Is Andrew Yang getting interesting? The mayoral front-runner has lately developed a habit of making reasonable, if rather big-picture, suggestions for governing Gotham — and it’s driving his rivals crazy. Yang hasn’t proved he’s ready to be mayor, but his competitors’ unhinged responses to even the most obvious of his ideas show they aren’t.
Yang’s least interesting or constructive idea is his signature issue: universal basic income. Last year, he ran for president on giving every adult in America $1,000 a month. The idea is to give the poor choice in what to do with their money, rather than hand them vouchers for housing, food and so forth. UBI gives everyone else a weapon against wage stagnation and the automation and offshoring of jobs.
The Big Apple can’t give every adult $1,000 monthly. It would cost $80 billion a year, exceeding tax revenues. So Yang offers a stripped-down version of his “universal” plan: $167 a month for the poorest half-million New Yorkers. But he never explains key details.
Ignore UBI, however, and Yang has other, useful ideas. Last week, he suggested that the city not raise taxes on top earners, as it might drive them away. “If you raise taxes . . . where people actually vote with their feet and head to Florida, then you’re not serving the policy’s goal,” he told the Association for a Better New York.
Yang suggested, too, that the city consider incentives to lure suburban workers who have been away from their Manhattan desks for a year to give the commute another chance. This, too, is worth trying: Why not give people vouchers to take commuter rail, with expiration dates within a couple of months, to get those bored at home to try a trip into town? (Yang rival and city Comptroller Scott Stringer predictably accused him of practicing “municipal Reaganomics.”)
Yang also suggested that Mayor Bill de Blasio not spend the entire $6 billion in relief money that we’re getting from the feds. As the city could face years of deficits, Yang said, it would be prudent to squirrel 70 percent away.
This is sensible — but another rival, former de Blasio legal counsel Maya Wiley, attacked him. “Our city deserves a serious leader, not a mini-Trump,” her spokeswoman said. Huh?
Eric Adams, Brooklyn borough president, didn’t need a policy reason to tackle Yang. At an event accepting a union endorsement — where he should have been in a good mood — Adams said that “people like Andrew Yang” have “never held a job in [their] entire life. . . . you are not going to come to this city and think you are going to disregard the people.”
Yang is a lawyer. He has worked at startups, ran a school-testing firm and founded and ran a nonprofit training people to be entrepreneurs in struggling cities. He has always had a job. And he has lived in New York for a quarter-century.
What’s behind the attacks is that the insiders are growing afraid of the outsider.
The insiders’ bet is that Yang’s front-runner status will disappear as voters pay attention. Yang has about 16 percent of the vote, closely followed by Adams. Half of voters remain undecided.
But the idea that people are suddenly going to learn who Stringer and Adams are and get excited about them is rather tenuous. And as the latest Fontas Advisors poll shows, sure, people — 85 percent — know who Yang is.
But they also know who Stringer and Adams are, at 64 and 62 percent. Wiley, at 42 percent, has room to introduce herself. The others don’t.
Stringer and Adams also face a threat from other candidates with low name recognition. Ray McGuire was a career investment banker; Kathryn Garcia ran the Sanitation Department. Only one-third of voters know who they are. As voters learn, they may like what they see, cutting into the undecideds.
The final wild card: ranked-choice voting. Sure, Adams and Stringer could fight with each other for a few votes, only to see everyone split their first choice between them, then pick Yang, the affable Yankees-game attendee, as their second choice, putting him at the top.
Yang’s critics aren’t entirely wrong: He demonstrates an off-putting lack of familiarity with city government, and some of his ideas — like building a casino on Governors Island — are just weird and dumb. But for voters desiring change in a crisis, his well-known major rivals are too familiar with government.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal.