How Andrew Yang Would Run New York
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Howard Wolfson: I wanted to start by talking about your philanthropic work, which focused a lot on cities in the Rust Belt that were left behind by the new economy. Given the economic challenges that New York City is facing after Covid, how do you think about your philanthropic work in terms of the city you want to lead?
Andrew Yang: I think New York City is in a tough position right now. A lot of folks are questioning whether we are still the city of the future.
When you brought up my philanthropic work, I actually thought you were referring to my more recent work in cash relief, where my organization, Humanity Forward, distributed about $9 million in direct cash relief to struggling families during the pandemic, including $1 million to 1,000 families in The Bronx. I’m thrilled that so many Americans have embraced the idea of cash relief as a policy solution. That’s going to help a lot of people find a more stable path forward.
But to the earlier work I did trying to help boost regional economies: I think that is incredibly relevant to what New York City is facing. A lot of post-industrial cities experienced talent flight, as people felt like there were better opportunities in other environments. New York City has frankly been the beneficiary of these talent migrations — for decades, perhaps the biggest beneficiary.
[But] I just had a conversation with a set of young professionals, and one of them said that among his peer group, New York City has lost its luster, and that people think they can get better apartment rental values in the Sun Belt. And what I said to these young professionals is that New York City has had much more expensive rent than other places for a long time. It’s just that this was more than counterbalanced by the quality of the opportunities here. And also the cultural amenities where, if you were young and moved to New York City, you felt like there was an unparalleled level of energy and excitement and dozens of things that you can do any given night.
The value proposition in New York City has to be restored in order for us to attract the talent we need, to then have organizations be willing to pay a premium to employ that talent. It’s a cycle. And I’ve seen communities that have been on the other end of this: When people start thinking the pastures are greener elsewhere, it’s a difficult dynamic to reverse. And again, New York’s been a beneficiary of this for a long time. But we have not been the beneficiary of it this past a year or so. The numbers indicate that about 300,000 New Yorkers that we know about have left. And some of them were frankly not the kind of people you want to leave, in that they were high-tax payers, higher earners and business owners.
HW: So what does Mayor Yang do to reverse that trend?
AY: We’re going to have to compete on many levels that New York City has not had to compete on for quite some time. You start by restoring quality-of-life issues that New Yorkers have felt uncertain about during this past year. That begins with reopening schools — and as a public-school parent myself, I can tell you that there were many families that felt uncertain about where to spend their time because the schools were closed.
Then it’s public safety — reducing the number of people that are on our streets and in need of shelter, getting restaurants and bars and theaters open, particularly Broadway — all of the things that make New York City safe and appealing for people is job one.
You also need to reach out to organizations that are trying to figure out what their physical office needs are. You have large employers in New York City that have gone remote for a year, and they are trying to navigate whether to bring workers back. Many of the CEOs I talk to want to bring workers back. They think, correctly, that organizations are more innovative and creative and high-functioning and build a better culture when people are physically proximate to each other. And it’s true. It’s borne out by numerous studies. These organizations need the city’s support in bringing people back.
And there are workers that are now somewhat accustomed to working remotely. But one case I would make is that it’s better for workers to be in the office as well. Kevin Roose of the New York Times recently said that if you’re working remotely, your job is one step closer to being automated because you’re interacting with people primarily as a digital avatar.
We also have to get people back into the office for everyone else that relies upon people being in the office — the security guards and cleaning staff and food truck operators and retail workers.
Now, New York City has been a global tourist destination for years, and we receive over $40 billion in revenue annually as a result of that tourism. And we’ve done it without investing much at all. The last year of investment promoting New York City as a tourism destination, the city spent about $20 million. So if you can get away with spending $20 million to generate $46 billion in revenue, that’s a great deal.
But now, unfortunately, we’re starting from a much lower level. We’ve lost 90-percent-plus of tourists. And they supported over 300,000 of the 600,000 jobs we’re missing. So the next mayor has to make a powerful case for New York City as a destination. I’ve committed to having the country’s biggest post-Covid celebration to let the world know that New York City is open for business. And then we’re going to have to invest in letting people know every day that New York City is the best place in the world to live, to work, to build an organization, but also just to visit and have fun.
HW: You’ve been one of the country’s leading — if not the leading — proponent of universal basic income. What role does UBI play in New York’s comeback?
