Did Andrew Yang succeed in stoking a debate on AI and universal basic income?

  • Andrew Yang participates in the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Wednesday, July 31, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit.

    Andrew Yang participates in the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Wednesday, July 31, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Posted8/3/2019 6:00 AM

Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang joined the race with the goal of making it to a debate to stoke a national conversation about the threat artificial intelligence poses to American jobs and the need to create a universal basic income.

Since this week's debate might have been his last chance to press his message onstage, it's a fair time to evaluate: Did he achieve his goal?


Yes and no.

Yang was particularly effective at pushing his warning about the disruptive effect AI will have on common jobs such as trucking, and devoted particularly strong closing remarks to his signature proposal of giving every American $1,000 per month. "We need to be laser-focused on solving the real challenges of today, like the fact that the most common jobs in America may not exist in a decade, or that most Americans cannot pay their bills," he said.

But he had the least speaking time of any candidate across both nights. And Yang's pet platforms have so far failed to catch on with other, higher-polling Democratic candidates. Nor did they emerge as key themes in moderators' questions across the first two rounds of debates.

In fact, Yang is the only candidate who even said the words "artificial intelligence" during the past two nights. He blamed the lack of attention on the media, which he complained focused on the fact he wasn't wearing a tie instead of his policy positions, and on his opponents for trying to drag each other down on other political hot-button issues.

"Instead of talking about automation and our future, including the fact that we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs, hundreds of thousands right here in Michigan, we're up here with makeup on our faces and our rehearsed attack lines, playing roles in this reality TV show," Yang said. "It's one reason why we elected a reality TV star as our president."

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All this highlights just how difficult Yang's goal is in a bitterly competitive field, and being just one of 20 candidates to qualify for the first two rounds of debates.

Yang may be out of chances to make an impact. It remains to be seen if Yang will qualify for the third round of debates in September. The Democratic National Committee requires candidates to both reach 2% in four DNC-approved polls and obtain 130,000 donors from 40 states. Yang has met the donation threshold, and earlier this week his campaign announced he also hit the polling requirement. But the DNC rejected Yang for submitting two NBC-sponsored polls, saying that candidates can only count one, according to The Hill.

Yang's performance was especially fiery considering CNN moderators gave him little opportunity to talk about his economic concerns. Last night CNN moderators asked only one question about how they would balance the disruptive effect automation can have on jobs against its benefits, and they aimed the question at Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. Bennet didn't directly answer the question, suggesting the U.S. needs to invest more domestically in infrastructure rather than in conflicts in the Middle East.

In the first round of debates in June, California Rep. Eric Swalwell, who has since dropped out of the race, also weighed in on the issue. But so far none of the top-polling candidates such as former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., or Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have bitten. It's unclear if anyone will bother bringing it up if Yang doesn't qualify for the next round, given how much attention has been spent on health care and immigration.

Yang, the former head of Venture for America, a nonprofit that sends entrepreneurs into cities to help revitalize them, has garnered strong support online from supporters known as the "Yang Gang" and from prominent figures in Silicon Valley. His donor base includes Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey and Y Combinator chairman Sam Altman.

But alongside sitting members of Congress, governors, mayors and a former vice president, some of Yang's ideas can seem out of left field. His response to a question on climate change was widely panned on Twitter after he suggested the best way to combat climate change is to start moving people to "higher ground" and give them economic resources to protect themselves.

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