When you hear a big idea from a presidential candidate, do you ever want to ask: How would that work?
Two undecided voters John Zeitler, a 48-year-old attorney for an insurance company, and Hetal Jani, 36, who runs a nonprofit focused on education and mentorship, wanted to know more about the "freedom dividend" proposal from first-time presidential candidate Andrew Yang.
The voters, along with Morning Edition host Noel King, sat down with Yang at a Midtown Manhattan dumpling shop called Baodega as part of Off Script, a series of interviews with 2020 presidential candidates. Listen to the group's conversation about the freedom dividend by clicking the audio button above. Watch the full conversation here.
Yang, a tech entrepreneur and author, proposes that the government give every American adult $1,000 a month — a form of universal basic income, no strings attached. He says this income is necessary to address wide-scale job losses due to automation. It would help people have the resources to afford to look for work, care for a loved one, start a business or do nonprofit work.
"It's enough to be a game changer," Yang told the voters. "But it's not meant to be a full work replacement, and it's certainly not meant to solve every problem."
Those who wanted the dividend would give up any traditional welfare benefits they were getting — or they could just stick with their welfare payments. The dividend, Yang said, is like a "foundation or a floor."
"You don't stop building a house on the floor. That's kind of a crummy house," he said. "So first I would not want to get rid of any existing government programs. I would never be the sort of person that says like, 'Hey, there are millions of Americans relying upon something. Let's pull the rug out from under them.' "
The government would not specify how the universal basic income should be spent, and Jani wondered whether that could lead to bad decision-making. "Do people always make the choices that we need them to make in order to get to the world that you're hoping to get to?"
"If you get the freedom dividend in January and you buy a big TV, like maybe I wouldn't have bought that big TV, but you know, it's your decision, your resources. And then hopefully you'll make it — or not even hopefully — it's like you might make a different decision in February," he said. "The benefit to me of putting this sort of agency and autonomy in people's hands far outweigh trying to direct it to very, very specific expenses. But I will say again that we still need to do a lot of work to address the real problems in our society on top of anything we're doing with the freedom dividend."
Zeitler also wanted to know more about the value-added tax that Yang proposes to pay for it. Specifically, Zeitler wondered whether a 10% tax on goods and services that businesses produce was too regressive and whether wealthier Americans and corporations shouldn't shoulder more of a burden in a tax code restructuring.
Yang agreed but said that the current tax system is "being gamed to incredible degrees" by corporations.
"So you have a trillion-dollar tech company like Amazon that's now closing 30% of America's stores and malls literally paying zero in taxes. And so you have to look around and say, 'OK, now that should not be,' " Yang said. "Because we're in an era of unprecedented technology and innovation, our data is now worth more than oil, as an example. And we're seeing none of that. The companies that are seeing that value are Amazon, Facebook, Google and these mega-tech companies."
Off Script is edited and produced for broadcast by Ashley Brown and Bridget De Chagas. Eric Marrapodi is Off Script's supervising editor.
A previous version of the Web story misspelled undecided voter Hetal Jani's first name as Hetel and listed her age incorrectly as 38. She is 36.
NOEL KING, HOST:
When you hear a big idea from a presidential candidate, you often want to ask them, wait, how exactly would that work? We've been giving undecided voters a chance to sit down with candidates and go off script, asking them those questions. This past weekend, I went to Midtown Manhattan to Baodega, which is a dumpling shop, to talk to Andrew Yang. Two voters were with us. John Zeitler is an attorney for an insurance company and Hetel Jani runs a nonprofit that's focused on education and mentorship. Yang is a political newcomer. As a young guy, he worked as a party planner and Jani started with a question for him.
HETEL JANI: What's your go-to karaoke song?
ANDREW YANG: "Don't You (Forget About Me)" by Simple Minds from "The Breakfast Club" soundtrack.
JANI: Yeah, very cool.
YANG: And then "When Doves Cry" by Prince would be a close runner-up.
KING: Can you give us a couple bars?
JANI: Can you belt it out? Yeah.
YANG: (Singing) How can you just leave me standing? Alone in a world that's so cold...
JOHN ZEITLER: (Laughter) It's like Prince himself is here singing.
KING: This is the first time that Yang has run for political office. His signature proposal, the Freedom Dividend, is a form of universal basic income. It would give every American adult a thousand dollars a month from the government - no strings attached. Hetel and John wanted to know how that would work and who's going to pay for it.
JANI: How did you come up with a thousand dollars? Because a thousand dollars here in New York City or San Francisco is a lot different than anywhere else. So, as a nonprofit founder, $12,000 a year would go far but it wouldn't go that far.