AY: There are many New Yorkers, too many, who are suffering and struggling right now even to keep a roof over their head. There are about half a million New Yorkers who are precariously close to losing their homes. And we already have a homelessness crisis that we have to keep from getting worse. So it’s not feasible to adopt a UBI plan the way that I proposed it in my presidential run. In the context of New York City, we’re going to be employing targeted cash relief to people who are struggling with extreme poverty to try and keep them in more stable situations. That money is going to go right back into our local economy, in the form of food and fuel and shelter. And so the goal is for us to keep some of the crises from getting worse. And it’s also true that if someone does wind up in, for example, our sheltering system, it’s incredibly expensive for New York City. We’re spending $6,000 a month to house a family in our sheltering system. We should invest a lower level of resources to keep people in better situations to avoid them hitting some of our institutions.
HW: So the local version of your UBI proposal — does it rely on a mix of philanthropic dollars and government resources? Where will the money come from?
AY: Well, the city is going to make a substantial commitment. But I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to supplement it with philanthropic commitments. I’ve spoken to many New Yorkers who want to help, and a lot of them believe that keeping people in stable situations via cash relief is a great idea. I’m excited about what we can do.
HW: Do you have a number of what it would mean for the average family that would get it, in terms of the actual value of the transfer?
AY: The average value would be approximately $200 a month.
HW: I think one of the things that folks have noticed is that you and your wife have been out and about at restaurants and ballgames and theaters over the past month or so, health permitting and Covid permitting. What message are you trying to send by campaigning at venues like that?
AY: Well, again, it goes back to getting our city up and running as quickly as possible. If you’re missing hundreds of thousands of jobs because people aren’t going to restaurants or theaters or ballgames, you have to change that as quickly as possible. I want to send a message that it’s been a terrible time for us, but we can now get together safely outdoors in ballparks, or indoors in theaters. I was vaccinated last week — it’s very exciting. And a higher and higher percentage of the people I know have also been vaccinated. I have friends who are going on dates for the first time in over a year. That’s not just exciting on a personal level — it’s exactly what New York City needs. Like, how are we going to get back 60 million tourists? People are going to have to look up and say, “Wow, people are having a great time in New York City. I miss New York City. I need to get back.” We need to be hammering that message at every turn.
HW: You mentioned the concerns over crime and quality of life as a deterrence to New York’s comeback. And one of those specific challenges we are facing now is the rise in hate crime directed at Asian Americans here in the city. In your book, you write movingly about experiencing anti-Asian prejudice as a kid. Can you talk about what it would mean to be the first Asian American mayor of New York?
AY: I’d be thrilled if New Yorkers were excited to have the first Asian American mayor in the city’s history. A lot of folks around the country have expressed to me that it would be something to be excited about or proud of. I am running for mayor to help improve the way of life for everyone here; I think I can help accelerate our path to recovery. But it’s certainly not lost on me that my election would be historic.
HW: What should the city be doing specifically to combat anti-Asian violence today?
AY: There are a number of institutional responses that I think we should be adopting. I think we should fully fund the Asian Hate Crimes Task Force in the NYPD, which is currently comprised of volunteers. We should invest in more connections between the Asian American community and various city agencies, including law enforcement, because right now many of these incidents are still going unreported. I know this because I’ve talked to various victims who have not reported it. There is a lot of work that we can do to help improve that situation, where Asian Americans feel more comfortable reaching out to city authorities.
But the single biggest thing we can do to get our streets safer is to get more people out and about. If you’re on a darkened street, then it’s less safe when there aren’t people around. Same on the subway. If you’re on the subway and it’s just you and two other people, it’s much less secure-feeling than if you’re on the subway with dozens of people. The single biggest thing we can do is get our city up and running again, so folks can feel a degree of security everywhere they go.
HW: Last year you wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post about this issue, and you said, “We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before. We need to step up; help our neighbors; donate gear; vote; wear red, white and blue; volunteer; fund aid organizations; and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis.” Do you still encourage Asian Americans to wear red, white and blue? Is that part of the solution to this challenge right now?
AY: Well, that specific suggestion was actually made in reference to sort of a fashion line that we were launching called All Americans. It would be a way to express solidarity. So that particular line I think was probably a bit confusing to people. But if you look at the list of actions, it’s all stuff that I think we all should be doing more of — helping people, contributing, volunteering, doing everything we can to express our support for each other — regardless of what particular community you’re a part of. I mean, we are all Americans.
HW: If you become mayor, I think you would instantly be a national leader in the Democratic Party. What’s your sense of the party today? Do you buy this notion that the party has moved leftward? Is that how you see the electorate as you are out campaigning now?
