By Andrew Yang
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In The War on Normal People, Andrew Yang paints a dire portrait of the American economy. Rapidly advancing technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics and automation software are making millions of Americans’ livelihoods irrelevant. The consequences of these trends are already being felt across our communities in the form of political unrest, drug use, and other social ills. The future looks dire-but is it unavoidable?
In The War on Normal People, Yang imagines a different future–one in which having a job is distinct from the capacity to prosper and seek fulfillment. At this vision’s core is Universal Basic Income, the concept of providing all citizens with a guaranteed income-and one that is rapidly gaining popularity among forward-thinking politicians and economists. Yang proposes that UBI is an essential step toward a new, more durable kind of economy, one he calls “human capitalism.”
We are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity… the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.
Human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.
—TERRY GOU, FOUNDER OF FOXCONN
THE GREAT DISPLACEMENT
I am writing from inside the tech bubble to let you know that we are coming for your jobs.
I recently met a pair of old friends for drinks in Manhattan. One is an executive who works at a software company in New York. They replace call center workers with artificial intelligence software. I asked her whether she believed her work would result in job losses. She responded matter-of-factly, “We are getting better and better at things that will make large numbers of workers extraneous. And we will succeed. There needs to be a dramatic reskilling of the workforce, but that’s not going to be practical for a lot of people. It’s impossible to avoid a lost generation of workers.” Her confidence in this assessment was total. The conversation then quickly shifted to more pleasant topics.
I later met with a friend who’s a Boston-based venture capitalist. He told me he felt “a little uneasy” about investing in software and robotics companies that, if successful, would eliminate large numbers of jobs. “But they’re good opportunities,” he noted, estimating that 70 percent of the startups he’s seeing will contribute to job losses in other parts of the economy.
In San Francisco, I had breakfast with an operations manager for a large tech company. He told me, “I just helped set up a factory that had 70 percent fewer workers than one even a few years ago would have had, and most of them are high-end technicians on laptops. I have no idea what normal people are going to do in a few years.”
Normal people. Seventy percent of Americans consider themselves part of the middle class. Chances are, you do, too. Right now some of the smartest people in the country are trying to figure out how to replace you with an overseas worker, a cheaper version of you, or, increasingly, a widget, software program, or robot. There’s no malice in it. The market rewards business leaders for making things more efficient. Efficiency doesn’t love normal people. It loves getting things done in the most cost-effective way possible.
A wave of automation and job loss is no longer a dystopian vision of the future—it’s well under way. The numbers have been telling a story for a while now that we have been ignoring. More and more people of prime working age have been dropping out of the workforce. There’s a growing mass of the permanently displaced. Automation is accelerating to a point where it will soon threaten our social fabric and way of life.
Experts and researchers project an unprecedented wave of job destruction coming with the development of artificial intelligence, robotics, software, and automation. The Obama White House published a report in December 2016 that predicted 83 percent of jobs where people make less than $20 per hour will be subject to automation or replacement. Between 2.2 and 3.1 million car, bus, and truck driving jobs in the United States will be eliminated by the advent of self-driving vehicles.
Read that last sentence again: we are confident that between 2 and 3 million Americans who drive vehicles for a living will lose their jobs in the next 10 to 15 years. Driving a truck is the most common occupation in 29 states. Self-driving vehicles are one of the most obvious job-destroying technologies, but there are similar innovations ahead that will displace cashiers, fast food workers, customer service representatives, administrative assistants, and even well-paid white-collar jobs like wealth managers, lawyers, and insurance agents, all within the span of a few short years. Suddenly out of work, millions will struggle to find a new job, particularly those at the lower end of the skill ladder.
Automation has already eliminated about 4 million manufacturing jobs in the United States since 2000. Instead of finding new jobs, a lot of those people left the workforce and didn’t come back. The U.S. labor force participation rate is now at only 62.9 percent, a rate below that of nearly all other industrialized economies and about the same as that of El Salvador and the Ukraine. Some of this is driven by an aging population, which presents its own set of problems, but much of it is driven by automation and a lower demand for labor.
Each 1 percent decline in the labor participation rate equates to approximately 2.5 million Americans dropping out. The number of working-age Americans who aren’t in the workforce has surged to a record 95 million. Ten years into the nation’s recovery from the financial crisis and 95 million working-age Americans not in the workforce—I’ve taken to calling this phenomenon the Great Displacement.
