Book Review: The War On Normal People by Andrew Yang
For several years now I’ve been trying to put my worldview to paper. Every attempt has been thwarted by the yawning chasm between the way I see things and the common philosophy which dominates public discussion. I broadly subscribe to the SL3+ vision of the future, and tend to think of policy in the terms used by authors like Tyler Cowen and Scott Alexander. Mainstream politicians do not represent me in the slightest, and I usually just end up voting for the Democrats because they at least pretend to care about renewable energy and gaping societal wounds like the American healthcare system. So when I heard about Andrew Yang’s open support for a Universal Basic Income, I was intrigued. I admittedly wrote him off as a no-chance marginal candidate, and for a long time didn’t pay him any mind. He did get a couple bucks from me so he could get into the debates, because I figured it would be entertaining to have him there. What finally got my sustained attention was the slow proliferation of Yang 2020 memes in pretty much every online youth hangout I happen to have membership in. It reminded me of a certain other candidate in 2016, who had been written off as a no-chance joke by every right minded person in the country. Donald Trump is of course still lording his victory over the insanity-challenged.
The realization that Yang had figured out the elusive strategy for a post-Trump presidential run tuned me in. When my small donation was followed up with an offer to attend a fundraiser, I replied with ‘maybe’ and mulled over it for a few days. Eventually it occurred to me that this person had the means to beat Trump and was saying everything I’d thought for years but knew I’d never hear from a politician with a shot at office. So I went to that fundraiser, and I bought this book. There was something anxious about opening it. I was deeply familiar with the awkward, distant communication that’s typical of people who try to sell Universal Basic Income or any other concept coming from the economic-rationalist cluster of ideas.
Shockingly, it was the exact opposite of what I’d feared. As I read this book it slowly dawned on me that Andrew Yang had perfected the rationalist argument. Or as I put it to a friend: “I didn’t know it was possible to write better than Scott Alexander and be running for president.” The War On Normal People is a book I will probably read over and over, its argument is laid out so well it deserves intense study as rhetoric. Anyone who is trying to write ‘rationalist’ ideas for a normal audience needs to find a copy and read it closely. Unlike almost every other book on these subjects, The War On Normal People is written for the everyman. Concepts are presented in accessible, succinct language. What could be a cold compendium of facts is brought to life by evocative personal ancedotes and informal wit. The entire book runs to 244 uncrowded pages communicating a data-driven narrative of vast social change on the horizon. It’s somehow light and breezy reading, but densely packed with relevant facts and statistics. I was so blown away by the sheer rhetorical craftsmanship that I began to wonder if it was really written by Yang or a brilliant ghost writer on commission.
How Yang Answers A Question
When you dig into Trump’s way of speaking, his way of writing, how he gives a speech even, you get a lot of fascinating insight about rhetoric. While I haven’t found the time to do a deep dive, I suspect Yang is similar. The first video I link there, How Donald Trump Answers A Question, looks at the way Donald Trump rhetorically handles an adversarial interview question. I think that you can look at some of Andrew’s writing with the same frame. The eigth chapter, entitled The Usual Objections features a Frequently Asked Questions interlude where Yang takes on the most common concerns people have with predictions of technological unemployment. In it he includes the question:
If we were undergoing a technological revolution, wouldn't we be seeing it appear in increased productivity?
So how does Yang answer? He starts by explaining the background of the question, that this is a concern raised by academics and why it would be a concern. If people are being unemployed by robots we should expect productivity per worker to go up. As an extreme case, if ten people ran the entire economy then productivity per worker would be 10% of GDP. This is not how Yang explains it though, instead he writes “The thought is that we’d see a productivity spike if we were doing a ton more with technology and fewer people.” The biggest word in that sentence is ‘productivity’, and I’m sure it’s only there because it has to be. It’s a simple way to explain the idea that doesn’t require any reference to fractions, that dreaded enemy of grade school America.
