A compelling thread of history is the power of ideas and their ability to shape the world around us. The power of ideas could not be more evident than in the Silicon Valley. Computer processing power has increased with the invention of the silicon transistor and turned what was a valley known for its delicious produce, into one known for its global technological impact.
To quantify the change, in 2017 the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis estimated the per-person GDP of Silicon Valley was $128,308, making it $66 dollars short of being the highest in the world, of all nations.
What’s often puzzled me is why our political leadership seems unable to deal with the real impact of ideas from the technology sector – for example, their inability to address the automation of jobs by software and robotics.
So, when I saw a man named Andrew Yang running for President in December 2017 and heard him talking about how to develop and adjust our public policy around the realities of technological change, I was immediately a fan.
Yang talked about how automation was replacing jobs across the country, how this was affecting the real economy and that it required we think harder and implement policies like a universal basic income.
Technology has completely altered societal norms in many areas, especially in the labor force. We’re increasingly seeing various jobs across the labor force being replaced by automation, machines, improved business efficiency and robotics. And yet, our federal government has done little to prepare for any of these realities; if they had, it wouldn’t take a relatively unknown entrepreneur to make this a national issue. Commentary on cable news from political leaders also suggests that none of them seem educated about technological trends.
Yang has risen into this vacuum to inject a dose of reality to a system that desperately needs it.
Over thousands of years of recorded history, there are many who subscribe to the “Great Man Theory of History” view that our world is shaped by individual leaders. To my eye, a great leader is one who recognizes the trends of the time and is able to forecast the future.
In 2017 I saw a candidate who was addressing my concerns and I had to act immediately. I emailed his campaign and joined his early staff. The vibe was very much like an early stage startup – it felt familiar to me. The team was tasked with a difficult mission – to take a relative unknown and raise his profile with the American public.
It was no easy task at a time when it was easy to quickly dismiss the entire mission as oddball politics. I started off doing simple things – tabling at community colleges, talking to students about what they were studying and their hopes for the future. It wasn’t always easy; many were disinterested or didn’t see politics affecting their lives in any meaningful way.
But, for every three rejections, there was always one person who showed interest, and was curious and excited to engage with new ideas in politics. That one out of three people were interested made it seem possible that we could build a movement around them.
Yang had previously served in the Obama administration as a “Champion of Change,” advising the administration on how to create jobs in places hard hit by the 2008 financial crisis. He was invited to do so because of his work with a non-profit he founded called Venture for America, which worked to create entrepreneurship in places across America that didn’t have a start-up ecosystem.
As a presidential candidate, Yang’s signature policy is the “Freedom Dividend,” a new right of citizenship that gives every American over the age of eighteen $1,000 a month paid for by a value-added tax on technology. This idea sounded unrealistic to many and has required the Yang campaign to frequently stress how deeply American this idea really was – Alaska, a deep red Republican state, for instance, has a freedom dividend called the petroleum dividend.
It was difficult to find media to cover these ideas, but we were able to get on great podcasts like Making Sense with Sam Harris, Freakonomics Radio, The Joe Rogan Experience and more. These appearances lit a fire across the Internet; tens of thousands of people started flowing into our social media spaces and websites and our donations skyrocketed.
This was the beginning of what would ultimately be known as the “Yang Gang”, a grass-roots movement of thousands of volunteers, that has pushed Yang’s candidacy into the ranks of the serious contenders.
Our growth as an online movement happened quickly with new fans, thousands of new volunteers and people looking to assume leadership across this country to turn this campaign of ideas into a movement for change across the nation. I moved on from managing our digital strategies and began organizing locally and regionally to make sure our ground game was as strong as our digital game.
I’ve been helping pro-Yang groups get started across my region in Northern California. It’s fascinating to meet diverse groups of people from all walks of life learning to engage in the American political process. Our campaign’s mission is to see ideas become reality and at these events I see the power of democracy being mobilized to advance ideas once seen as impossible.
Arun Kumar is based in the Silicon Valley and is a lead volunteer with the Andrew Yang presidential campaign.
This article was edited by contributing editor Meera Kymal.