As Peter Beinart has trenchantly observed in The Atlantic, formerly moderate Generation X Democratic candidates Cory Booker and Kamala Harris have chosen to turn their backs on policies they once championed. Booker no longer talks up his successful expansion of charter schools as mayor of Newark, while Harris has run away from her common-sense decision, as San Francisco district attorney, to enforce truancy laws as a means to get the attention of parents of disadvantaged students. But there’s another Gen X candidate, unmentioned by Beinart, who’s run away from past successes: Andrew Yang.
While he promotes government-led efforts to redistribute income, Yang has been silent about his own groundbreaking efforts to help declining cities — not through government, but through civil society. In 2011, after a successful career as corporate lawyer and business-school test-prep entrepreneur, Yang founded Venture for America (VFA). Modeled on Teach for America, VFA aimed to attract applicants from elite colleges to work as paid interns at start-up companies in poor cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, Birmingham, and Baltimore. Its funding came entirely from philanthropists, most importantly Detroit’s Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans. Like Dan Markowits, the author of the new The Meritocracy Trap, Yang saw the best and brightest as having “too limited a vision of what career success looks like,” and got to work fixing the problem.
Today, VFA is still in operation, with fellowships in 14 different cities around the country. The organization has supported more than 1,000 fellows, working in business incubators and often going on to found start-ups of their own. It says that 51 percent of them continue to live in the cities where their fellowship was based, and they’ve been involved in starting 129 new companies.
Bringing graduates of some 300 colleges to cities that ambitious young people have long been fleeing is nothing to sneeze at. It’s a record of success that gives Yang, if he’d only use it, a ready-made, positive message on the stump: Talented people can start new businesses, help power established ones, and in the process, make cities thrive. This message is all the more powerful when juxtaposed with generations of failed local, state, and federal policies based on the idea that subsidies to attract business are the best way of rejuvenating cities in decline.
Indeed, what is striking about Yang’s Venture for America is its fundamental separation from those failed government policies and from government itself. This is a private organization, fueled by philanthropic dollars and private start-up seed money. And its economic underpinnings are sound, as the work of Harvard’s Ed Glaeser on the key impact of the “divergence” of human capital on urban economies has shown. Seattle never recruited Starbucks, Amazon, or Microsoft; those companies grew organically, thanks to talented founders and a skilled labor pool.
It is depressing, then, that Yang has downplayed VFA’s record of success in favor of a campaign built on a more dispiriting message: American capitalism is so broken, he says, that only a universal basic income, funded by a national value-added sales tax, can mitigate its destructive impact. One wishes that he would point to his own record in teaching Democrats that government is not the best route to prosperity. Indeed, government — through cumbersome permitting processes, high taxes, and burdensome licensing requirements — often holds back the fortunes of down-on-their-luck cities such as those Venture for America has helped revitalize. To be sure, this would be a more politically fraught path: Yang is a Democrat, and redistribution is the coin of his party’s realm. But if he were braver, he could do quite a lot to change that state of affairs.