Andrew Yang wants to tax Silicon Valley to fund universal basic income plan

The 2020 presidential candidate said companies like Amazon should "pay their fair share" as automation begins to displace human workers.

  • Andrew Yang is a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate whose key campaign promise is to give every American adult $12,000, regardless of their current income.
  • Yang said his universal basic income plan could be funded by a value-added tax levied on tech companies.
  • Yang's proposal has no shortage of critics, but he maintains that his UBI program would grow the economy by trillions of dollars.

Andrew Yang, the 44-year-old 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, says the U.S. economy needs to evolve into its next form, noting that automation and technology, such as driverless cars, are expected to displace millions of workers in coming years. To Yang, that new economy includes giving a $1,000 check every month to every American adult.

The lawyer-turned-tech executive outlined his form of a universal basic income program to George Stephanopoulos on ABC's This Week on Sunday.

"We have to solve the problems that got Donald Trump elected in 2016," Yang told ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos on This Week Sunday. "And to me the main driver of his victory was that we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, the swing states he needed to win."

Yang, who's earned a relatively small but dedicated base of #YangGang supporters, pointed to the Alaska Permanent Fund as proof that UBI programs can work in the U.S.

"Everyone in the state gets between $1,000 and $2,000 a year from oil money," Yang said. "And because it's oil money, there's no stigma attached, it's not a rich to poor transfer, and it's wildly popular in a conservative state. [...] So what we have to do is we make it a right of citizenship for all Americans and do what they are doing in Alaska with oil money, with technology money for everyone around the country."

Yang said he'd fund his UBI program, dubbed the "Freedom Dividend," with a value-added tax.

"What we have to do is, we have to join every other advanced economy and have a value added tax that would fall on the Amazons of the world, and because our economy is now so vast at $20 trillion, up $5 trillion in the last 12 years, a value added tax at even half the European level would generate over $800 billion in new revenue," Yang told Stephanopoulos.

What's a value-added tax?

A value-added tax is typically defined as a tax on the amount by which the value of a product has been increased at each stage of the production chain. Here's a simpler explanation from tax expert William Gale taken from an interview he gave to The Atlantic:

"The example I always use is a loaf of bread you buy in a store for a buck — so you have a farmer, a baker, and a supermarket along the production chain. Let's put the VAT at 10 percent.

1) The farmer grows the wheat and sells it to the baker for 20 cents. The VAT is 2 cents. The baker pays the farmer 22 cents, and the farmer sends 2 cents in VAT to the government.

2) The baker makes a loaf and sells it to the supermarket for 60 cents. The VAT is 6 cents. Now the supermarket pays the baker 66 cents, of which 6 is VAT. The baker sends the government 4 cents -- he pays 6 cents in VAT but receives a two cent credit from the government.

3) The store sells the loaf to me for a dollar. I pay $1.10. The store sends the government 4 cents total - the 10 cents it collected in VAT on its sales, minus the 6 cents it paid to the baker in VAT, which it gets back in a credit. In total, the government gets 2 cents from the farmer, 4 cents from baker, 4 cents from the store. That's 10 cents on a final sale of a dollar — for a 10 percent VAT."

Why tax Silicon Valley?

The big winners of new technology are going to be companies like Amazon, not the American people, according to Yang. That's a problem, considering the retail giant paid nothing in federal taxes last year.

"Is it Amazon's fault that they paid zero in taxes?" Yang told MSNBC's Morning Joe in March. "No, it's our fault."

Amazon recently noted that it's set to pay $756 million in state and international taxes this year, and that it "pays all the taxes we are required to pay in the U.S. and every country where we operate."

As companies such as Facebook, Google, Uber, and Amazon benefit from A.I., millions of Americans are expected to lose their jobs. Yang said a third of the country will be at risk of permanent unemployment. Others in the tech industry paint a similarly stark picture, like Taiwanese venture capitalist and A.I. expert Kai-Fu Lee, who in January told CBS News' Scott Pelley that he believes 40 percent of the world's jobs will be replaced by robots that can automate blue-collar and even some white-collar jobs.

"Chauffeurs, truck drivers, anyone who does driving for a living — their jobs will be disrupted more in the 15–25 year time frame," he said. "Many jobs that seem a little bit complex, chef, waiter, a lot of things will become automated."

With these job losses looming over the horizon, Yang thinks Silicon Valley should "pay their fair share," as he told MSNBC.

​How a universal basic income would affect Americans

Yang said his program would offer not only a reprieve for displaced workers, but also space for people to pursue more meaningful work.

"If you have a little bit more freedom from scarcity, then you can start making moves towards the sort of work that you want for yourself, that you value, that you find fulfilling and exciting," Yang said in an interview with Ben Shapiro.

Yang argues that removing financial pressure from Americans would allow more people to experiment with entrepreneurism, potentially leading to the creation of companies that create enormous value for the economy.

"You're going to end up creating hundreds of thousands of new entrepreneurs, guaranteed, if you have something like the Freedom Dividend, because there are so many Americans who would love to take a shot," Yang said in an interview with Kmele Foster of The Fifth Column podcast.

"Now, you could argue that, 'Hey, maybe some of these people should not be being entrepreneurs [...]' But you'd wind up with a really significant number of diamonds in the rough, and the way our system works is that a number of diamonds could potentially create so much value that it doesn't really matter what happens with the five people next to them. So, there would be, to me, if anything, an unlocking of human capital that would end up enhancing our system's dynamism."

Of course, Yang's plan has many critics. Some say the math behind the Freedom Dividend doesn't add up; others argue that giving Americans a UBI would make them lazy. It's hard to predict what would happen, but one oft-cited UBI study conducted on the Alaska Permanent Fund offers a clue: The results showed no real impact on full-time employment rates, while part-time employment increased by 17 percent.

"It is reasonable to expect an unconditional cash transfer, such as a universal income, to decrease employment," the authors said. "A key concern with a universal basic income is that it could discourage people from working, but our research shows that the possible reductions in employment seem to be offset by increases in spending that, in turn, increase the demand for more workers."

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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