Part 45 of a series on game theory and politics, this on outsider candidates in the Democratic 2020 US presidential race.
First published in October 2019.
Nobody ever asks me how I feel about Amy Klobuchar. I don’t get peppered with questions about my confidence in Julián Castro or Bill Weld. Mark Sanford’s not a strange being, except for that thing he did that one time. Folks look to Cory Booker for inspiration, Beto O’Rourke for animation, Kamala Harris to channel their rage, Joe Walsh to see if his head’s going to explode on live TV. We’re all totally onboard with a front-running pack of a socialist, a retread, and a demolitionist in Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren. Even a gay man like Pete Buttigieg doesn’t cause any rumbles in this enlightened age. These are all acceptable candidates in 2019 and we’re all just wondering which will get to the mountaintop.
But there are three candidates which I always get asked about. Three candidates that seem like space aliens to most and inspire diehard fanaticism from their adherents. No, I’m not talking about Marianne Williamson, a curiosity straight out of an early 2000s California jungle primary for governor. I’m talking about Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, and Donald Trump.
These three candidates could not be more different in most ways but yet are eerily similar in others. One of them I like. Another sparks my curiosity. A third fills me with rage. I make an emotional connection with all of them. And I can’t support any of them, because I don’t bet against America.
Let me give you an analogy to explain what I mean. You’re familiar, I expect, with the casino game craps. It’s a baffling ride for the uninitiated. It has a million undecipherable bets, most worse than the ones you can decipher. Also, it’s loud. Whereas poker is pin-drop quiet during play, people get raucous playing craps.
A craps table with its blistering array of bets. The don’t pass line is in a dark color above the bright white pass line, because nobody wants to talk about it.
Which is weird, because it seems like only one person is really playing. That lady with the pair of dice — the shooter — controls the outcome for nearly everyone. She’s trying to roll a 7 or 11, avoid a 2, 3, or 12, and, if she initially rolls a 4 through 10, hit her number again before she rolls a 7. Everyone else bets on the shooter, and many pick the “pass” line, where they win if the shooter wins. When the stickman crows “Winner winner, front line winner,” all those people win. They’re all riding the same roller coaster. They scream in unison, draw in breath at once, and high-five when the thrill is over. It’s a grand, communal experience.
Except… there’s the one guy on the rail. He looks like he’s not having fun. That’s because he’s betting the “don’t pass” line. The don’t pass line wins when the shooter loses. Since the party crowd wins when the shooter wins, the don’t pass bettor shuts the hell up when everyone else fails. He collects his chips and tries not to be noticed. No one likes the don’t pass guy.
Betting against everyone else makes you an outsider. Being an outsider is hard. Outsiders have trouble making friends when the spotlight is on. But when they do, those friendships run deep. Me, I like people who bet on the crowd. Not everyone feels that way, but a whole lot of us do. That’s what makes us the crowd.
So, to Yang, Gabbard, and Trump individually, and why they inspire passion in some and overflowing rage in others.
I like Andrew Yang. He’s a dork. I’m a dork. We dorks should stick together.
Andrew Yang. / Flickr - Gage Skidmore
Though we both like Marvel, math, and charity, I have never found common ground with Yang. It’s not because he won’t wear a tie to a debate, or that he keeps making ooky exceptional-Asian jokes, or that he calls his band of followers the “Yang Gang.” None of those would deter me if I could get behind his policies. Don’t get me wrong: I want to get behind his policies. Yang’s economic message is as terrifying as Trump’s was in 2016, but his is rooted not in illegitimate fear of immigrants but in totally legitimate fear of robots.
The way Jay Inslee hammered on climate change and Beto O’Rourke focuses on gun control, Yang is the only candidate to make automation his raison d’être. It’s his main strength on economics; his trade policy is nearly nonexistent, and his desire for “human-centered capitalism” nobly tries to replace conversation about money with conversation about people. It’s likable. It’s nice. In the Elizabeth Warren sense, it’s only barely policy.