The lack of mobility and growth has created a breeding ground for political hostility and social ills. High rates of unemployment and underemployment are linked to an array of social problems, including substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, and depression. Today 40 percent of American children are born outside of married households, due in large part to the crumbling marriage rate among working-class adults, and overdoses and suicides have overtaken auto accidents as leading causes of death. More than half of American households already rely on the government for direct income in some form. In some parts of the United States, 20 percent of working-age adults are now on disability, with increasing numbers citing mood disorders. What Americans who cannot find jobs find instead is despair. If you care about communities and our way of life, you care about people having jobs.
This is the most pressing economic and social issue of our time; our economy is evolving in ways that will make it more and more difficult for people with lower levels of education to find jobs and support themselves. Soon, these difficulties will afflict the white-collar world. It’s a boiling pot getting hotter one degree at a time. And we’re the frog.
In my role as founder of Venture for America, I spent the past six years working with hundreds of startups across the country in cities like Detroit, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Providence, Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Birmingham, Columbus, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, Charlotte, Miami, Nashville, Atlanta, and Denver. Some of these places were bustling industrial centers in the late 19th and 20th centuries, only to find themselves faced with population loss and economic transition as the 20th century wound down. Venture for America trains young aspiring entrepreneurs to work at startups in cities like these to generate job growth. We’ve had many successes. But the kinds of jobs created tend to be very specific; every business I worked with will hire the very best people it can find—particularly startups. When entrepreneurs start companies and expand, they generally aren’t hiring a down-on-his-or-her-luck worker in need of a break. They are hiring the strongest contributors with the right mix of qualities to help an early-stage company succeed. Most jobs in a startup essentially require a college degree. That excludes 68 percent of the population right there. And some of these companies are lifting further inefficiencies out of the system—reducing jobs in other places even while hiring their own new workers.
There’s a scene in Ben Horowitz’s book The Hard Things about Hard Things in which he depicts the CEO of a company meeting with his two lieutenants. The CEO says to one of them, “You’re going to do everything in your power to make this deal work.” Then he turns to the other and says, “Even if he does everything right, it’s probably not going to work. Your job is to fix it.” That’s where we’re at with the American economy. Unprecedented advances are accelerating in real time and wreaking havoc on lives and communities around the country, particularly on those least able to adapt and adjust.
We must do all we can to reduce the worst effects of the Great Displacement—it should be the driving priority of corporations, government, and nonprofits for the foreseeable future. We should invest in education, job training and placement, apprenticeships, relocation, entrepreneurship, and tax incentives—anything to help make hiring and retaining workers appealing. And then we should acknowledge that, for millions of people, it’s not going to work.
In the United States we want to believe that the market will resolve most situations. In this case, the market will not solve the problem—quite the opposite. The market is driven to reduce costs. It will look to find the cheapest way to perform tasks. The market doesn’t want to provide for unemployed truck drivers or cashiers. Uber is going to get rid of its drivers as soon as it can. Its job isn’t to hire lots of people—its job is to move customers around as efficiently as possible. The market will continue to throw millions of people out of the labor force as automation and technology improve. In order for society to continue to function and thrive when tens of millions of Americans don’t have jobs, we will need to rethink the relationship between work and being able to pay for basic needs. And then, we will have to determine ways to convey the psychic and social benefits of work in other ways.
There is really only one entity—the federal government—that can realistically reformat society in ways that will prevent large swaths of the country from becoming jobless zones of derelict buildings and broken people. Nonprofits will be at the front lines of fighting the decline, but most of their activities will be like bandages on top of an infected wound. State governments are generally hamstrung with balanced budget requirements and limited resources.
Even if they don’t talk about it in public, many technologists themselves fear a backlash. My friends in Silicon Valley want to be positive, but many are buying bunkers and escape hatches just in case. One reason that solutions are daunting to even my most optimistic friends is that, while their part of the American economy is flourishing, little effort is being made to distribute the gains from automation and reverse the decline in opportunities. To do so would require an active, stable, invigorated, unified federal government willing to make large bets. This, unfortunately, is not what we have. We have an indebted state rife with infighting, dysfunction, and outdated ideas and bureaucracies from bygone eras, along with a populace that cannot agree on basic facts like vote totals or climate change. Our politicians offer half-hearted solutions that will at best nibble at the edges of the problem. The budget for research and development in the Department of Labor is only $4 million. We have a 1960s-era government that has few solutions to the problems of 2018.
This must change if our way of life is to continue. We need a revitalized, dynamic government to rise to the challenge posed by the largest economic transformation in the history of mankind.
