic primary on June 22 under the city’s new ranked-choice voting system. If he does—and presumably goes on to win the general election in the heavily Democratic city—his plan would, as his campaign flyers proudly proclaim, make New York City the site of “the largest basic income program in history.”

The question is, would it be enough?

Andrew Yang is easy to talk to. There’s something familiar about him, something that makes people want to be his friend. When he speaks, his remarks come peppered with bursts of self-conscious laughter, a sort of guttural huh-huh-huh that erupts whenever he says something too personal or serious or that he thinks the other person might not like. In the two months I followed him around New York, he was almost always in a good mood—“Tell me more! Tell me more!” he once giddily exclaimed as a grocer in Queens explained the difference between city and state dining regulations—except for a few times when it was very obvious he was not.

Yang grew up a slightly nerdy kid, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, in mostly White suburban neighborhoods in Schenectady and Westchester County. He played Dungeons & Dragons and Atari and did well enough in school to both skip a grade and get a scholarship to the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy. From there it was on to Brown University, Columbia Law School, then the corporate law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell, where it took only a few months for Yang to discover he didn’t want to be a lawyer after all. “They’d sit you at a desk and say, ‘Here are a bunch of documents. Go,’ ” Yang says. “I said, ‘OK, that is not what I want.’ ”

He was looking for something else to do when a friend he’d made at the firm, Jonathan Philips, came to him with an idea: What if, instead of wasting money on black-tie galas, a charity could hold an online auction for almost nothing, freeing it up to put more money toward its actual cause?

“Andrew immediately perked up,” Philips says. “I remember his eyes just lit up. He’s a problem solver, and he very much wanted to solve this problem.” The two men quit their jobs and launched a company, Stargiving, an online platform for auctioning off celebrity meet-and-greets.

It didn’t work. For one thing, they didn’t know any celebrities. Also, the first dot-com bubble had just burst. “It failed miserably,” Yang says. “I will never forget how that felt.”

He spent the next few years hopping between jobs. He was in his early 20s and had $100,000 in student loan debt. He couldn’t afford rent in New York, so he slept on friends’ couches and ate a lot of free bread samples at the sandwich chain Così. For extra money he became the first instructor at a small GMAT test-prep company called Manhattan Prep.

Yang got the job because he knew Manhattan Prep’s founder, Zeke Vanderhoek. In 2006, Vanderhoek left to start a charter school; he asked Yang to replace him as chief executive officer. Soon after that, Yang met his wife, Evelyn. “Things really clicked into place for a number of years,” he says. “They were, I think, some of the happiest years of my life.” He ran Manhattan Prep for about five years, taking it from $2 million in revenue to more than $17 million. In 2009 he sold the company to Kaplan Inc., a deal that earned him several million dollars, but stayed on as president.

Over time, though, a problem began to nag at him. The Great Recession had just happened, and yet here were all these college kids taking out massive loans for an MBA, even though there wouldn’t be many jobs available when they graduated. At the same time, Yang was touring colleges across the U.S., visiting parts of the Midwest and South he’d never seen before. He was shocked at how economically depressed the regions were. He wondered if he could figure out a way to get college graduates to work in Middle America, boosting local economies.

Yang left Manhattan Prep in 2011 to start his attempt at a solution: Venture for America, a nonprofit modeled on Teach for America that would place college graduates at startups in cities such as Detroit and New Orleans. VFA fellows, as they were called, would get work experience and maybe go on to found companies of their own.

Yang launched VFA with the ambitious goal of creating 100,000 jobs in smaller U.S. cities by 2025. The nonprofit was immediately popular; Tony Hsieh, the late e-commerce entrepreneur, donated $1 million so VFA could help revitalize his hometown of Las Vegas. President Barack Obama named Yang one of his “Champions of Change” before the first class of VFA fellows had even been placed in their cities.

“The fundamental problem that VFA was trying to solve wasn’t something most people were talking about,” says Ethan Carlson, a former VFA fellow who graduated from Yale and was matched with a tech company in Providence. “By pointing it out and saying, ‘I’ve designed a solution for it,’ it felt very compelling. Of course, the real story is much messier than that.”

VFA never achieved what Yang wanted it to, at least not on the scale he envisioned. The economic forces that had hollowed out the middle of the country were too big, too intractable, to be fixed by plopping a few hundred Ivy League graduates in Cleveland. Earlier this year the New York Times reported that only 150 people work at companies started by VFA fellows in their original cities. The Yang campaign disputes this figure; it says VFA created 4,000 jobs, though not necessarily in smaller cities. When contacted by Bloomberg Businessweek, Venture for America said it no longer tracks job creation as a metric of its success.

VFA’s shortcomings bothered Yang. In 2016 he was driving across northwest Michigan, passing through small towns with boarded-up storefronts, when he stopped at a diner to eat. “I just thought, ‘How am I talking about entrepreneurship?’ ” Yang says. “The scale of need for changes to the economy is so massive, it gave me a sense of how hollowed out communities really were.”

He started reading books about job loss and automation. He fretted about the growing number of working-age adults receiving disability payments in lieu of a job. But it was Raising the Floor, written by Andy Stern, the former head of the Service Employees International Union, that pushed Yang into politics.

In his book, Stern argued that a $12,000 universal basic income could help offset the wage stagnation and job loss so many Americans faced. He called for a “huge public awareness advertising campaign” for the idea and said the best way to do that was for someone to run for president. Yang liked the book so much that he went to hear Stern talk and, when the event was over, asked him to lunch.

“He said, ‘I’m going to make you an honest man. You said someone should run for president in 2020 on basic income, and I’m going to do that,’ ” Stern recalls.

“Andy was like, ‘Who are you again?’ ” Yang says.

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