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Review of "The War on Normal People" by Andrew Yang

AaronB

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“The War on Normal People” is a provocative title. War means killing. And who among us is normal, anyway? In this case, the killing is mainly through self-destruction. And the people it’s happening to are the median people - the ones who would be in the middle if we were lined up according to our characteristics. The normal person perhaps started college but didn’t complete a degree; is living paycheck-to-paycheck on about $31k/year; and is likely to be employed in sales and retail, clerical/administrative work, truck-driving, or customer service. Those jobs all have something in common - they are likely to be automated away within the next decade.

Jobs won’t cease to exist. There will still be people doing things in the economy. As long as people have unfulfilled desires, there is room to try to meet those desires. However, actual human beings don’t flow to new opportunities in the way that economic models suggest.

What will a flesh-and-blood 49 year-old truck driver with a high school degree who is the breadwinner of his family do when his job is automated away? Some few may learn to code. Some may find a new niche, like becoming a home health care aide. But as Yang says, ‘former truck drivers will not be excited to bathe grandma.” Instead, what’s probably going to happen is what has already been happening in the rust belt and many rural communities where jobs have dried up. About half will drop out of the workforce entirely. About half of those will go on disability, and suffer from apocalyptic rates of addiction and suicide. Some will try to take out their suffering on society, or those they scapegoat. It’s already begun. Yang credits the loss of manufacturing jobs as a major reason the public turned to Donald Trump.

Many jobs that involve repetition can be done by robots or software. The technology exists already. It’s only getting better, cheaper, and more widely distributed. Massive sectors of employment will virtually cease to be within years. It doesn’t stop at blue-collar work, either. Many functions of white collar workers, lawyers and doctors can be performed better by artificial intelligence. Programs can also compose symphonies, produce artwork, and write some newspaper articles.

As the jobs normal people rely on go away, the concentration of wealth could approach ludicrous speed. Even now, the most talented young people in the country join the old money elites in the top universities, choose a field like technology, finance, medicine, or law; and then move to San Francisco, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Atlanta. Vast tracts of flyover country get left behind. Trump appealed to the people who felt they were getting left behind.

Unlike Trump, though, Yang isn’t promising to bring the old jobs back. He wants to transform the economy.


Let’s get into the solution suggested by the subtitle of the book: “The Truth about America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income is Our Future.” The idea of a Universal Basic Income (or UBI, which Yang has rebranded as the “Freedom Dividend” because that name alone is enough to convince many conservatives) is that every American adult will receive $1000/month. He doesn’t want this to be restricted by means testing - even the rich will get it - but it will make the most difference to people who are poor.

Most people have a lot of questions about what a universal basic income would mean. The cost is estimated at 3-4 trillion dollars. Yang wants this paid for with a value added tax of 10% that will take special pains to target the big tech companies that avoid many other taxes. Reduction of existing welfare programs will also bring the overall cost down. Yang also projects considerable savings due to factors like improved mental health, better education outcomes for children of poor families, reduced reliance on emergency room visits, and other things. That’s even apart from the economic growth spurred by giving all people more money.

If a book includes policy proposals, look for how well it actually addresses objections. Does it make serious, intelligent, and good faith arguments; or does it go full musou on hordes of straw men? Yang devotes one full chapter and a large section of another chapter answering objections, and made a real effort to take his opponents seriously.

For example, some prefer job retraining programs to a UBI. This makes sense in theory, but doesn’t tend to work. The number of people who complete a government-sponsored retraining program and actually go on to work in the field they were trained for is a joke without a punchline. Yang does advocate for specific job training programs that work, but doesn’t see them as filling the need for UBI.

Another objection is that the US economy is already at “full employment” levels. However, a record 95 million working-age Americans are out of the workforce and not being counted. Underemployment is also a major phenomenon, including “gig” work. In addition, Yang points out that companies might not be looking at hard decisions to terminate people right now. The next economic downturn, however, is bound to come sooner or later. When it does, the cuts will be deep, and the recent pattern has been that the recovery afterward will provide fewer jobs for normal people than were lost.

A potential issue I’ve often seen raised is that inflation will erase any benefit from the extra money, i.e. “Rent will go up by $1000/month.” Yang points out that goods subject to competition and technological improvement have not been showing inflation during decades of increasing money supply; it’s primarily health care and education which have spiraled - and they are not governed by the same market forces. Improvements in affordable housing are needed whether a UBI is passed or not, but it’s safe to say landlords couldn’t simply raise their rates without others competing against them.

