Andrew Yang doesn't have the typical pedigree for a presidential candidate. The serial entrepreneur, who founded Venture for America, stems from the Silicon Valley crowd.
But Yang is running a Democratic presidential campaign (and will be among the 2020 candidates on stage at tonight's Democratic debate, which will also feature former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris, and others) centered on the radical notion of universal basic income, or UBI, which Yang dubs a "Freedom Dividend."
Yang is still a long shot and relative unknown - his polling and fundraising support, while enough to qualify for Thursday's Democratic debate, still puts him near the bottom of the 2020 candidate pack. But he feels confident that his positions on UBI, health care, and the future of capitalism in an age of automation can propel him beyond his dedicated fan base and into the political stratosphere. Yang spoke on camera with Fortune earlier this year to discuss his views and why he thinks he has the best shot of beating President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
Who is Andrew Yang?
Yang likes to say that he relishes his underdog status. He's been a lawyer, a philanthropist, a Silicon Valley startup founder (with mixed results), and an evangelist for entrepreneurship programs, including through his Venture for America nonprofit.
But what's fueled his political ambitions is the specter of automation and the massive job losses Yang predicts it will foster. Hence, the focus on UBI.
What is Universal Basic Income (UBI)?
Yang's version of UBI, or what his campaign calls a "Freedom Dividend," is that every American citizen above the age of 18 should get $1,000 per month, no questions asked.
It's a striking position for a self-professed capitalist. But Yang told Fortune it's absolutely critical to mitigating the effects of technology on the labor force. (He outlines his arguments in far greater detail in his book, The War on Normal People.)
"The economy would start working better for us with the Freedom Dividend," he said. "If you look at what happens in practical terms, people's nutrition improves, graduation rates go up over time… It would create over two million new jobs directly in the economy because money would circulate through local businesses, and then local businesses would have to turn around and hire an extra worker."
In essence, Yang believes his UBI proposal could create a consumer-fueled economy that's also markedly pro-job growth - a critical goal when as much as a third of workers could face unemployment when technologies such as self-driving trucks, sophisticated algorithms, explode in the near future, according to Yang.
It's a tantalizing prospect. After all, who wouldn't want $1,000 per month, guaranteed, without having to do anything? The most common criticism, predictably, is whether such a system could ever be realistically implemented. Yang's response to the detractors? Implement a new tax system to make up for the minimal taxes paid by tech behemoths such as Amazon and other holes in the tax code.
"The big change we have to make is that we have to join the rest of the advanced world and have a value added tax," he said. Value added taxes (or VATs) are consumption taxes paid at all stages of a product's supply chain. They're common in European nations, and Yang says that a VAT at even half the level of European countries could generate an additional $800 billion in annual revenues for the government. Combined with the ostensible savings and economic growth Yang claims would stem from UBI, the system would theoretically pay for itself (and then some).
There's a critical caveat in Yang's UBI approach: It would supplant existing government welfare programs such as food stamps for those who choose to take advantage of the Freedom Dividend.
"The last thing I want to do is deprive Americans of programs they need. My plan is to make the Freedom Dividend opt-in. But if you opt-in, then you're choosing to forgo benefits from pre-existing welfare programs. So if you're getting more than $1,000 in monthly benefits you can say, no thanks… Though, you'll still have a benefit if you have a child who turns 18 and starts getting $1,000 per month, which can be a game-changer for families."
In Yang's mind, that approach would also lower the overall price tag for UBI, as many Americans may choose not to opt-in and the total spending cost for those who do would be the net difference between $1,000 per month and what they're receiving in benefits currently.
What are Andrew Yang's positions on health care and other important issues?
UBI is clearly Yang's hobby horse and what he says will set him apart from both the rest of the Democratic field and President Donald Trump. It's an appeal to working class anxieties in an age of automation.
But Yang also has more than 100-odd proposals on his campaign website covering everything from health care, to climate policy, to lowering the voting age, and a host of other ideas (some of which the candidate himself admits are meant to spark conversations, such as his plan that would require Congress to regularly renew existing laws).
For instance, Yang supports Medicare for All, the signature universal health care policy supported by candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. It makes sense given Yang's views on the changing nature of the labor force and the way that work is intrinsically tied to insurance coverage in America right now. However, Yang told Fortune would support a transition period to such a government program.
He also pushed the prospect of "human-centered capitalism." One of its basic tenets? "The unit of a Human Capitalism economy is each person, not each dollar."
Yang has a long ways to go in a crowded 2020 presidential field. His performance in Thursday night's debates will prove a key chapter in his quest.
More must-read stories from Fortune:
-Meet the 2020 candidate: Andrew Yang
-4 times 2020 candidates clashed during the Democratic debate
-5 things to watch for on night 2 of the Democratic presidential debate
-What the 2020 Democratic candidates didn't say during the first debate
-Can socialism win in 2020? Democrats aren't embracing it