The above may sound like science fiction to you. But you’re reading this with a supercomputer in your pocket (or reading it on the supercomputer itself) and Donald Trump was elected president. Doctors can fix your eyes with lasers, but your local mall just closed. We are living in unprecedented times. The future without jobs will come to resemble either the cultivated benevolence of Star Trek or the desperate scramble for resources of Mad Max. Unless there is a dramatic course correction, I fear we are heading toward the latter.
As Bismarck said, “If revolution there is to be, let us rather undertake it not undergo it.” Society will change either before or after the revolution. I choose before.
I’m a serial entrepreneur who started out as a lawyer. Before launching Venture for America, I co-founded an Internet company, worked at a health care software startup, and ran a national education company that was acquired in 2009. I’ve worked in startups and economic development for 17 years. I know how companies operate and how jobs are created and reduced. I’m also both an ardent capitalist and completely certain that our system needs to change in order to continue our way of life.
Our society has already been shaped by large-scale changes in the economy due to technological advances. It turns out that Americans have been dealing with the lack of meaningful opportunities by getting married less and becoming less and less functional. The fundamental message is that we are already on the edge of dystopia with hundreds of thousands of families and communities being pushed into oblivion.
Education and retraining won’t address the gaps; the goalposts are now moving and many affected workers are well past their prime. We need to establish an updated form of capitalism—I call it Human-Centered Capitalism, or Human Capitalism for short—to amend our current version of institutional capitalism that will lead us toward ever-increasing automation accompanied by social ruin. We must make the market serve humanity rather than have humanity continue to serve the market. We must simultaneously become more dynamic and more empathetic as a society. We must change and grow faster than most think possible.
When the next downturn hits, hundreds of thousands of people will wake up to do their jobs only to be told that they’re no longer needed. Their factory or retail store or office or mall or business or truck stop or agency will close. They will look for another job and, this time, they will not find one. They will try to keep up a brave face, but the days and weeks will pass and they will become more and more defeated. They will almost always blame themselves for their lot. They will say things like, “I wish I’d applied myself more in school,” or “I should have picked another job.” They’ll burn through their meager savings. Their family lives and communities will suffer. Some will turn to substance abuse or watch too much TV. Their health will slip—the ailments they’ve been working through will seem twice as painful. Their marriages will fail. They will lose their sense of self-worth. Their physical environments will decay around them and their loved ones will become reminders of their failure.
For every displaced worker, there will be two or three others who have their shifts and hours reduced, their benefits cut, and their already precarious financial lives pushed to the brink. They will try to consider themselves lucky even as their hopes for the future dim.
Meanwhile, in Manhattan and Silicon Valley and Washington, DC, my friends and I will be busier than ever fighting to stay current and climb within our own hypercompetitive environments. We will read articles with concern about the future and think about how to redirect our children to more fertile professions and livelihoods. We will retweet something and contribute here and there. We will occasionally reflect on the fates of others and shake our heads, determined to be among the winners in whatever the new economy brings.
The logic of the meritocracy is leading us to ruin, because we are collectively primed to ignore the voices of the millions getting pushed into economic distress by the grinding wheels of automation and innovation. We figure they’re complaining or suffering because they’re losers.
We need to break free of this logic of the marketplace before it’s too late.
We must reshape and accelerate society to bring us all to higher ground. We must find new ways to organize ourselves independent of the values that the marketplace assigns to each and every one of us.
We are more than the numbers on our paychecks—and we are going to have to prove it very quickly.
WHAT’S HAPPENING TO JOBS
I grew up a skinny Asian kid in upstate New York who was often ignored or picked on—like one of the kids from Stranger Things but nerdier and with fewer friends. It stuck with me. I’ve never forgotten what it felt like to be young. To be gnawed at by doubts and fears so deep that they inflict physical pain, a sense of nausea deep in your stomach. To feel like an alien, to be ignored or ridiculed. I didn’t think it was possible to forget all that. But it turns out that most of us do. In movies, they show children going through formative experiences at home. The protagonists go back where they came from later to make it better. In real life, none of us goes back.
My parents valued education deeply. My father, who immigrated from Taiwan, worked in the research labs of GE and IBM. He got his PhD in physics from Berkeley and generated 69 patents over his career. He met my mom, also from Taiwan, while in grad school. She has a master’s in statistics and worked as a computer services administrator at our local university before becoming an artist. My brother became a professor, which is kind of the family business. Being the first generation born in this country gave me both a fierce love for the United States and a deep sense of what it means to struggle to fit in.
