Open Letter to Andrew Yang

There is no substitute for doing the work

Dear Andrew Yang --

Rumor has it that you are launching a third party. I am extremely interested in the potential of such a party, both as a journalist and potentially as a volunteer.

I have sketched out my thoughts on the strategy and politics below. The most important point: you must advocate a specific plan to implement a small ($20-$100 per month) UBI, and wait until the system is deployed and tested before proposing expansion. You must write the bill in 2021 if candidates will run on it in 2022.

You must build a sturdy foundation first. Remember the Obamacare website? There will be more problems than can be imagined in the implementation details of getting money to people. UBI is a 10 to 20 year project, you can’t promise to do it overnight.

Alexander Power
September 10, 2021

Last night, news broke that Andrew Yang plans to launch a political party in conjunction with the release of his new book. POLITICO reports that Yang “no longer identifies as a Democrat”. Yang implicitly (but not explicitly) confirmed the reports through a synchronized Tweet, saying he is excited in reaction to this news story.

I think the time is right for a third party. After the failure of Ross Perot to establish a sustainable political party and the spoiler-effect election of George W. Bush, third-parties have been stigmatized in the American political dialogue in a way that the facts on the ground do not reflect. At the federal level, the two parties are too focused on death-match battles on certain social issues to engage in substantial governance on any topic.

Other than a few political opportunists such as Kevin Paffrath (Dem candidate opposing Newsom for governor of CA) and Curtis Sliwa (GOP candidate for mayor of NYC), reaction on Twitter was generally hostile. There were lots of bad takes that this is simply a way to sell books. They have it completely backwards. The book is a way to sell the political movement.

Any third party Yang might launch will need to get support from both anti-Trump Republicans and anti-“successor ideology” Democrats. I can assume several parts of any third party platform:

  • Supports taking decisive action to limit global warming.

  • Supports gay marriage.

  • Supports federal legalization of marijuana.

  • Against “Critical Race Theory” - while I doubt he will campaign with Chris Rufo, Yang will likely have a platform on “race issues” that will be unacceptable to many activists in the Democratic Party.

  • Ambiguous on abortion - if at all possible, I expect Yang will endorse whatever the Supreme Court rules on abortion in June 2022. If it is too extreme (for example, if it implements a complete nationwide ban on abortion), Yang will oppose it. Until then, Yang will say he is focused on other issues.

  • Abstains on COVID - Yang will likely point out both political parties’ failings on COVID, and avoid giving details on what he would have done differently.

Other issues will likely not be discussed initially. Examples include policies on education, gun control, and foreign policy.

However, the most critical part of the platform will be regarding Universal Basic Income. In 2019, Yang became a national political figure on the strength of his UBI-focused platform, eventually receiving 5% of the first-preference votes in the 2020 Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses.

I told Mr. Yang in late 2018 that while I support the general concept of a Universal Basic Income, I doubt his “automation” thesis for covering the costs of a UBI would be financially reasonable before the year 2040. I still largely feel this is the case; COVID has accelerated certain parts of the future so I now think it could be possible as soon as 2035.

However, before there can be a $1000/month UBI, there should be a UBI of between $10 and $50 per month. The initial funding mechanism I propose is simple: a $1/gallon tax on gasoline, and a $2/gallon tax on aviation fuel — this should net to roughly $30/person/month. The cost for the government to create and maintain such a program should be substantially less than this; even $1/person/month of bureaucratic costs would be expensive (that is $4 billion / year).

The most pressing objection to any UBI proposal is that the proposal hasn’t been written yet. I am continually astonished how Washington politicians can argue for months and months and not even have a draft bill to present to the public. What will the current reconciliation bill do? Who knows. You need to sell a spelled-out agenda (complete with details of amendments to Title 26 Chapter 32) and not a promise of a pig in a poke. Do the work first.

A second pressing objection to an immediate UBI: the technology doesn’t exist to support one. Remember It turned out “getting a working website” was one of the blocking reasons to having a new government program. Government procurement of technology is notoriously expensive and slow due to procurement and compliance rules; a system Google or Facebook could implement in 6 months might take the government 5 years.

Any large UBI proposal will inevitably encompass other social safety net programs, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and Food Stamps. However, changing those programs even the slightest amount before a UBI system is operational should be considered politically toxic.

What properties will such a computer system have to have?

  • Federated. The system should be constructed to manage custody jointly between the Federal Government in Washington DC, and the various States.

  • Financially Independent. The system should be separate from the Federal Reserve and unable to issue debt. Only collected tax revenues may be distributed.

  • Non-collateral. People should be unable to make secured loans against future payments.

  • Integration with banking system (ACH transfer) and credit card system. People can use the system as a bank account with a debit card, or they can transfer money to an existing bank account.

  • Public National Identity Number. Individuals will need a new identity number, with at least either 18 decimal digits or 15 hexadecimal digits. Knowledge of your own PNIN is intended to not be a security measure. To ensure it will not become one, the PNIN of candidates for political election shall be printed on ballot papers.

  • Biometrics. Various biometrics (photographs, fingerprints, and/or retinal scans) are retained for identity verification purposes, and to prevent individuals from claiming multiple UBIs through identity fraud.

  • Drivers’ License Integration. State drivers’ licenses should serve as an identity card, linked to the PNIN.

  • Optionality. Both states and individuals should be able to choose whether or not to participate in the system.

That seems like a minimum set of requirements to me. Other features, like “integration with Social Security information”, may be simple to implement but may be unpopular and are not necessary. Even still, both Democrat and Republican activists are likely to complain about a “big brother” government system. The public at-large will assume the government already knows all this information, and will be happy to sign up in exchange for a monthly dividend.

Thoughts? Feel free to share or comment. Or use the short URL (through the end of September) to tell your friends.