But he just crushes it on automation. Listen to him in New York, in May:
“How did Donald Trump become our president in 2016? The explanations go something like Russia, Facebook, the FBI, maybe a dash of Hillary Clinton thrown in there. But I looked at the numbers … and Donald Trump is our president for one simple reason: We automated away four million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa, all of the swing states that Donald Trump needed to win.”
Holy God. I mean, I disagree with the assessment that economic anxiety drove Trump’s election; I’m much more sympathetic to the data that shows the diploma divide among whites and their views on race and ethnicity were responsible. But I can’t see any argument that can overcome Yang’s logic about automation. The manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back. We can hope to get back jobs we exported, but not jobs we obsoleted. Yang’s critics say that if he were right, productivity would rise and employment would shrink; instead, productivity is stagnant and employment is rising. This argument is similar to suggesting a person who doesn’t show symptoms of cancer won’t be killed by it. The robots are coming.
Though he perhaps misses that a much bigger problem in loss of jobs is our bonkers trade policy, Yang’s got part of the problem diagnosed perfectly. After you accept it — and you should as soon as you can — then you can look at his solution. It’s a plan called the “Freedom Dividend,” giving every American adult $1,000 a month, adjusted for inflation, locked in by a constitutional amendment. Per his site, “this would enable all Americans to pay their bills, educate themselves, start businesses, be more creative, stay healthy, relocate for work, spend time with their children, take care of loved ones, and have a real stake in the future.”
His Freedom Dividend is another name for a decades-old policy called universal basic income (UBI). The concept only applies to a payment that is unconditional (everyone of qualifying age gets it regardless of income), automatic (it is received on a regular basis), non-withdrawable (it cannot be canceled or reduced), individual (it is given per person rather than per household or community), and given as a right (it applies to all legal residents regardless of status). So when Kamala Harris talks about giving families who make less than $100,000 a stipend of $500 a month, she’s not talking about UBI, because that’s not unconditional or individual, and probably not non-withdrawable.
UBI has been endorsed at times by a variety of thinkers including Thomas Paine, Napoleon, John Kenneth Galbraith, Huey Long, Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. A few nations have tried versions of it. As of today, only Iran remains a UBI nation, giving each citizen a cash transfer equivalent to $1.50 a day. From the end of World War II to the fall of the Wall, Poland guaranteed all citizens employment and income; it didn’t work, but a lot of things about communist Poland didn’t work, so it’s hard to judge. And since 1982, Alaska has had a thing called the Permanent Fund Dividend. Alaska has a lot of oil, and forward-thinkers in Juneau figured the people deserved some of the profits. So every year, every citizen who lives in Alaska all year and doesn’t commit a felony gets a check for between $1,000 and $2,000. (That no-felony thing is slightly anti-UBI, but we’ll let it pass for now.)
A grand or two a year is real nice. Those who get it love it. But it’s not much of an income. You can’t restructure your life around $1,000 a year. A 2018 study showed that the dividend had no effect on employment, and increased part-time work by 1.8 percentage points (17 percent). “Overall,” the study said, “our results suggest that a universal and permanent cash transfer does not significantly decrease aggregate employment.”
But Yang’s $12,000… that might just have an effect. The average household spends just under $10,000 a year on food and clothing. What if no citizen ever needed to worry about paying for food and clothing? That’d be fantastic. An average married couple could instead wish away their entire housing cost of $20,000 a year. Giving most people free housing is pretty awesome.
Here’s the catch: that level of awesome costs $3 trillion a year. The federal government spends a bit more than $4 trillion a year on everything. So 75% of our current deficit-exploding federal expenditures would go to UBI. The details are where Yang’s policy gets really nasty. We already pay the expenditures of many of our poorest citizens, and Yang wants those people to choose between their current services and UBI — a choice not made by those who already make way more than $12,000 a year. He wants to add a regressive value-added tax of 10%, which even UBI advocates say would penalize poor people even more. For the mere price of nearly all our federal spending and a whole bunch of regressive policies, a person like me gets to live rent-free. I could stop generating revenue for others! How great!