AY: I think right now the Democratic Party is de facto — and also by necessity — a very big-tent party. There are a lot of people in the party that have different points of view on various things. But if you look at the other party — the other party doesn’t really seem to be offering much of a vision of government. So I think that the Democratic Party right now has done a great job in the scheme of things at having a degree of cohesion and unity, given all of the myriad people it represents.
HW: At the beginning of the campaign, many New Yorkers knew you as a candidate for president. Increasingly people are beginning to know you as a candidate for mayor. I’m curious: Can you talk a little bit about why you first decided to run for president? It was the beginning of your foray into elected office. What prompted the run?
AY: I had spent six-and-a-half years running a nonprofit that I founded, and the goal of the nonprofit was to help revitalize our economy through job creation and entrepreneurship around the country. And after traveling the country, including the Midwest and the South and parts of the U.S. I’d never seen before, I realized that things were getting darker and nastier than I had ever realized. And then when Donald Trump won in 2016, I saw these things as related.
I did not believe that our political system truly understood the economic transformation that we are undergoing as a result of technology and the fourth industrial revolution. This pandemic has accelerated a lot of those trends, and we’re struggling with them today. Our political system is good at responding to interest groups, but there wasn’t an interest group I could identify that was going to make this particular case. And as everyone knows, I’m passionate about cash relief and a version of basic income, and I thought that I could accelerate the mainstreaming of the solutions that I believe will be critical for us moving forward.
If you think that you can do that kind of service for your country, then I think you should take it on — even though when I decided to run for president, it was highly unlikely that I would be able to succeed on the level that we did.
HW: Prior to running your not-for-profit, you were an entrepreneur. Can you talk about your entrepreneurial experience and background?
AY: I think my biggest formative experience was running a small private company in New York City that got a little less small over time. We were an educational company that helps primarily young people get into graduate school. If you’ve ever run a small business, you know that you have to deliver day-in, day-out: make the numbers work, enlist the right team, build a strong culture. No one cares about excuses or politics. I think that’s what New York City really wants right now.
One thing I’m excited about as mayor is that we will hire the best and brightest and most dedicated people that we can find, regardless of political background or ideology. We just want problem solvers. We want people who are going to dig in and find ways to improve New Yorkers’ lives. And [they] could be from a range of different industries — certainly a range of different political alignments. That’s what we know we need right now.
Our city is wounded. There is no guarantee we come back from this. Again, if you are down 600,000 jobs and 60 million tourists, and people are questioning whether paying higher taxes and a premium on real estate is justified — there’s a lot of work to do. We need all hands on deck to help get our city heading in a better direction. That’s exactly the team I want to build.
HW: You built and helped run a successful test-prep company here in New York. Can you talk about how you ran it, what kind of manager you are? Maybe give an example of a management challenge you faced and how you solved it?
AY: My management style is to find the best people that I can and empower them, trust them, and give them room to run. People have to feel that sense of autonomy and agency to do their best work, I’ve found. I’m not a micromanager. I want people to be aligned on the vision and the values and have a good process, and if they do those things and the results aren’t perfect, that’s fine. And again, I think this is exactly the approach that New Yorkers have been waiting for in our city’s government.
In terms of specific management challenges, I think most any manager will tell you that their biggest challenges revolve around people. If you lead a team of people, there are always issues that arise that give you a better sense of the diversity of people’s experiences and struggles. The biggest management challenges we had were around trying to maintain a strong culture in an industry that typically didn’t reward long-term commitment. I’ll give you a sense of it too. The turnover in the tutoring industry is sky-high. It’s been estimated to be 50% to 100% a year for many firms. In other words, people are doing it for one to two years — and that might even make sense with folks’ experience. Our turnover was around 10%. And that was our major competitive advantage because we got the best people. We treated them well and compensated them better than others. And they loved it and stayed, and that’s how we delivered value.
HW: I wanted to ask you about the Politico story that ran fairly recently, a report that you did not pay any federal income taxes in 2019. Given your background as an entrepreneur, I was surprised by that. How does a successful entrepreneur pull that off?
AY: Well, when you run for president, it turns out that there’s no source of income. And I knew I was going to have absolutely zero energy to manage my finances. So I just did the most boring things imaginable. And that’s how you wind up with no federal taxes.
HW: So you basically — whatever your investments were, you sort of parked them in cash, almost, and so there weren’t a lot of proceeds to tax against?
AY: Yeah, that’s right. I just thought, ‘Look, this is this is the absolute last thing I’m going to be thinking about.’ So let’s just put everything in stasis.
