Andrew Yang will not forestall the robot apocalypse from the Oval Office, but he may get to do it from New York City Hall. In the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, the former entrepreneur’s quirky campaign found a surprisingly robust audience, attracted by Yang’s warnings about automation and his promise to mail every American a “freedom dividend” (or, at least, by his math jokes and laid-back, open collar). In the end, the Yang Gang only got their guy as far as the New Hampshire primary. But thanks in part to the name recognition and national network of donors he accrued during that race, Yang is actually leading the polls this year’s contest to be the Democratic candidate for New York City mayor. On Friday, Henry Grabar and Jordan Weissmann, two of Slate’s native New Yorkers, convened to debate whether this is a good thing. Their debate has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jordan Weissmann: Before I begin trying to mount a case for why Mayor Andrew Yang might not be a crazy idea, I feel I should preface this by noting I’ve been a critic of his. I’ve written that he is full of it. I have accused him of peddling economic flimflam—the idea that because robots are inevitably going to take all our jobs, the best we can do is just give people cash. And I’ve personally had my mentions on Twitter ruined by this man when he dunked on me once. It was hellish. The Yang Gang are not people you want to be dealing with for three days on end. I have every reason to do nothing but snark on his candidacy.
I am, however, Yang-curious. I am slightly Yang-pilled, and the reason why is I think we should at least contemplate the potential merits of a charismatic mayoral candidate in New York City who wants to bring back the idea of doing social democracy on a municipal level, which is a notion that has essentially been dead since the 1960s and ’70s. It went the way of CBGB and the heyday of punk. Maybe it’s because I moved away from New York a couple years ago and so won’t have to live with the consequences of this election. But I can’t help but be a little excited that someone is actually trying to put forth an ambitious and thoughtful platform rethinking the philosophy of the city’s governance. And I’m surprised that you’re not at least a tiny bit interested, too.
Henry Grabar: Jordan, I am. I am a little bit interested in it. I think Yang running is good. As we’ve already noticed in the past couple days, he’s got this uncanny, Trump-like ability to just light up Twitter with whatever he says. Whether it’s the revelation that he spent the entire pandemic living in the Hudson Valley or his passing off some sort of very done-up local supermarket as a bodega, it’s clear that this man commands attention. And I actually think that’s really important. I’m not being sarcastic. In 2013, when Bill de Blasio won the Democratic primary, he did it with just 280,000 votes. That was effectively the moment when he was coronated for an eight-year term, but it’s not very many people in a city of 8½ million. So if the result of Yang running is to get people interested in the mayor’s race and to get people to pay attention, then that’s an achievement in and of itself. However …
Weissmann: There’s a big but coming here …
Grabar: As you said, the larger question of the Yang candidacy is: Do we want to turn New York back to a ’50s-/’60s-style municipal welfare city-state? I think that’s an idea worth discussing. But is Yang the right man for the job? I’m going to come down on “no” on that one. He’s got this really great, trademark idea, which is universal basic income, which we’ve already seen catching fire in Washington. So why let him use New York as his Petri dish?
To be clear, it’s a good idea, but consider the context: The cost of a Yang UBI experiment is less financial, and more that we don’t get a mayor who’s laser-focused on the city’s endemic, mounting problems. If someone is going to take control of the state-run subway system and send out checks to 500,000 people and start a public bank—each a gargantuan endeavor on its own—I think it should be somebody who has experience running large organizations, working in politics, working in New York politics. The welfare state is only as good as its implementation, as we saw with expanded unemployment insurance during the pandemic, where lots of states had trouble just getting people their money. If people can’t access the systems—if they’re not run well—then your ideas are just talk. In general, I’d like left-wing politicians like Yang to be less focused on adding their own big ideas to the mix and more focused on improving the various existing public-sector debacles that turn people off big, progressive ideas. See the New York City Housing Authority, for example.