One of America’s core visions is that we can work our way out of our problems. Giving everyone the freedom not to work for the basics sounds good, but it cuts against the bootstrapping grain of America. Those in the Yang Gang believe reality has already lost that for us. They’re bold, innovative, and profoundly pessimistic. I don’t want to live in the Matrix. I want to work for my supper. It doesn’t hit with me. For others, it’s the exact recipe for the dire situation we’re in. For me, it makes Yang an outsider betting against America. Even though he has a ton of cash to continue his run, I expect that outside is where he’ll stay.
One person who fully endorses a UBI program like Yang’s is Tulsi Gabbard. The Hawaii congresswoman has had a rough week.
Tulsi Gabbard. / Flickr - Gage Skidmore
After missing out on the September debates, she returned to the debate stage looking like a real winner. But she led it off with a wobbly, infuriating answer on impeachment, a course she was slow to embrace and reluctant to support. She began by lambasting Democrats for wanting to impeach Trump after he won in 2016.
“If impeachment is driven by these hyper-partisan interests, it will only further divide an already terribly divided country. Unfortunately, this is what we’ve already seen play out as calls for impeachment really began shortly after Trump won his election. And as unhappy as that may make us as Democrats, he won that election in 2016.”
Gabbard then blasted the debate’s eminently blastable hosts, CNN and the New York Times, for calling her a Russian asset — a claim I expect many viewers had not ever heard. Then she started talking like a Russian asset, highlighting her time spent with Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad and questioning our protecting the Kurds in Syria. The only other veteran on stage, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, lit her up like a Roman candle, saying she was parroting Trump’s policy and undermining the honor of American soldiers. When your claim to fame is that you say what Vladimir Putin would say if he was onstage, your political brand is in serious trouble.
Sure enough, yesterday Hillary Clinton came straight at her. Speaking on the Campaign HQ podcast, the world’s foremost expert on having Russia screw with one’s presidential prospects said of the Russians:
“I think they’ve got their eye on somebody who’s currently in the Democratic primary, and they’re grooming her to be the third-party candidate. She’s the favorite of the Russians. They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far. And that’s assuming Jill Stein will give it up, which she might not because she’s also a Russian asset. Yeah, she’s a Russian asset! I mean totally! They know they can’t win without a third-party candidate. And so, I don’t know who it’s gonna be, but I can guarantee they’ll have a vigorous third party challenge in the key states that they most need it.”
A lot to unpack there, and boy, does it hit Putin pal Jill Stein where it hurts. But on the point: Clinton did not use Gabbard’s name, but everybody could tell she wasn’t describing Amy Klobuchar. Gabbard, already a fixture on FOX News and a favorite of the alt-right and white nationalists, assumed Clinton was talking about her and went nuclear on Twitter.
This is some A+ clapbacking right here. But it is dramatically inconsistent with maintaining a campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. If there are two things Democrats are agreed upon in 2019, it’s that (a) we want Trump gone and (b) we don’t want Hillary to run for president this year. If Gabbard believes her boast to Clinton that “this primary is between you and me,” she is stone-cold delusional. Despite the strong wishes of Trump, Steve Bannon, and FOX News hosts, neither Clinton nor Gabbard will be the Democratic nominee in the summer of 2020.
Gabbard calls herself a threat, and it’s hard to see how she is one, even as an independent candidate. Democratic voters have made it clear that they’re not exactly looking for an anti-abortion, formerly pro-conversion therapy crusader for Assad in 2020. She’s been very clear that she’s not going to run as anything but a Democrat. But let’s not rule out some crazy here. Look at those hearts on Twitter. Those are not just Russian bots working overtime. She has very devoted fans, that’s for sure.
And let’s not ignore her central thesis here: endless wars are very, very bad. Buttigieg, who excoriated Gabbard for her Syria comments, often states that a person of service age might not have been alive on September 11. It is every candidate’s desire to bring our troops home from Afghanistan, for example. That war needs to end, maybe not in the next president’s first year, but soon. You could imagine a similar statement about Syria.