Overall, Yang makes a very strong case, and this review hasn’t covered it all. If he wins, he could be the most transformational president since at least FDR. He’s raising issues no other candidate seems aware of. He seems like the first sci-fi president. “The future without jobs will come to resemble either the cultivated benevolence of Star Trek or the desperate scramble for resources of Mad Max...Society will change either before or after the revolution. I choose before.” (xvii)
 

oagboghi2

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If this OP a review or just a propaganda pitch?

“Most transformational president since FDR.” I mean come on 😂🙄
 
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AaronB

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If this OP a review or just a propaganda pitch?

“Most transformational president since FDR.” I mean come on 😂🙄
If Andrew Yang passes UBI and just a few of his other ideas, which president since FDR has made bigger changes?
 

LegendOfKage

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Mar 6, 2018
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If this OP a review or just a propaganda pitch?

“Most transformational president since FDR.” I mean come on 😂🙄
Anyone who successfully implemented a universal basic income would greatly affect the direction of this country for generations to come. I'm not sure that would be a good thing, but it would be pretty undeniable.

I have one other fairly deep-cut reference in there. I think this board should be able to catch it.
I mostly just skimmed the initial post, and I didn't even realize you wrote it. I thought it was a quoted article, so nice job.

I should have known better than to think any journalist was writing about Andrew Yang.
 
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AaronB

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Anyone who successfully implemented a universal basic income would greatly affect the direction of this country for generations to come. I'm not sure that would be a good thing, but it would be pretty undeniable.



I mostly just skimmed the initial post, and I didn't even realize you wrote it. I thought it was a quoted article, so nice job.

I should have known better than to think any journalist was writing about Andrew Yang.
Thank you. I'm thinking of starting a book review website, with polished and expanded versions of the reviews I've done on this board. I'm trying to get my writing up to professional standards, so I'd love any feedback or suggestions of who you think does the best book reviews.
 

Shai-Tan

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Mar 16, 2009
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I haven't read enough to evaluate Yang's proposed solutions but more context for what Yang calls "the war on normal people" from Thomas Piketty:


This part of the book looks empirically at the reasons that left-wing, or social democratic parties have gradually transformed themselves from being the parties of the less-educated and poorer classes to become the parties of the educated and affluent middle and upper-middle classes. To a large extent, traditionally left parties have changed because their original social-democratic agenda was so successful in opening up education and high-income possibilities to the people who in the 1950s and 1960s came from modest backgrounds. These people, the “winners” of social democracy, continued voting for left-wing parties but their interests and worldview were no longer the same as that of their (less-educated) parents. The parties’ internal social structure thus changed—the product of their own political and social success. In Piketty’s terms, they became the parties of the “Brahmin left” (La gauche Brahmane), as opposed to the conservative right-wing parties, which remained the parties of the “merchant right” (La droite marchande).



To simplify, the elite became divided between the educated “Brahmins” and the more commercially-minded “investors,” or capitalists. This development, however, left the people who failed to experience upward educational and income mobility unrepresented, and those people are the ones that feed the current “populist” wave. Quite extraordinarily, Piketty shows the education and income shifts of left-wing parties’ voters using very similar long-term data from all major developed democracies (and India). The fact that the story is so consistent across countries lends an almost uncanny plausibility to his hypothesis
 
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zeorhymer

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Nov 9, 2013
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Finland’s Basic Income Trial Boosts Happiness, but Not Employment

UBI is no different than having the government hire people to dig a ditch and fill it back up again. FDR did this and it didn't work. The US is already at historic 4% unemployment and there are signs all over the place that wants to hire, but competition is very fierce. It is impossible to employ everyone. Also fuck VAT tax. I ain't paying $1000 for my PS5. Tax the people to redistribute the wealth, no thanks.
 

AaronB

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I haven't read enough to evaluate Yang's proposed solutions but more context for what Yang calls "the war on normal people" from Thomas Piketty:

That sounds quite interesting. Elite analysis is something I'm aware of, but haven't dug into that much.

