Money at 30: “The War on Normal People” Book Review
If you thought that the 2016 Republican presidential primary was packed, take a look at the roster of Democrats looking to earn their party’s nomination in 2020. Among the nearly two dozen Dems courting voters are established brands like Vice President Joe Biden, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren alongside some lesser known figures like South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. One of the candidates who has garnered a somewhat surprising amount of attention so far — enough to earn him a spot in this week’s debates — is entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who also happens to be the author of the book The War on Normal People
Subtitled “The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future,” The War on Normal People mirrors the messaging that has made Yang a favorite among certain voter groups. At the heart of that campaign is the idea of instituting a universal basic income (UBI) in America. Specifically, Yang’s plan — which he’s branded The Freedom Dividend — would give all citizens between the ages of 18 to 64 $1,000 a month to use as they see fit. To Yang, this isn’t just an idea he thinks is worthwhile but, as he lays out in his book, one he believes will be necessary in the coming years.
For most of The War on Normal People, Yang paints a fairly dreary picture of our future. Not only does he point to obvious examples of encroaching automation, such as driverless cars and fast food ordering kiosks, but also looks at how nearly no industry’s workers are completely safe from robotic replacements. Moreover Yang offers several hypotheticals of what his automation revolution could mean for Americans, including everything from increased suicide rates to mass riots. Of course, Yang acknowledges that his predictions are bleak and proceeds to spend the last several chapters offering solutions he thinks will help avoid such a fate.
Despite its subtitle, The War on Normal People only discusses UBI rather briefly. Incidentally this chapter was my favorite as, in my view, Yang did a fair job of not only detailing his Dividend solution but also effectively addressing oft-cited concerns about such a plan. As someone who’s read other books and articles about basic income, I was also surprised to even hear about different studies and past attempts to install a UBI that I was previously unaware of.
With this book doubling as a manifesto for his 2020 run, it should be no surprise that the candidate soon pivots from his signature issue into some of his other unique ideas — of which there are a lot. While some of these plans such as Yang’s “Digital Social Credits” proposal do come off as an extension of UBI, other pitches such as forbidding past presidents from taking paid speaking gigs don’t seem to really address the particular problems Yang lays out in the first two-thirds of the book. Similarly, there are early chapters that also seem to venture off course a bit, such as one where Yang mostly discusses how young men enjoy playing video games. He does try to tie this point back to the larger narrative but it still feels out of place in my opinion.
As much as I was fascinated by reading about Yang’s experience, prognostications, and ideas on the whole, I have to say that his writing style isn’t always the most engaging. Admittedly there were times I found myself skimming the text, hoping for something to pull me back in. Thankfully, the section dedicated to UBI along with some of his other scenarios and solutions succeeded in that regard and made the title worth reading overall.
If you’ve ever seen an interview with Yang, chances are you’ve heard a (very much) abridged version of The War on Normal People. Still, those who are interested in the candidate’s ideas will likely find more to chew on in this book. Additionally, I believe those who may be skeptical of Yang’s plan might be surprised by the rebuttals he pens in these pages. To be clear, this review isn’t meant to be an endorsement of the candidate, though I do find myself increasingly fascinated with the version of basic income he suggests. In any case, with Yang set to take the debate stage with his fellow Democrats later this week, we can expect to hear more about The Freedom Divided, the threat of automation, and the war on normal people as we make our way toward November 2020.
Also published on Medium.