clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Andrew Yang will give a $12,000 basic income to a random Twitter follower

The presidential hopeful’s tacky yet effective method of promoting universal basic income.

Presidential hopeful Andrew Yang is campaigning on a platform centered on universal basic income.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

When I first saw the tweet, I thought it was a joke. But Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang is serious about what he announced via Twitter on Monday night: He’s planning to give $1,000 per month, for 12 months, to someone who retweets and follows him by July 4.

You don’t need to donate to his campaign, or vote for him, or anything like that in order to win the cash. It’s just free money. No strings attached.

Yang, an entrepreneur, is a millionaire who’s declined to specify his net worth, though he’s said it’s “probably much lower than speculation would lead one to believe.”

To be clear, he’s not giving $12,000 to everyone who retweets his announcement — just to one lucky retweeter. The winner, Yang’s website explains, will be “chosen by a random drawing from all eligible entries.” Still, it’s a pretty sweet deal for something that only requires two clicks.

As of 3 pm Tuesday, Yang’s tweet had about 42,000 retweets.

So why is Yang doing this?

The contest actually encapsulates a centerpiece of Yang’s platform: universal basic income (UBI), the idea that the government should dispense a guaranteed, regular stipend to every single citizen.

Yang says that if he becomes president, the government will send a check for $1,000 per month ($12,000 annually) to every American adult above the age of 18. (Whether Congress cooperates is another matter.) Again, no strings attached: You don’t get less money if you score a high-paying job, for example. And if you’re already getting housing assistance or food stamps, you can choose between keeping your current setup and switching over to Yang’s UBI program.

Yang calls his proposed monthly payment the “Freedom Dividend” (he told Vox’s Ezra Klein that this term “tests better” than “universal basic income”). Think of the Twitter contest, which the presidential hopeful discussed in an appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert Monday night, as a test run or promotion for that policy.

The classic aims of UBI are to reduce poverty and inequality; there’s also some evidence to suggest it boosts health and happiness. Some countries, like Canada, have been experimenting with basic income for decades, and others, like Italy, recently put a version of it into practice. Finland tried a basic income pilot over the past two years and found that it increased people’s trust in social institutions.

In recent years, UBI has enjoyed a surge of popularity in Silicon Valley, where the innovation boom has generated a lot of concern about automation-induced joblessness. Those worries have pushed powerful people like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to advocate for basic income.

As my colleague Dylan Matthews explained, Yang is among those who embrace UBI as a way to cope with automation:

“Truck driving alone is the most common job in twenty-nine states with 3.5 million drivers — 94 percent of them male — and an additional 12 million workers supporting them in truck stops and motels across the country,” his website proclaims. “What happens when the trucks start to drive themselves?”

“Humanity First” is among the Yang campaign’s most prominent slogans, and he frames his main financing mechanism for the Freedom Dividend — a 10 percent value-added tax (VAT) — as a way to prevent big companies like Amazon and Google from “funnel[ling] hundreds of billions in earnings overseas. VAT makes it impossible for them to benefit from the American people and infrastructure without paying their fair share.” It would, he claims, “capture the value generated by automation in a way that income taxes would not.”

Looked at one way, Yang’s contest is a gimmicky, almost tacky political stunt — a “Hey, look over here! Free money!” approach to presidential campaigning. Looked at another way, it’s a brilliant marketing campaign for UBI, a way to popularize a policy option that is definitely not without its critics.

Either way, Yang wins: The flashy tactics have caused more people to pay attention to him, something the political rookie needs.

The UBI advocate Scott Santens noted on Twitter that this contest more than pays for itself. “This tweet has already received over 9,000 RTs, which works out to under $1.33 per RT, which is thus a below market rate for a paid Twitter engagement campaign, but with the additional benefit of transforming a family’s life for the better with a year of economic security,” he wrote.

Yang’s contest doesn’t appear to violate any campaign finance laws. The rules make it clear that you don’t need to donate a cent to his campaign in order to be eligible. Nor is Yang bribing people to vote for him; the winner can vote for any candidate. Since the purpose behind the payout appears to be making a point about policy, it’s not illegal, Erin Chlopak, a former Federal Election Commission attorney, explained to MarketWatch. And the Freedom Dividend will reportedly come from Yang’s own bank account, so it’s considered a personal gift.

This is actually his third time piloting the program: He’s already offered Freedom Dividends to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. Tacky or not, it’s certainly an effective way to call attention to a key plank in his policy platform.

Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter. Twice a week, you’ll get a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling our biggest challenges: improving public health, decreasing human and animal suffering, easing catastrophic risks, and — to put it simply — getting better at doing good.