Let's call it what it is: this time last year, few of us knew anything about Andrew Yang. If you did live in the odd sort of household where he was a common name, you knew him mainly as an entrepreneur and social activist. (Possibly you knew him as the guy who taught your kids how to take the SAT.)
Not so much anymore.
Today Yang has created a national brand as a long-shot Democratic presidential candidate. He makes noise mainly by staking out long-shot policy positions such as a universal basic income or next-generation nuclear plants. Experts tend to disagree with Yang's proposals, which certainly hasn't stopped him or even necessarily slowed him down. And that might be necessary.
After effectively anointing Hillary Clinton in 2016, the Democratic National Committee has responded to the 2020 election by more or less curling up into a ball and weeping. With little effective guidance from party leadership Democratic voters have a glut of candidates to choose from. Their options include party mainstays such as Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden; up-and-comers such as Pete Buttigieg and Julian Castro; and the others.
Polling at 2% at time of writing, Yang has struggled to break out of the latter part of the pack. Yet he does have something going for him that most candidates do not: He's just barely a millionaire.
In the modern era of politics, that practically makes him a dirt farming man of the people.
What Is Andrew Yang Worth?
According to Forbes' most recent estimate, Yang is worth approximately $1 million. The Wall Street Journal estimates his wealth more broadly, reporting that it might be anywhere between $834,000 and $2.4 million.
This puts him in an unusual position. In general, presidential candidates come from relative wealth. While Donald Trump is unusually rich even among U.S. presidents, by the time most candidates seek office they have made several million dollars over the course of a highly successful career. For example, one estimate by CNN placed Barack Obama's net worth at potentially more than $5 million in 2008.
For many politicians, much of this money comes from writing and speaking. By the time a politician runs for the presidency they usually have achieved a measure of national fame. That allows them to write bestsellers and land speaking events that can pay quite well.
In this company, Yang is a relative pauper. He has considerably less money than current competitors such as Warren (estimated wealth: $12 million), Biden (estimated wealth: $9 million) and possibly even Sanders (estimated wealth: $2.5 million). Although as an entrepreneur he still is worth substantially more than the least wealthy participant in the current Democratic primary, Buttigieg (estimated wealth: $100,000, which makes sense for the mayor of a midsize Midwestern town).
Yang's Early Career
Born in Schenectady, N.Y., Yang attended Brown University for his undergraduate degree in economics and Columbia University for law school.
His first job out of school was at a major law firm called Davis, Polk & Wardell. He did not work there long before leaving to start a company called Stargiving.com. This web-based company tried to create a different model for fundraising. Through it, people could make small donations to celebrity-backed charities in exchange for being entered into contests to win prizes related to those stars. (For example, a winner might get to meet the band whose charity they donated to.)
Stargiving did not succeed. From there Yang worked at a company that most sources, including Yang's own biographical material, refer to simply as an ambiguous "healthcare startup." Working simultaneously as a standardized test preparation tutor led him to work for Manhattan Prep, where he eventually rose to the position of CEO.
Andrew Yang's Current Career
Yang's modern career arguably began after Kaplan acquired Manhattan Prep. He left the company in 2011 to found the nonprofit Venture for America.
Venture for America is a program focused on helping young professionals and recent college graduates become entrepreneurs. It connects them with fellowships at startup companies so that they can learn how to launch their own ventures. The organization is particularly focused on serving communities that need revitalization. During Venture for America's first year it placed fellows in cities such as Detroit, New Orleans, Cincinnati and Las Vegas.
While leading the group, Yang began his writing career. At time of writing he has authored two books. "Smart People Should Build Things" focused on Yang's own field of entrepreneurship. Written by, as he described it, "a recovering lawyer," this book talks about getting more talented Americans to create new ideas.
His second book, "The War On Normal People," came out in 2018, after Yang announced his bid for the Democratic nomination for presidency. In this book Yang discusses one of the central themes of his campaign, protecting workers from the disruptive effects of automation and an AI-powered economy.
Yang's Presidential Run
Yang left Venture for America in 2017. Not long after, in November of that year, he filed paperwork with the SEC announcing his plan to run for president. (For readers keeping track, yes, he began his campaign for the presidency less than a year after the last campaign had ended.)
Today Yang runs as a perpetual underdog. His campaign frequently touches on themes of technology, innovation and big solutions to big problems such as climate change. However, Yang's touchstone issue is automation and labor disruption. Speaking from his status as an entrepreneur and CEO, Yang argues that the current rate of innovation will put Americans out of work faster than the market can replace those jobs.
In this regard, Yang's argument echoes the old joke (often ascribed to Warren Buffett) that in the future the entire economy will be run by a machine and there will be only enough jobs for one person and one dog. The person's job will be to push the button that turns on the economy. The dog's job will be to keep him from pushing the button that turns it off.
The central argument of Yang's campaign is responding to this through a universal basic income.
Most economists disagree with Yang's analysis. The common response is to point out that each wave of new technology has inspired the same set of arguments. As productivity improves in one area it displaces those workers. But access to cheaper products (through productivity gains) means that workers have more money to spend in other areas of the economy, creating new jobs elsewhere. This is the way that new technology has always worked. Workers who made buggy whips had to give way as cars took over the road. Cobblers no longer make very many shoes. Yet society as a whole is wealthier than when those workers had jobs.
When historians review Yang's (most likely unsuccessful) presidential campaign, they will do so through the prism of his central claim: This time it's different.