From grocery stores and factories to meatpacking plants and food delivery, the pandemic is turbocharging the rise of robots and automation, Andrew Yang tells CNN Business.
“We’re seeing 10 years’ worth of change in 10 weeks,” the former Democratic presidential candidate said.
Companies, worried about coronavirus health risks, are accelerating their plans to use robots for some jobs long done by humans. It’s just one of the ways coronavirus is changing the face of America’s workforce and the debate over how to respond, including controversial proposals Yang has long championed.
On the automation front, White Castle is testing a burger-grilling robot appropriately named Flippy. Meatpacking plants – an early hotspot for the pandemic – are speeding up strategies to replace human meatcutters with robots. MIT has designed a robot that can disinfect a 4,000-square-foot warehouse floor in a half hour.
“Now, if you go to a grocery store and it’s self-checkout and a robot is cleaning the aisles, you’re actually OK with it in a way you might not have been pre-pandemic,” said Yang, a CNN political commentator.
The risk of accelerated automation adds to the challenges facing the federal government as politicians debate the merits of injecting more aid into America’s besieged economy.
“It’s been immensely frustrating to have some lawmakers be so out to lunch that they think if they just leave things alone, the economy will snap back to normal,” Yang said. “It’s just a ridiculous fantasy.”
Yang is delivering the keynote address Tuesday at the Citizen Verizon Assembly, an hourlong virtual forum on the role of business addressing social change and human prosperity. Yang applauded, for example, Verizon’s efforts to combat the jobs crisis by pledging to provide skills training to 500,000 mostly lower-wage people for jobs of the future by 2030.
“We need that kind of leadership more than ever,” Yang said.
Yang Gang’s signature issue
Although few knew Yang before he ran for president, his campaign surpassed expectations and built a devoted following known as the Yang Gang.
Yang’s signature issue is universal basic income, and it has come back into focus because of the pandemic-fueled mass unemployment. Yang said the rapid shifts only increases the need for the United States to adopt UBI, a controversial plan that would give every adult $1,000 a month.
Critics argue UBI would never work and the United States can’t afford such a generous program, especially because the already massive federal deficit has exploded during the pandemic.
The United States spent $2.7 trillion more than it received in revenue during the first nine months of fiscal year 2020. In June alone, the federal deficit spiked to a staggering $863 billion.
Yang said asking whether the United States can afford UBI is the wrong question.
“Can we afford not to implement something like universal basic income given the rate of transformation of the economy and the fact tens of millions of jobs are gone for good?” he said. “We have to take advantage of an historic crisis to do things smarter and more efficiently.”
Yang compared universal basic income to what happens when companies pay dividends because they believe shareholders will know how to more efficiently spend the money.
“We should take a similar approach with our current economic issues. If you return money to a family, they’ll know best how to solve their own problems,” he said.
Musk backs UBI. Would Biden?
It’s an idea that has received the support of Tesla (TSLA) boss Elon Musk.
Last week Musk, whose fortune Forbes pegs at $68 billion, voiced skepticism about another stimulus package and argued if there is one, “it should just be direct payments to consumers.”
“Giving each person money allows them to decide what meets their needs, rather than the blunt tool of legislation, which creates self-serving special interests,” Musk tweeted, adding that he’s in favor of universal basic income.
Yet Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, has expressed skepticism.
In 2018, Biden said those who support universal basic income are “clueless” and that paying Americans not to work could “strip people of their dignity.”
However, Yang said he’s “optimistic” Washington will eventually adopt UBI and said Biden has indicated in recent conversations he’s open to all solutions given the seriousness of the crisis.
“I’ve seen in Joe a recognition that we’re in a deep, dark hole and we may need to do things differently to get out,” Yang said.
Yang added that he would “definitely consider” working in a potential Biden White House, saying that he “would give it a very, very long look” if offered the right job: “You can’t just point out a problem, you have to solve it.”
More free money as crisis lingers
Though universal basic income is not on the table right now, Republicans and Democrats have agreed on the merits of cutting checks directly to Americans during this crisis. The first round of stimulus from Congress provided many households $1,200 checks this spring.
With coronavirus infections spiking and the fragile recovery stalling, lawmakers are planning to send out even more free money. Republicans and White House officials announced over the weekend an agreement on another round of $1,200 stimulus checks.
“We are all now seemingly Yang Gang,” Chris Krueger, Washington policy analyst at Cowen Washington Research Group, wrote in a note to clients in late May.
Still, Yang expressed concern that politicians won’t take the bold steps required during this crisis.
“The danger here is that we do too little,” he said, “not too much.”