I was one of the only Asians in my local public school. That didn’t go unnoticed. Classmates offered frequent reminders as to my identity:
“What’s up, chink.”
“Hey… you… wanna fight?” said with mouth moving but no sound coming out, to imitate a kung fu movie with bad dubbing.
“Ching chong ching chong.”
“Hey, you know what Chinese use for blindfolds? Dental floss!”
“You see that?” Demonstrates a blank face. “That’s the way the gook laughs.”
“Hey, Yang, you hungry? You want a gook-ie?”
“Hey, Yang. I see where you’re looking. No interracial dating.”
“Hey, Yang, what’s it like having such a small dick? Everyone knows Chinese guys have small dicks. Do you need tweezers to masturbate?”
Most of this was in middle school. I had a few natural responses: I became quite self-conscious. I started wondering if I did indeed have a small dick. Last, I became very, very angry.
Perhaps as a result, I’ve always taken pride in relating to the underdog or little guy or gal. As I grew up, I tried to stick up for whoever seemed excluded or marginalized. I became a Mets fan. I’d go to a party and find the person who seemed the most alone or uncomfortable and strike up a conversation. I worked out a little too much in college.
I grew up and found that my zeal extended into my professional life. I love small companies and helping them grow. After five months as a corporate lawyer, I co-founded an Internet company when I was 25, back in 2000. After it went bust, I worked at a medical records software company, and then helped a friend, Zeke Vanderhoek, with his GMAT prep company when he was starting out as a solo tutor in a Starbucks. He eventually asked me to take over as CEO. Between the two of us and our team, we grew the company to become number one in the country.
By 2010 I was riding high. Our company, Manhattan Prep, had been acquired by the Washington Post Company’s Kaplan division for millions of dollars. I was 35 years old, the head of a national education company that I loved, living in New York City among family and friends, and engaged to marry my fiancée the following year. I was on top of the world.
And yet, something bothered me that I couldn’t let go. I’d trained hundreds of young people—as CEO of Manhattan Prep I’d taught the analyst classes at Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, J.P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley, and many other companies. These college graduates often seemed disenchanted with their careers; they were looking to go to business school to take a break and find the next step. Many of them hailed from other parts of the country—Michigan, Ohio, Georgia—and had come to Wall Street for better opportunities. When I talked to them after class, they seemed to be searching for some higher purpose that had eluded them. They reminded me of myself a decade earlier, when I had started my career as an unhappy corporate lawyer.
I thought, “Wow, we have a ton of smart people doing the same few things in the same few places.” I imagined what the best use of their talent would be. One weekend I was back on campus at Brown and met an entrepreneur in Providence, Charlie Kroll, who had started a local company with 100 employees instead of heading to Wall Street. I arrived at a vision: an army of smart, enterprising graduates building businesses in Detroit, New Orleans, Providence, Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis, and other communities that could use a boost. New companies have accounted for all domestic job growth the past 20 years. More people building things in areas of need would inject vitality, create opportunities, and help regional economies become more dynamic. Cities like Detroit and New Orleans seemed to me to be the ultimate underdogs.
I knew building a new company was a very tall order for any recent graduate. But I had learned a lot from working with more experienced CEOs and teams; I believed this apprenticeship model was the best way to develop, since that’s the way that I’d learned throughout my twenties. Win or lose, they’d get stronger. They’d also likely reflect a different set of values after having worked in a startup in an emerging city for a few years.
I became fixated on the idea of training hundreds of enterprising college grads and sending them to startup companies in other U.S. cities to promote job growth and innovation in regions across the country. We would provide an accelerator and seed fund to help them start businesses after two years. Our goal would be to help create 100,000 new U.S. jobs by 2025. I called the organization Venture for America. People loved the idea. Many said they would have done something like Venture for America if it had existed when they had graduated from college.
I took my first trip to Detroit in 2010 to see if there were businesses there that could use talent to help them grow. The city was just beginning its descent into bankruptcy—I remember the cold, empty streets feeling abandoned. I joked with a friend, “I felt like running red lights as soon as I got here, it’s so empty.” The city has come a long way since those low points. I met with several local entrepreneurs who said they’d jump at the chance to hire energetic recent grads who wanted to get their hands dirty. The same was true in Providence, New Orleans, and Cincinnati. Meeting with the entrepreneurs in these cities convinced me that I was on the right track.