Weissmann: I think the two questions that you’re highlighting are the right ones. Does he have the right ideas for the city? And is he the man to actually execute them? I want to take the ideas part first, which is: Could New York actually become its own little welfare state? The big thing Yang has put forth is, instead of doing a universal basic income, he wants to just do a basic income for the poor. He wants to give a few thousand dollars a year to about 500,000 New Yorkers, which would come out to $1 billion annually in spending. The conventional argument against this sort of idea is that cities and states aren’t really in a good position to run large welfare state programs, because they can’t run a deficit like the feds. They don’t have the fiscal flexibility or resources to pull it off.
The thing is that New York City runs an $88 billion budget every year. So $1 billion does not actually sound totally undoable as long as the state government in Albany gives them some flexibility about paying for it. Piloting a program like this doesn’t seem completely inconceivable.
His other big idea right now is a public bank. It’s a really interesting concept; the only other place in the country I’m aware of that has one is North Dakota, which has to do with a brief socialist takeover of the state government in the 1910s. Yang wants to create something along similar lines. It would provide checking accounts to unbanked New Yorkers, which helps with the whole basic income scheme. It would do low-interest lending for small businesses, which would help the community get back on its feet after COVID. It’s creative and definitely something New York could pull off on its own.
Something that should be noted, though, is that if you look at Yang’s platform, he isn’t just talking about a few of these big, flashy, Twitter-friendly proposals. There’s a very long section about small business recovery post-coronavirus, with a bit about protecting commercial renters and getting rid of vacant storefronts—bread-and-butter municipal-governance issues. So it’s not like he’s just recycling his presidential platform for his mayoral run.
Grabar: Jordan, I think we can agree that if universal basic income or some sort of check program for poor New Yorkers were tried here, it would be a proof of concept for the eventual adoption of such a program on the state or federal level. I read this great column a couple of weeks ago that was titled “Just Do the Checks Every Christmas.” You wrote that, and you were absolutely right. The debate over $1,400 and $2,000 checks notwithstanding, it’s clear that this idea is taking off exactly where we need it to take off, which is in Washington. But let’s go back to New York. Jordan, walk these streets with me. Look around.
Weissmann: OK. I’m walking here.
Grabar: This is a city in crisis. We’ve lost 500,000 jobs. And realistically, Yang is proposing some very ambitious stuff, right?
Grabar: And right now we have a mayor who is unable to manage the current responsibilities of the job, who can’t even be bothered to watch videos of his own police force. So while I think it would be great if New York could evolve into a ’50s-style city-state with public health clinics on every block and all the stuff that we used to have, let’s be realistic. There are some front-and-center issues that the new mayor is going to have to deal with. And I don’t think that picking Yang because he has this good idea to send some people $160 a month is worth putting aside some other issues—for example, reining in the NYPD, desegregating the school system, or getting along with the governor, which has been a constant issue for Mayor Bill de Blasio.
I admire Yang for dreaming big. I think that’s why it’s nice to have him in the race. But when the rubber meets the road, we all know what’s going to happen, right? Like half of these big ideas are going to get folded in, and he’s going to say, “I’m going to do them next year.” In reality, he’s going to have to confront this other stuff that I’m talking about: high housing costs, the NYPD, traffic like molasses, the recovery from COVID. And I hate to take the side in this debate of being like, “Stop dreaming big and start thinking about shoveling the snow and picking up trash,” but unfortunately, I think that’s where we’re at right now. And we haven’t really gotten to who the other candidates are.
Weissmann: But the other candidates are a big part of the reason I’d even consider Yang! One of the key things about this race right now is that there’s no obvious choice, a person with all the qualities that typically win someone the mayorship in New York. For the past few decades, the city has pretty consistently voted for megalomaniacs with a big idea, or at least a solid shtick, who can also present themselves as someone who could plausibly manage the city. That person does not really exist in this race.