But abandoning Syria is also betting against America. Another principle of the American spirit is that we stand against genocide. Sometimes that sends us places we don’t want to go, and sometimes we do horrible things in those places. “Regime change wars,” as Gabbard calls them, are not unknown to us. But overall, we stand to defend. Sometimes it’s not something we all think is worth defending, like our oil interests. Sometimes, like this time, it is. We are believers in a cause, and that cause is that our allies don’t die on our watch.
Gabbard believes America will stand against what America has stood for. That’s not a safe bet. She will gain some adherents, and they will be very devoted. She will gain some opportunists who choose to use her as a pawn if they can (Earth to Tulsi: Tucker Carlson is not your friend). And she will gain some sympathy from fellow outsiders like Yang and Williamson, both of whom rallied to her defense on Friday, and both of whom got blasted for it. Insiders by and large didn’t defend her; O’Rourke did, while Booker, Harris, and Castro were clearly on Clinton’s side. That’s expected. Despite hitting with outsiders, Gabbard doesn’t score with me. Like Yang, she likely will stay on the outside as the race coalesces around others.
I don’t want to tear down Yang and Gabbard. They’re both Democrats, and in this bizarro universe, they might actually win. If so, I will back them furiously against the ultimate outsider, Donald Trump. In the probable (but not certain) world that Trump’s the Republican nominee, he’d love to face an establishment Democrat like Clinton — who just today was cleared of wrongdoing again in the politically motivated State Department probe of her emails. Absent Clinton, a tilt with Joe Biden, whose son Hunter did him no favors by suggesting he was only on Burisma’s board due to his name, lets Trump paint the Democrats as the party of corruption.
Yet every day brings new evidence that Trump is setting the gold standard on that for generations. From the point he melted down in front of Nancy Pelosi, he and his senior staff violated all four reasons one might remove a sitting president early in one day:
1. proof of commission of crimes and misdemeanors;
2. obstruction of justice;
3. violation of the Emoluments Clause;
4. mental or physical incapacity to govern.
Heck, in one press conference, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney announced there was quid pro quo for Ukraine to receive aid for investigating the Democrats (which he’d walk back that day), that Trump had awarded the G-7 summit to his own resort (which Trump would walk back days later), and that we should just “get over it” — “it” being the use of federal funds to benefit Trump. This is a corrupt regime, and regime change is coming soon.
Mulvaney (left) and Trump: the “get over it” pair. / Twitter - @realDonaldTrump
In Syria, he has upended the world’s belief that America’s word is its bond. We could have seen this coming, of course. He had betrayed all our allies in trade and support of global agreements. But he didn’t actually cause our allies to die in droves before that. All because his outsider status left him ill-prepared to handle foreign policy. He got rolled by Turkey, just like he got rolled by North Korea and rolled by China and rolled by Russia.
But some of this is the reason we got here. In 2016, faced with yet another Clinton and with signal boost from Russia, just enough Americans in just the right places chose Trump specifically because he was an outsider. Trump promised to burn it all down, and he’s doing a darn fine job of that. By promising to upend the Obama administration’s triumphs, he resonated with some people in ways he will never resonate with someone like me.
Now that he’s been there for three years, he’s still pretending to be an outsider — fighting with his generals and intelligence officers, ripping apart international agreements, clashing with the Republican leadership, stonewalling his impeachment inquiry, abandoning our allies, propping up our enemies. All while threatening economic ruin if not reelected.
Trump is still betting the don’t pass line against America. He’s the guy on the rail, raking in his winnings but not being part of the table. But now he’s an insider, and we know it. He’s fighting to hold onto what little he has left, not shake up what has stood before. It’s a harder sell. He might win reelection, because that’s what incumbents usually do, but so far polling suggests an insider like Biden, Warren, or (yup, now an insider) Sanders likely will beat him. Now, polling can be wrong. Maybe these insider candidates need a little of the contrarian spirit of Yang and Gabbard. But I expect we need more faith in Americans to do the right thing. From the candidates who actually have a shot, I think we’ve got a lot of it.🔷
This is the 45th installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, and Trump’s conviction. The first 21 of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.
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