YANG: But it does make sense on many levels because $12,000 a year is right below the U.S. poverty line. So it moves you up to that level. And this is per adult, mind you. So if you have two adults in your household, it's $24,000 a year. So it moves you up and gets the pressure off, but it doesn't serve as a full work replacement where there is virtually no American who's like, oh, I'm going to quit my job. We got a thousand bucks a month. Like, that's not really true. John, here, is like, you know, like not ready to pack it in...
YANG: ...With a thousand bucks a month because, you know, you have a family like I do. So it's enough to be a game-changer, but it's not meant to be a full work replacement, and it's certainly not meant to solve every problem.
KING: Can I ask you to do some quick math for us?
KING: OK. How many adults in the United States would be eligible for this $12,000 a year?
YANG: So if you were to take a broad number, about 200 million.
KING: Two hundred million times $12,000 a year...
YANG: 2.4 trillion.
KING: $2.4 trillion a year this would cost - OK. John, I know you have a question...
YANG: (Laughter) OK, yes.
KING: ...About that. Please go ahead.
ZEITLER: Sure. So I think you said that you'd fund it with a VAT tax, which would - I understand to be a tax, you know, broadly across, you know, consumption of goods, versus a wealth tax, which would be a tax on, you know, the wealthiest Americans. So you have this great income inequality in the country and it would - it makes sense that you sort of take from those who have the most and even it out and that would seem to point to a wealth tax. So why a VAT tax instead?
YANG: I endorse the spirit of a wealth tax. The problem is that when they try to wealth tax in France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and a half dozen other countries, they ended up repealing it because it didn't generate the revenue they thought it would and they had massive implementation and compliance problems.
ZEITLER: But isn't a VAT tax essentially regressive, in the sense that everybody's paying the same tax, but if you're poorer that - you know, that dollar means a whole lot more to you, you know, to buy food and, you know, essentials versus a dollar for someone who's a millionaire or billionaire.
YANG: So you're 100% right about everything you're saying. The fundamental challenge we have in the U.S. is that we have this tax system that is being gamed to incredible degrees. So you have a trillion-dollar tech company like Amazon that's now closing 30% of America's stores and malls literally paying zero in taxes. And so you have to look around and say, OK, now that should not be because we're in an era of unprecedented technologies and innovation. Our data is now worth more than oil, as an example. And we're seeing none of that. The companies that are seeing that value are Amazon, Facebook, Google and these mega tech companies.
KING: Let me ask you to define what a value-added tax actually means.
YANG: It's a tax on value transfers, which you can think of as what John said - consumption sales. We can fund this dividend that will make us stronger, healthier, mentally healthier. And if we don't make this kind of move, then we're going to be stuck looking at each other and wondering what the heck happened to our communities as the truck driving gets automated, the malls close, the call centers get replaced by bots and software. The fact is we're already decades behind the curve. It has brought us Donald Trump. And unless we get our heads up and start solving for the real problems, they're just going to get worse.
JANI: How do you know that the big companies are not going to push that cost - the tax that they're going to be paying - back off onto the consumers? I mean, sure, we can choose how to spend it. And you should be spending it on necessities. But you're going to make people choose, right? You're also seeking to pay for the Freedom Dividend at the cost of other programs.
KING: I think we just need to explain that very briefly, and it's an important point. If a family currently is getting welfare payments - SNAP, food stamps, WIC, et cetera - and they're getting $700 a month in welfare, under your system, that would go away. So I think what Hetel is asking is if you're taking away people's welfare payments and replacing it with a thousand dollars, is that enough?
YANG: I see the Freedom Dividend as like a foundation or a floor. And then you don't stop building a house at the floor. (Laughter) That's kind of a crummy house, you know? So first, I would not want to get rid of any existing government programs. I would never be the sort of person that says, like, hey, there are millions of Americans relying upon something. Let's pull a rug out from under them.
KING: I would still keep getting my payments?
YANG: No, so there is an opt-in. The Freedom Dividend is universal and opt-in. And if you do opt in to the Freedom Dividend, then you do forego benefits that are - from certain programs that are cash and cash-like. But if you are - if you love your current benefits or let's say you're receiving $1,800 in current benefits, then I would never touch it. So that's one thing. So to me, we have to do so much more. I would never suggest that a thousand dollars a month is going to do the work for us.
JANI: In the case that you don't become president, how are you going to continue to work on these ideas to make sure that we're addressing everything we've discussed?
YANG: These problems are going to be with us no matter what. And I'm very confident I'll have a lot of work to do, whether it's as president or in some other capacity. But I'm a parent like you are, John, and I see the future we're leaving for our kids. And I find it to be unacceptable. And so I'm going to work my heart out to try and make it better.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAN THE MAN'S "SUBURBAN SUNRISE")
KING: That was Andrew Yang and two undecided voters for our series Off Script. You can see more interviews with candidates and watch the video of our entire conversation with Andrew Yang at npr.org/offscript. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.