The next thing Yang does is admit that productivity numbers are actually depressed. Instead of denying the premise, he accepts it. This is a standard rationalist rhetorical move, what’s interesting is how he proceeds. First he explains two plausible theoretical explanations for why productivity might be stagnant. One is that maybe robots only move the needle once there’s a lot of them, but we can still be fairly sure they’re coming. Relying on current statistics as the only indicator of long term trends would be pretty foolish after all. At the start of the 20th century, eggs and ham was a dish reserved for the well to do. It’s now available at McDonalds to anyone with a few dollars in their pocket. That’s not how Yang chooses to say it. He says “Counting on the measurements to tell us what’s going on is like waiting until the storm is here before battening down the hatches.” Again we see simple language and reference to well known concepts, the message is gotten across without having to resort to complex ideas.
His next plausible explanation is that automation creates a sort of equilibrium. When a machine unemploys people, the unemployed are added to the labor market for cheap. It’s not difficult to imagine a dynamic where labor is automated only to the point that wage slaves become cheap and no further than that. Some historians speculate that this is why the Roman Empire failed to develop an industrial revolution. They had the necessary science, but no economic incentive due to an abundance of slave labor. However, this equilibrium isn’t stable. Yang transitions from this argument to tell a personal story about being CEO of a company. He was generous until growth slowed down, at which point he began scheming about how he would perform ruthless cost cutting if things got tight. The previous two reasons Yang cites take up about 1/3 of the answer, this story and its narrative takeaway at the end are given the rest of the page space. At the end Yang includes a graph of reported job loss over time, showing stark swings in layoffs between economic downturns. It admittedly took me some effort to read what this graph was showing. The effect could have been much more dramatic if it had been blown up to fill an entire page and given the Tufte treatment, with labels sketched next to points of interest in the data.
Again, I haven’t taken the time to give the whole book a close rhetorical analysis. But one thing that stood out to me even on the first read is the way Yang structures his argument. He proceeds in a logical order, starting from the witty proposition that the ‘tech bubble’ is after the readers job and then expanding outward. Particularly impressive was a section where he broke down several different sectors of the US economy and demonstrated how automation was expected to impact each of them. Yang is good at following up on second order consequences of things. I think this was the first analysis I’ve read which pointed out that there is a trucker ecosystem, and losing truck jobs will shutter plenty of services that cater to them. He builds the argument brick by brick, showing how each thing we might hope would mitigate the consequences probably won’t materialize, and how the things we might hope would make up for that won’t materialize either, all the way back until we get to UBI.
One thing that Yang uses very often, and in fact it’s the first thing he uses to introduce his argument, is ethos. Rationalist authors tend to shy away from ethos, because argument from authority is supposed to be a fallacy and they would prefer the facts speak for themselves. This is kind of stupid for multiple reasons, but Yang really shoves what they’re missing in your face. As the founder of Venture For America, an organization dedicated to making startups in diverse places outside the usual Silicon Valley/New York megatropolis, Yang is able to say that there’s no hope for job programs within the first pages of his book and it’s credible. The rationalist guru Eliezer Yudkowsky famously claims that ‘rationalists should win’, and let me tell you Yang is winning big with his use of ethos. He uses his personal experience and societal position in compelling ways that let him skip pages and pages of tedious argument. It makes for a more readable, dare I say smarter book than the verbose mega essays of Scott Alexander.
As interesting as the book is, I wouldn’t say it’s perfect. In particular I felt like the second half where Yang starts proposing solutions wasn’t as tight and rigorous as the first half. I can’t fault him too much for this, since the problems he’s laying out are close to the “impossible” end of the scale and a lot of the ideas for how we solve them are theory or speculation. But if you’d like to judge for yourself, it’s an inexpensive paperback. When I read Bernie Sanders political biography in 2016 I thought it was a very exciting book, because it showed that there is a road to political success built on incremental improvement. At the time I’d have given it 5 stars, this book is much more exciting than that so I guess it’s six stars. It’s short, thought provoking, scary, an excellent case study in rhetoric, and you should read it.