In 2011 I donated $120K and quit my job to start Venture for America, with the mission of revitalizing American cities and communities through entrepreneurship. That first year our budget was about $200K.
In 2018, our budget is more than 25 times higher and we’ve recruited and trained hundreds of young up-and-coming aspiring entrepreneurs from around the country out of thousands of applicants. Supporters include CEOs, celebrities, entrepreneurs, major companies, foundations, and even the state of Ohio. Our efforts have helped create over 2,500 jobs in 18 cities and our alums have started dozens of companies. Out of our last class, 43 percent were women and 25 percent were black or Latino. I wrote a well-received book, and a documentary, Generation Startup, followed six of our entrepreneurs as they started businesses in Detroit.
I’ve seen dozens of idealistic 22-year-olds evolve into founders and CEOs of scrappy young companies that touch thousands of lives. I’ve seen and helped hundreds of little startups grow into mature companies with hundreds of employees. I’ve seen neighborhoods on the edge of desolation become filled with people and new businesses. I’ve worked with some of the most idealistic and noble people in the country making great things happen in unlikely places. My work with Venture for America opened new doors, and people sought out my advice on innovation and entrepreneurship. Here’s me explaining Venture for America to President Obama in 2012:
I was riding high. My personal life progressed as well in these years. My wife and I got married, and we now have two sons who occupy many of our waking hours. Being a parent is much harder than I ever thought it would be but brings its own sense of fulfillment.
And yet in 2016 something started bothering me—a feeling I couldn’t seem to shake. As I crisscrossed the country, I often found places that seemed to be in the midst of long-term decay. I ate in diners where I was one of very few customers they’d see all day, drove past boarded up businesses and FOR SALE signs, walked into derelict buildings and factories, saw the looks of resignation on people’s faces. The overall feeling was one of defeat and downtroddenness. The entrepreneurship messages of “take risks” and “it’s okay to fail” seemed ridiculous and misplaced in many of these contexts. It felt like the metaphorical water level in many places had risen and overtaken whole communities. I would often fly back to Manhattan or Silicon Valley after a trip and think, “I can’t believe I’m still in the same country.” I’d sit down for dinner with my friends and feel like a character in a play about people who ate well while the world burned, struggling to understand and share what I’d seen.
It was less the buildings and surroundings and more the people. They seemed despondent and depressed, like their horizons had been lowered to simply scraping by.
As for me, I 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. The mechanics of growing a nonprofit made me into the head of an establishment, which in turn made me more responsive to resource-rich institutions and people. I spent a lot of time with people who had already won, which was not what I’d envisioned.
- "Andrew Yang is one of those rare visionaries who puts dreams into action. The War on Normal People is both a clear-eyed look at the depths of our social and economic problems and an innovative roadmap toward a better future."—Arianna Huffington,Founder and CEO of Thrive Global
- "This book is a must read. Andrew Yang is tackling one of the biggest challenges facing our country the way only an entrepreneur can, but unlike most, he sees the big picture. Making money is good for you-but building a strong society and strong people is good for all of us. The topics Andrew addresses in this book aren't about some dystopian future way down the road. These things are happening today, and every entrepreneur should read this book to understand the challenges of the next decade."—Daymond John, starof ABC's Shark Tank, bestselling author of The Power of Broke, andfounder of FUBU
- "In this powerful book, Andrew Yang highlights the urgent need to rewrite America's social contract. In a call to arms that comes from both head and heart, Yang has made an important contribution to the debate about where America is headed and what we need to do about it."—Alec Ross, New York Times bestsellingauthor of The Industries of the Future
- "America desperately needs a wake-up call. This book will open your eyes to the ongoing effects of automation. Fortunately, aside from knowing full well the many challenges we face, Andrew Yang has a firm grasp of the solutions, most especially our need for Universal Basic Income. Read this book and hear the urgent call for abundance over scarcity, and humanity over abject madness. The clock is ticking."—Scott Santens,Director, U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network
- "Andrew Yang writes with passion and conviction, offering astute analysis--as well as a hopeful solution--for the looming challenge that may well define the coming decades: How can we ensure broad-based prosperity in a future where labor-displacing technology becomes vastly more powerful?"—Martin Ford, NewYork Times bestselling author of Rise of the Robots
- "A sobering portrait of a crumbling polity . . . [and] a provocative work of social criticism."—Kirkus Reviews
- "I found [The War on Normal People] fascinating and troubling."—Major Garrett, host of CBS News' "The Takeout"
- On Sale
- Apr 2, 2019
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Hachette Books