Andrew Yang’s Troubling Tucker Carlson Interview
The Democratic presidential candidate fed into Tucker’s MAGA narrative
Last Friday, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang joined Fox News’s Tucker Carlson Tonight for a 5-minute interview. Consistent with his book and platform, Yang warned of a coming wave of job losses due to automation, citing the fall in Midwest manufacturing employment and the 3.5 million truck drivers at risk of replacement by autonomous vehicle technology.
Yang normally uses this premise to motivate his policy prescriptions, especially the Freedom Dividend — a universal basic income funded by a value-added tax — central to his campaign. I support (and have written on) universal basic income, so I appreciate him bringing that issue into the national discourse. But his interview with Carlson showed the dangers of the tenuously-grounded populist frame he’s associating with that policy.
A recurring misleading claim on labor force participation rate
Carlson introduced Yang by warning of the dangers of automation and technology. After describing self-driving trucks, to back up his assertion that technology is already displacing workers, he said:
Labor force participation rate in the United States is 63.2 percent, the same level as Ecuador and Costa Rica.
This echoes his statements on Twitter and the Joe Rogan Experience, in which he compared the US to El Salvador and Dominican Republic. Yang is referring to the civilian labor force participation rate (LFPR), defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) as the share of people age 16 or older who are working or actively seeking work. It’s hovered around 63 percent since 2013, down from 67 percent around 2000, and the most recent data is from January 2019 at 63.2 percent.
Data from the World Bank differs slightly from BLS (age 15+ instead of 16+, and as of 2018) but shows that the US LFPR is about in the middle of the pack (61.6 percent, higher than 46 percent of countries). While it’s similar to El Salvador, it’s substantially lower than Ecuador and Dominican Republic, and somewhat higher than Costa Rica. The United Kingdom and South Korea are both more similar to the United States than most of the countries Yang lists.
The bigger problem is that LFPR is largely a function of demographics, especially the number of retirees. The higher life expectancy in the US combined with Social Security and Medicare means that more people live long enough to spend their later years out of the labor force. Indeed, Americans can expect to live considerably longer than residents of Ecuador, El Salvador and Dominican Republic.
A straightforward way to correct for this bias is to limit the population to people in more typical working ages. For example, the US BLS defines “prime-age” LFPR as LFPR among people aged 25–54, to account for young people being in school and early retirement. This has been rising since 2015, and is currently 82.6 percent, within 2 percentage points of its all-time high in 1997.
25–54 LFPR isn’t available across countries, but limiting to age 15–64 puts the US alongside France and Hong Kong, and higher than all four of Yang’s comparison countries, even though we have far more young people in college. Unlike 15+ LFPR, 15–64 LFPR also significantly correlates to both GDP per capita and life expectancy.
Life expectancy and metrics other than GDP
With Carlson, Yang continued:
We have a series of bad numbers and I referred to GDP as one certainly, a headline unemployment rate is completely misleading and one of my mandates as president is I’m going to update the numbers [so] they actually make sense.
Yang expounds on this in his Human-Centered Capitalism policy page — one of his top three objectives, along with the Freedom Dividend and Medicare for All— saying that as President he would:
Change the way we measure the economy, from GDP and the stock market to…new measurements like Median Income and Standard of Living, Health-adjusted Life Expectancy, Mental Health, Childhood Success Rates, Social and Economic Mobility, Absence of Substance Abuse, and other measurements.
It’s not clear what he means by “update the numbers,” given the metrics he describes are either vague (what’s Childhood Success Rate?) or already reported by government agencies, studied by economists, and covered by the media.
They also generally tell similar stories: unemployment-related indicators move together (and have been stable over the past few years), and absolute indicators like income (adjusted for inflation to capture living standards) and life expectancy have improved over the long run and are now at all-time highs. Illicit substance use is generally falling too, with the exception of opioids and (non-problematically) cannabis.
Especially notable here is the longer life expectancy, given Yang also said in the interview that “our life expectancy has declined for the last three years, first time in a hundred years.” This decline should raise alarm about the need for public policy addressing the opioids and suicides explaining it, and Yang has noted this elsewhere. But we shouldn’t miss the forest through the trees: life expectancy fell by two months from 2014 to 2016, while it grew by that much every year from 1990 to 2014.
Could greater funding for statistical agencies generate more valuable insights for policymakers to improve American lives? Of course. But there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater: the currently available statistics tell us that Americans are richer and healthier in recent years than they’ve ever been.
Feeding into the Trump-Carlson narrative
Absent policy prescriptions, Yang’s vision of America doesn’t look so different from the one Donald Trump described as a presidential candidate in 2016. Yang calls the unemployment rate “completely misleading;” Trump called it a “hoax.” Yang cites the slight anomalous fall in life expectancy despite long-run improvement; Trump cited a slight anomalous increase in crime despite a long-run fall. Yang warns of the labor devastation from automation; Trump warned of immigrants taking jobs.
Certainly, Yang’s arguments hold more water than Trump’s: he hasn’t claimed the “real” unemployment rate was as high as 42 percent; the trend in life expectancy has more real basis than the crime blip; and automation really has produced more clear job losses than immigration. And while this interview skipped policy implications, Yang’s proposal for universal basic income is productive and future-oriented, not hateful and backwards-looking like Trump’s border wall.
And yet, if he’s being trotted on Fox News to back up their host’s warnings of “the dangers of big tech” and “why [we should] be worried about automation,” and if that host describes him as “one of the only people [he’s] ever met who’s honest about the effects of deindustrialization,” it’s important that he’s describing those effects truthfully. Given Carlson’s racist fearmongering of Latin American immigration, it’s especially important that comparisons of labor market indicators between the United States and Latin American countries are valid.
By these objectives, Yang’s interview did more to bolster the doom-and-gloom narrative that Carlson feeds his audience — which benefits populist politicians like Donald Trump — than improve the standing of his ideas. Yang can avoid falling into this trap by making sure to pair his description of the country with his ideas for improving it. Better still would be re-examining his premise of the country’s perils: his policies like UBI don’t need it, and the evidence contradicts it.