HW: You did take a salary from your presidential campaign. Was that a function of the phenomenon you’re describing — you knew you wouldn’t have any other income and didn’t want to deal with investment income?
AY: Yeah. I mean, I frankly wasn’t that concerned with my personal financial situation in the throes of a presidential campaign. So yeah, I think that’s right.
HW: There have been stories recently about the possibility of progressives in the city trying to formulate some kind of Stop Yang vehicle. Should progressives in New York be afraid of Andrew Yang?
AY: I certainly don’t think so. I want to be a mayor who combats poverty at every turn. Again, we’re committing at least $1 billion in cash relief efforts. I want to establish a people’s bank that will help funnel money to neighborhoods and small businesses that right now might not be able to access it. I want to get people internet at home that don’t have it now. I want to ease transit deserts. I want to make New York City the anti-poverty city. And I feel like a lot of progressives would be excited about that.
HW: What do you think disconnect is? Are they not understanding the details of your plans, or is there some other lack of clarity that is getting them unhappy?
AY: When I was running for president, I thought that I would be greeted as progressive, because I was advocating for giving everyone a certain amount of cash relief. And when that didn’t happen, I found it difficult to understand. So I don’t really know. But if you talk to different people in different organizations, I think you’ll find that they feel like I’m on their side.
HW: Last month you said that the United Federation of Teachers was a significant reason schools were not reopened, and you got a lot of praise for that from some quarters. And then recently at a UFT event, you said the blame lay with Mayor de Blasio. I’m curious, which is it: the teachers’ union or de Blasio? Or something else?
AY: I’m a public school parent. I’ve been frustrated, like a lot of parents, with the fact that schools have been closed for so long. I’m happy to say that now both of my boys are back in school, and more and more families are coming back to school. But it’s not going to be quick. A lot of families are still not back in school. What’s perhaps most concerning is that the rate of families opting in is not what you hope it to be. And the opt-in rates are falling along community lines, where White and Latino families are more likely to opt back in, whereas Black and Asian families have been less willing to. I had a productive conversation with Mike Mulgrew, the head of the UFT, who expressed that he felt like the mayor had failed to provide the appropriate leadership. And I agreed with him.
HW: So your final answer on that is “mayor” and not “UFT.”
AY: I think the buck does ultimately stop with the mayor.
HW: Were you for or against the recent New York state budget that raised taxes?
AY: I think we have to be very careful about raising taxes at a time when a lot of families and businesses are weighing various decisions. But I was favorable about the budget. I think there are a lot of good things in it. I think there’s a lot of need in New York right now. By and large, this budget is positive in the way it tries to address various problems.
HW: So if you were mayor and a member of the city’s Albany delegation called you and said, “Mr. Mayor, should I vote for this or against it?” would you have advised a vote for it?
AY: I’m someone who is always trying to find solutions. If you say up-or-down on a particular thing, I always think it can be improved. But given what you’re describing now, in terms of where the state is and where the city is, I wouldn’t be trying to derail a budget that seems like it’s going to be necessary. I would have preferred that we look for other solutions than raising taxes, but I wouldn’t have had a problem with someone voting for it.
HW: Many of your opponents in the race have called for cutting the police department’s budget. What’s your position on proposals like that? And what would Andrew Yang do as mayor to combat crime?
AY: It’s deeply concerning that rates of violent crimes in particular are up significantly in New York. When I walk around New York City, people can feel it. We need to do everything we can to bring crime down. Now, it’s totally true that we’ve underinvested in many communities. And it’s also true that many of the situations that police are responding to would be better handled by a mental health professional, or a social worker, or a substance abuse counselor.
When you look at the actual budget of the NYPD, my concern is: Are we going to make New Yorkers safer and get crime down? And are we deploying our resources in a way that’s going to lead to those goals?
I think one of the flaws in our thinking — and this is true across a number of systems — is that people think, ‘More money, better results; less money, worse results.’ When in reality, sometimes we’re spending a lot of money and not getting the results we need. If you look at the amount of money we’re spending on the NYPD, we have to try to make sure that it’s actually delivering higher clearance rates, which is the rate at which we’re apprehending people who are committing crimes. Right now the clearance rate is down. That’s troubling.
So it’s not simply ‘Put more resources here or there.’ It’s trying to get the resources we’re using, to deliver. If we can deliver results with a certain level of resources, then we’ll head in that direction. But I wouldn’t want to show up ahead of time and have a preset idea. Because right now, what we have, unfortunately, is rising crime. And to me, we should have an approach of doing anything we can to help address it
HW: On education policy, are you in favor of lifting the charter cap and creating more charter schools in the city?
