October 30th, 2020

The War on Normal People by Andrew Yang

From the subtitle, Andrew Yang positions The War on Normal people as his answer to deal with the problems America is facing with disappearing jobs and thus income issues in their homes.

What is the Problem?

In Yang's mind the issue is that we have a lack of financial mobility and stability. This insecurity is a breeding ground for political hostility1. I'd say that his book from 2018 nails this and we only have to look at the white supremest groups walking around "guarding" things to see the truth bearing out. As I said when I looked at Man's Search for Meaning I think that much of this has to do with the truth that many people can no longer afford the "American Dream". They ran the race they were told was winnable, then had the rug yanked out from under them, or had the goal post moved so far away that finishing is entirely inplausible.

That doesn't excuse any conduct they're responsible for though. Don't think I condone this for a second.

If you can't hit your first mountain of financial security, how on earth can we expect you'll look towards the second mountain and serve others or live for anyone but yourself?

There are a few reasons for this lack of resources. First, tech jobs that have taken blue collar labour never replace the number of jobs they take2. They also require entirely different skills, and are rarely in the same geographic location as the jobs they displaced. A factory worker in rural USA isn't taking an AI programming job in Silicon Valley when they find themselves out of work.

Yang also highlights that GDP has been outpacing earnings since the 1970's3. This means that workers are getting a smaller piece of the bigger pie they're creating. One of the threads throughout Shorter also showed this. The benefits of productivity are continually accruing more towards owners than workers.

This leaves 59% of Americans unable to pay an unexpected $500 bill. Lest you think that it's simply poor planning on their account, studies show that this is not the case. Take a recent study that gave $7500 to homeless people in Canada. It turns out, they did good things and were more likely to have jobs and be in housing.

The cure for poverty seems to be money and the cure for homelessness seems to be a home. By providing both of these things it allows people to stop living in scarcity. They no longer have to guess which ball is about to drop while they focus on the first one that's currently crashing.

But what about the good employment numbers you ask? Eh, the unemployment rate is a stupid metric according to Yang4. It doesn't count those not looking for work. It doesn't count anyone that hates their job, or is in a job that they are overqualified for and thus are underemployed. It doesn't count anyone on permanent disability, and since virtually no one recovers from disability5 they're out of the job market.

If you're on board with the problems Yang has outlined, then get ready for his argument on basic income.

Andrew Yang's Solution

This part got hard for me to read, mostly because it was all "rah" America with it's solutions. With stuff called "Freedom bucks" and other silly things like that. What Yang comes up with is a monthly cash transfer to every citizen of working age. This would take out all other subsidies and would be paid for with a consumption tax. In theory, since the rich have more money to spend they'd consume more and thus put more into the fund.

When I read this book my in-laws were over and we had a long talk about basic income. They're fear, like most, is that people will take advantage of such a system. While the study I linked to above in Canada is too new to make it in the book, Yang cites dozens of studies that come up with the same conclusion.

Poverty isn't a lack of character, it's a lack of cash6. If you give people cash, they can stop thinking past that ball which is about to crash. They're more likely to put money in the bank. They are more likely to volunteer in the community. They have better health outcomes. Their kids to better in school.

Virtually no one abuses the system and stops working. The very few who do are so far offset by the benefits received by everyone else that it doesn't matter.

The idea that poor people will be irresponsible with their money and squander it seems to be a product of deep-seatid biases rather than emblematic of the truth. There's a tendency for rich people to dismiss poor people as weak-willed children with no cost discipline. 7

This may be a hard idea to grasp, but after looking at the studies in this book, and a bunch of other studies I've looked at, I can't help but agree with it. The science bears out that any person you can think of that will abuse it is a zebra in a field of horses. Most people will use it well and all of society benefits from Universal Basic Income.

Should You Read The War on Normal People by Andrew Yang?

Before I give my final recommendation I want to highlight one point that's been sticking with me from this book regarding the humanity of work.

The relationship between humanity and work involves money, but in something of a negative correlation. The jobs and roles that are the most human and would naturally be most attractive tend to pay nothing or close to nothing. Mother, father, artist, writer, musician, coach, teacher, storyteller, nurturer, counselor, dancer, poet, philosopher, journalist-these roles are either unpaid or pay so little that it is difficult to survive or thrive in many environments. Many of these roles have high social impacts that are ignored by the market. 8

I keep thinking that Yang is on to something here, specifically as we think about who does lots of this work...women. Remember with Invisible Women, much of the work that is done by women is seen as having no economic value. Specifically, raising children or caring for elderly relatives...both tasks which go unseen in any of our economic numbers.

While I had issues with the awesome America rhetoric in the last half of the book, I think this was a good book. It presented the problem well and made convincing arguments about the solution to income issues. We'll see how it holds up as I read more about basic income over the next months, but I feel as if I could have a decent discussion about the surface issues after reading the book.

Purchase The War on Normal People: Independent Bookstore | Amazon


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