Finland’s Basic Income Trial Boosts Happiness, but Not Employment

UBI is no different than having the government hire people to dig a ditch and fill it back up again. FDR did this and it didn't work. The US is already at historic 4% unemployment and there are signs all over the place that wants to hire, but competition is very fierce. It is impossible to employ everyone. Also fuck VAT tax. I ain't paying $1000 for my PS5. Tax the people to redistribute the wealth, no thanks.
Nice to see some results of Finland's study; that hadn't come in yet when Yang wrote the book. It would have been nice if rates of work rose, but that's only part of what UBI is intended to accomplish. The ones who didn't work often had few skills, negative life situations, or major health concerns. The recipients did become far healthier and happier, which bodes well for saving money on medical costs and improving the outlook for their children.

Having people dig a ditch and fill it back up again wastes their time and devalues them. The UBI is intended to free people to pursue preferred goals.

Unemployment is low right now, but bear in mind that we're overdue for a recession. The last few recessions have been harsh, with jobs slow to recover. In particular, there are fewer and fewer well-paying jobs that don't require specific college degrees (like auto manufacturing jobs in postwar Detroit).

The UBI is redistributive. The bottom 94% of people will have more purchasing power, when you balance out the cost of the VAT. I'm not thrilled about the VAT part, either, but if it's 10% VAT in exchange for $1000/month I'll take it.
 

Sakura

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I've said this in other threads, but this whole automation argument doesn't make any sense to me.
Massive numbers of people will lose their jobs and be unemployed. OK. So who is paying for the goods and services now being provided by all these automated jobs? If 20+% of people are unemployed because of automation, then all these companies that automated are going to be making less money than they were before. On the other hand, if you give everybody UBI, then all of a sudden automation works, because people still have some money to shop at Walmart etc.
Furthermore, if a massive portion of the population is unemployed, then the government is just going to stop and say, OK, automation isn't working, no more automation.
To me, UBI seems to facilitate automation. It guarantees a customer base even if people lose their jobs to automation. It justifies it. It just doesn't make sense to me.
 
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ViceUniverse

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Furthermore, if a massive portion of the population is unemployed, then the government is just going to stop and say, OK, automation isn't working, no more automation.
To me, UBI seems to facilitate automation. It guarantees a customer base even if people lose their jobs to automation. It justifies it. It just doesn't make sense to me.
The government comprising and bought out by rich people?
 

Super Mario

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Unemployment is at historic lows

Also: There will not be ANY jobs soon

Makes complete sense
 

AaronB

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Unemployment is at historic lows

Also: There will not be ANY jobs soon

Makes complete sense
It's at historic lows, partly because we don't count people who've stopped looking for work. There are also millions of people underemployed. For those people who do have good jobs, how many are in rural and rust belt areas? Many people are doing fine, especially those who have the right college degrees and live in vibrant cities. However, whole sectors of the country and categories of jobs are getting left behind.

Most people in the US no longer can expect to do financially better than their parents, and life expectancy is going down, which is shocking for a developed country.

Those are the issues Yang is talking about.
 

Mahadev

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It's at historic lows, partly because we don't count people who've stopped looking for work. There are also millions of people underemployed. For those people who do have good jobs, how many are in rural and rust belt areas? Many people are doing fine, especially those who have the right college degrees and live in vibrant cities. However, whole sectors of the country and categories of jobs are getting left behind.

Most people in the US no longer can expect to do financially better than their parents, and life expectancy is going down, which is shocking for a developed country.

Those are the issues Yang is talking about.

You didn't mention the part about US government every few years manipulating more and more the way unemployment numbers are calculated to deceive the public. Last time I heard about them changing the rules iirc was at the end of Obama's presidency and I'm sure they'll do it again when that creative math don't work anymore.
 
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Stilton Disco

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A continually rising population with fewer and fewer people in work, all having to be paid by the government, which will tax those in work more and more to pay the unemployed, doesnt seem to be the best future to be facilitating for anyone involved.

Plus we're already seeing how utterly fucked up and self destructive we're becoming with too much free time and too comfortable of lives to live.

The mental health crisis, impossibility of amicable political dialogue, rise in cultish and hedonistic behaviour and increasingly fractured and tribalistic lack of social cohesion of people will only get worse with UBI giving more and more people too much free time, disposable income but no direction or focus in thwir lives.

The entire concept seems like a "The road to hell is paved with good intentions" situation to me.
 
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Joe T.

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Most people in the US no longer can expect to do financially better than their parents, and life expectancy is going down, which is shocking for a developed country.
Not really, the US just seems to be ahead of the curve on that matter. According to the Globe and Mail: "Life expectancy in Canada has stopped increasing for the first time in more than four decades, due largely to soaring overdose deaths in the Western provinces." Similar findings in the UK according to The Guardian.
 
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