AY: The first thing we should do is use some of the unused charters that have already been approved by Albany. That’s where you’d start, because they’ve already been authorized and some of those charters have already shut down. If you look at New York City’s school system, about 90% of our kids are in district DOE schools. Even if one were to make a move on charters, there’s just a lot of need. A lot of these kids haven’t been in school in a year. We have to start there.
HW: We’re in a ranked-choice voting system for the first time in the city’s history. Assuming you’re going to vote for yourself first, do you have a second choice?
AY: Kathryn Garcia. I think she’d make a phenomenal partner in my administration. And she’s the kind of experienced operator that can deliver a lot of value from New Yorkers.
HW: You mentioned experience. For somebody who says, “Hey, I like Andrew Yang, but he doesn’t have a history of significant involvement in New York City public life. He hasn’t really been on boards or commissions, doesn’t have any municipal experience” — what’s the response to that concern?
AY: Well, I’d say that first I respect different people’s types of experience. And then as mayor, I know I’m going to be working alongside people who’ve been in government for years, and it’s going to take all hands on deck. I have run a private company that went on to become successful. I founded and ran a national nonprofit that helped create thousands of jobs. I’ve run a national campaign that helped advance powerful new ideas about ways that we can help people. I’m going to bring in people who just want to solve problems and get the work done, from a range of different backgrounds. I think that’s the kind of leadership that New Yorkers are looking for right now.
HW: If you’re elected mayor [and] you begin interviewing potential hires, will you ask them whether they voted for you?
AY: No. I mean, I’ll be the mayor. You voted for me, not voted for me — I’d be totally indifferent.
But I do want to return to an earlier point. The municipal budget of New York City is about $90 billion. And we’re going to get federal support, so that number should be relatively stable for the next two years. The economy of New York City pre-Covid was a bit over $1 trillion. So the municipal budget is about 9% of the city’s economy. The city’s economy is badly wounded. Our job is going to be to re-catalyze the other 91%, utilizing the 9% over a two-year time frame. That’s the challenge. Unfortunately, some folks who are products of our bureaucracies think that the 9% is the sum total of the city’s economy, when really it’s a relative sliver.
As someone who’s run a small business here in New York, I know it’s these restaurants and bars and stores and food trucks and everyone else that help make our city go. We need someone who’s going to activate not just the public sector but the private sector, the corporate sector, the philanthropic sector, the technology sector. We don’t have unlimited time. There are some things that are working against us. And so I think I have the perfect experience for that role. I may have a slightly different conception of what this mayor’s job is or is going to have to be, given the situation that we’re in. But it’s not simply going to be trying to make sure that our agencies deliver higher value, which they should. We should expect that. We’re going to need to do a lot more than that.
I showed up in New York City as a 21-year-old student who didn’t know much about anything, and this city has given me the kind of life and family and career I could only have dreamed of then. And it’s done that for a lot of people. We have to fight like mad to make sure that New York City still does that for our kids, for the next 21-year-old student who shows up, for the person who was born in The Bronx and wants to have a path to the middle class.
This city is a miracle. The city is the most profound catalyst for human capital development and transformation in the history of the world, perhaps. And that’s what we have to sustain. We didn’t talk that much about it, but this era is going to be in some ways about establishing whether working together in an office is better than working remotely over Zoom. And that’s actually a profound human question. If we can answer it positively and affirmatively, New York City can become the hub of creativity and innovation and education and human capital development and the seat of arts and culture, the way it has been. All these things are still possible for us. But we need a leader who has the vision to get New Yorkers of every background working toward our recovery.
HW: Let me follow up on that. Do you think you bring a different perspective to the race, as somebody who didn’t actually grow up in the city? You offer a very welcoming message to people who are thinking of coming here, and you speak of the city being consistently rejuvenated by newcomers.
AY: Well, certainly I think New York City should be a place where people of every background come to build a life for themselves. That’s the DNA of this place. I mean, how many New Yorkers’ parents or grandparents immigrated here? We should be fighting for the folks who’ve been here for generations, and we should be fighting to get new people here. There isn’t an either/or at all.
For more interviews in this series, click here.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Howard Wolfson has worked in New York politics for nearly 30 years and served as a deputy mayor to Mike Bloomberg from 2010 to 2013. He is currently a senior adviser to Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP.
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