Once a Bullied Asian Kid, Now a 2020 Hopeful

Andrew Yang (Photo by Rong Xiaoqing via Sing Tao Daily)

[Editor’s note: This is a condensed version. For the full story in Chinese please click here.]

Standing 6 feet tall, speaking in a fast pace with little body language, 43-year-old Andrew Yang may surprise many people with the fact that he was bullied as a kid and often fought against the bullies. And those who bullied him then may also be surprised to learn that the kid they called a “chink” would later become a successful entrepreneur and run for president in 2020 as a Democrat. Although Yang is not the candidate many people would bet on, he believes he has the medicine for the illness that rapidly developing technology is bringing to the U.S. And even if he won’t win the White House, Yang said he’ll work on the prescription to help the country remain prosperous.

Born in Schenectady, New York, Yang is the second son of a Taiwanese immigrant family. Both his parents were international students at the University of California in Berkeley. His father is a physicist who got 69 patents throughout his career and his mother is a statistician-turned-pastel artist. Yang was smart as a child and he skipped kindergarten and enrolled in the first grade when he was 5. So for a long while, he was always smaller than his peers, plus he was the only Asian boy in class, making him an easy target for bullies.

“They called me chink, gook. I knew when someone bullied you, you had to take it if you didn’t fight back. So I always fought, and I always lost,” said Yang. “This didn’t make me sad. It made me angry. I told myself I have to prove to the bullies that I can make it.”

In the 10th grade, Yang had a growth spurt. He was now strong enough to pick up sports that he was not naturally born for. He became good at tennis and basketball, which he still plays frequently as a form of exercise.

Majoring in economics and political science in college, Yang has always been interested in politics. But he had never thought to run for public office until now. “The process of running is dispiriting. And politicians have to deal with a lot of nonsense,” Yang said. After graduating from Brown University, he earned a J.D. from Columbia Law School. Then he worked for a law firm for a few months before he started to create his own startups. One startup company he ran, Manhattan Prep, which provides test preparation material for the GMAT and other exams, was acquired by Kaplan in 2009.

It was on the campus of Columbia that Yang met his wife Evelyn, who later became a marketing executive at L’Oréal before quitting her job to take care of their two sons, now 5 and 2.

In 2011, Yang launched Venture for America, a nonprofit organization that nurtures entrepreneurship and places its fellows in less developed cities in the country to create jobs there.

“The reason I am running now is that I am certain there is this central and deep-seated problem that the United States is not facing properly, which is that technology is going to eliminate millions of jobs,” said Yang. “People don’t care largely because our government is dysfunctional. The sooner I declare [that I am running], the sooner I am able to spread that message and share the evidence.”

Yang said President Trump’s victory is inspiring and encouraging to him because it proved that the American people’s frustration toward the impact automation brought to the economy has reached a point that it can change the political course of the country. And the voters are hungry for a political outsider to bring fundamental changes. And this makes Yang more confident in his own chances.

But this doesn’t mean he thinks Trump is a qualified president. “I find Trump to be a very disturbing sign of American decline,” said Yang. “His diagnosis of the problem was largely correct. His solutions are nonsense. He wants to either freeze time or turn the clock back. We have to address the problems by turning the clock forward and accepting that big changes need to be made.”

Central to his proposed changes is a universal basic income (UBI), which would offer every American adult $1,000 per month in basic income so everyone can meet the basic needs in life. Yang envisions adopting the value-added tax system to replace the current income tax-based government revenue model to raise money for a UBI. People who claim welfare would get the choice to take a UBI or keep their current benefits. “The welfare system will be smaller because more people would prefer to take the $1,000 cash. And when you have a UBI, there won’t be so many poor people, so the need for welfare will be reduced,” Yang said.

UBI is not a brand new idea. But in recent years it has been picking up momentum as more and more human jobs are being replaced by robots. Many countries have launched pilot programs to test the idea. A recent survey conducted by Northeastern University and Gallup shows that 48 percent of Americans support the idea, a sharp contrast to a survey 10 years ago that found the percentage to be only 12.

Yang said the key for such a program to succeed is that it has to be administered by the government. “The big lesson (to draw from the pilot programs) is that you need to have a real commitment and a real investment and invest in a population over a significant period of time rather than just messing around and giving a few people money to see what happens,” said Yang. “Most private actors don’t have the resources to do it at that scale.”

In Yang’s view, the government can play a much bigger role in pushing the private sector, which only reports to its shareholders, to make some positive changes for society. In his plan, the government should launch universal health care, promote humane capitalism, force tech companies to design their products in a way to prevent children from becoming addicted [to technology], and even allocate funding to help the media industry transfer to a nonprofit-based and local news-oriented model.

To those who might think this sounds like socialism, Yang said: “That’s an uneducated view. Socialism is when the government nationalizes the means of production. UBI is pro-capitalist because the consumer market functions better when people have money to spend.”

Yang, the author of “Smart People Should Build Things,” explains his policy ideas in detail in his new book “The War on Normal People,” which will come out in a few weeks. And he believes Americans are ready for an Asian president. “Someone said to me that a studious Asian man is the opposite of Donald Trump, who is intellectually incurious and lacking, and that he would be very welcomed [by voters],” said Yang. “I believe that my race will actually prove helpful in getting people receptive to the ideas and themes of the campaign.”

If he fails the attempt, Yang said he will keep working in some form to promote a UBI. “I feel certain in my bones and my soul that the United States has fundamental economic issues that, if not addressed, will fester and get worse. And that’s going to drive everything else,” said Yang. “It’s my mission to help this society transition through it.”

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