[Book Review] The War on Normal People by Andrew Yang

Presidential candidate Andrew Yang believes all Americans should be given $1000 per month from the government, this is his Universal Basic Income proposal which he hopes will help him win the White House next year. Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and other leading tech thinkers support similar proposals and Yang says UBI will help avoid a looming jobs catastrophe caused by intelligent automation. Although America’s official unemployment numbers are low he says they do not account for the social ills of a growing segment of the population that feel left behind by globalisation and technology. Current welfare and disability schemes incentivise unemployed people to stay at home, but UBI would simply reduce the poverty rate and free these people to do work for meaning and fulfillment rather than survival.

Capitalism is criticized for over-concentrating wealth in the hands of a few and if machines become the world’s intelligent workforce and take even the jobs people need to survive then the skewed income distribution of today will be far worse. This also assumes that machines won’t become universally self-aware and figure out that they should put all of us humans to work. This is the worrying scenario called a “Technological Singularity”, for more information read Nic Bostrom’s philosophical but comprehensive Superintelligence or Max Tegmark’s more encouraging Life 3.0.

One of my key takeaways from Yang’s book was his ominous statement “humans need work more than work needs humans”; he believes we are underestimating the future impact of how automation is displacing people from the workplace. No longer is it just the “dull, dangerous and dirty” jobs being automated, even professions that were previously immune to creative destruction are being threatened; information worker roles such as accounting, law and actuarial.

But Yang also believes we still haven’t seen the full impact of blue collar jobs displacement. For example truck driving is the most popular job in 29 states across America, it sustains 3.5 million households and another 7.2 million are dependent on the money that human truckers spend at the 2,000 truck stops in America. Self-driving trucks will be a faster use case for autonomous vehicles than consumer cars because highways are less complex than urban areas and the payoff from efficiencies in logistics is significantly higher.

Self-drive trucking could also save thousands of lives; driver error contributed to 90% of the 100,000 injuries and nearly 4,000 fatalities in crashes involving large trucks in 2014. These benefits are hard to argue against; Yang doesn’t want technology to be over-regulated or to slow down, he wants government to play a bigger role to cushion the people impact.

People are at the heart of what he feels is being ignored in similar waves of disruption across other industries. Human values are also what he proposes must drive the next stage of capitalism that emphasizes activities and careers such as the arts, teaching, parenting, serving the poor, reading and journalism. Yang sets out his ideas for such “Human Capitalism” which includes a well run single-payer healthcare for all, the Freedom Dividend (UBI) and an interesting system of social credits which allows people to get credit for providing any type of service to their community.

Also known as time banking it is already being tested in over 200 communities across the United States where people earn credits for helpful tasks such as walking the neigbour’s dog, cooking a meal and giving someone a ride to the doctor. Yang wants to scale these trials to a country wide system that’s backed by real money; a “new parallel economy around social good.” Free market thinkers are nervous of big government initiatives but Yang has done his homework and believes this wave of intelligent automation is fast creating new conditions that require new systems for society.

Maybe the Luddites were right to be concerned; in the early 1800s they tried to destroy the cotton mill machinery that was taking over their jobs. However every wave of technology since then has actually created more jobs than it has destroyed, but perhaps it really is different this time. Andrew Yang certainly thinks so.

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1 thought on “[Book Review] The War on Normal People by Andrew Yang”

  1. Interesting read… never knew how important Trucking was in the US. As automation shapes the jobs of tomorrow, Education needs to shape the futures of our children to adapt themselves so they can take on the “cleaner” jobs of tomorrow.

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