There’s the city’s comptroller, Scott Stringer, who’d probably make a fine mayor—he’d definitely be able to clear the snow and manage the budget—but is just dull as hell. He does not have real vision, much less a shtick. You’ve got Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and former cop who said if he was elected mayor, he would get rid of his security detail and carry a gun, which, you know, enough said. Then you have Maya Wiley. She’s maybe interesting? She’s Bill de Blasio’s former chief counsel, for better or worse. She’s an MSNBC commentator. She was head of the NYPD Civilian Complaint Review Board for a little bit, so she has some real expertise she can bring to bear on police reform. But she hasn’t really caught fire, and it seems like she’s going to run a kind of wishy-washy campaign for the activist vote.
So, given that there isn’t really a perfect candidate obviously capable of both capturing the city’s imagination and running it, is considering Yang really so crazy? Is it so impossible to imagine he’d actually execute his plans that we shouldn’t consider someone who dreams big? Yes, he’s just a guy who’s pretty good on CNN who has no real experience running a large bureaucracy that would qualify him to be in charge of the nation’s largest city, but how disastrous could it really be?
Grabar: It sounds very familiar to me, Jordan: A business-success guy, no experience in politics, good on TV, people like him on the internet. What’s the worst that could happen? I’m kidding, I’m kidding.
He’d probably be fine, let’s be honest. But he’s going to be overwhelmed from Day One by, say, how to handle the police, for example, which has been the biggest issue for the past 10 years. We had a mayor whose whole thing was reforming the police, and look how he was brought to heel. Yang says something like, “Well, crime is rising, but also we need to reform the police.” My feeling is that basically everybody in this mayor’s race has the same platform. It’s like, “gentrification bad, NYPD not so good, but also crime is bad.” Everyone has the same philosophy, the same good intentions. So it’s a question of implementation, of state capacity. It’s boring. But this has been another theme for the past decade, that de Blasio can’t manage his way out of a paper bag. And so we get these ridiculous situations where it takes five years to paint a bus lane.
Weissmann: Part of the reason de Blasio has had such a hard time—for instance, standing up to the NYPD—is his risk aversion. He took some risks early on with stop-and-frisk, and the NYPD turned its back on him, and he never forgot that moment. Andrew Yang is not a risk-averse guy, right? He might be willing to take some heat and stand up to the NYPD in order to get more civilian authority, if necessary. Also, again, consider the people he’s running against. Right now, the last polling I’ve seen has Yang No. 1, and Eric Adams is No. 2. Eric Adams was a New York City police officer for 22 years. And while he has an interesting record on reform issues, I do not think he’s going to be the guy who fundamentally changes the way the NYPD operates.
One of de Blasio’s biggest weaknesses was his inability to deal with the news cycle in the city without getting chewed up by the press. Someone who’s good at PR and at dominating the news cycle might actually have a slightly easier time with some of these governance issues, too!
Grabar: That’s an optimistic take. I think all of Yang’s ambitious ideas that were the reason that we would have chosen him in the first place get scuttled on Day One as he gets subsumed by a crisis over feral raccoons in Staten Island. That’s how it’s going to go. The place for big dreamers in New York City is on Broadway, not in City Hall … I’m sorry … I’m jaded.
Weissmann: He’s not going to drop a groundhog.
Grabar: It’s true. He couldn’t do worse than Bill de Blasio killing a groundhog. But is that what it’s come to in this city, Jordan? Which candidate can we elect who’s not going to kill a groundhog?
Weissmann: Given the current candidates, I think, yeah, kind of! It’s a little bit of a clown car at the moment.
Grabar: It’s sort of a clown car, but without any clowns that I really want at the birthday party. You know what I mean?
Weissmann: I mean, if it’s a clown car, why not at least pick the interesting clown?
Addendum: The day after this conversation took place, Andrew Yang said on Twitter, “the bike lanes are blocked way too much.” Grabar retracts his commentary and is now in the Yang Gang. And on Tuesday, Yang proposed building a casino on Governors Island as a revenue-raising idea, which might not actually be legally permitted. Weissmann would like to emphasize that he is merely Yang-curious and admits that there may be downsides to electing a guy who shows up to a meeting with 13 ideas, 11 of which are bad.