The Catholic Case for Andrew Yang
What would politics in the internet age be without memes? From the classic “Jeb! Wins” format, satirizing what a 538-electoral-vote sweep by the former Florida Governor would have looked like [he fell far short, dropping out early in the primary cycle, on February 20th, 2016], to the comical comparison of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, memes provide entertainment as they circulate online. However, this election cycle’s current meme fixation seems to be gaining traction, perhaps because of his growing internet presence. You may not have heard of him, but Andrew Yang, who spawned the #YangGang meme, is on the rise.
A Columbia Law School graduate, Yang launched Venture for America, which works with entrepreneurs to stem business growth in the Rust Belt. When he announced a campaign in late 2017, he was all but unknown. Yang’s platform mostly focuses on the changes automation will bring to American society. He proposes the “Freedom Dividend”, or a monthly $1,000 check to all Americans, a universal basic income of sorts. This is the Yang campaign’s piece de resistance, an idea so drastically different from what the other candidates propose that it automatically makes his campaign fascinating. However, while debate rages over the costs, benefits, and logistics of such a program, the reason Yang’s campaign interests me transcends beyond the Freedom Dividend.
As a Catholic, I noticed that Yang speaks about his faith rather candidly, especially in a Democratic Party where fewer candidates are open about being religious. Yang recently attended a meeting of Christian entrepreneurs in upstate New York, noting that he and his family attend church each week with Pastor Mark Mast, who preaches at a Reformed Church in New Paltz, New York. While the Reformed Church is quite different theologically from the Roman Catholic Church, Yang’s campaign is noteworthy for Catholics. The more I researched his campaign, the more I noticed curious aspects of his platform, an oddly specific, difficult-to-navigate plethora of policies. Stunningly, his policies pair well with Catholic Social Teaching. Sure, Yang differs markedly from the Church on some social issues. This constitutes an obstacle to his ability to win Catholic support en masse. However, for Catholics prioritizing the “seamless garment approach” to life, which signifies consideration of all human life issues as one body, Yang’s platform is interesting.
First, Andrew Yang takes a more direct approach to uphold human dignity than other Democratic candidates. In a Catholic context, human dignity stems from the creation of humans in the like image of God. Because all humans are created in the Lord’s image, every human life has a fundamental, undeniable, special dignity that relates humanity to the spiritual realm. The Catholic Church thus asks its believers to always uphold this as the central determinant of their choices. However, the Trump administration doesn’t appear to be concerned with human dignity. There’s no question that locking up young children at the border denies their fundamental dignity. A society that allows 45,000 people to die yearly due to expensive healthcare does not prioritize human dignity. A country where 1 out of 7 children is born into poverty is not a country doing enough to combat poverty. Therefore, every candidate fighting for healthcare, the poor, and immigration justice addresses human dignity. Luckily, the entire Democratic field discusses these issues. However, Andrew Yang stands out in his affirmation of human dignity regarding automation.
Today, automation a fact of life. While automation clearly has positive impacts in making life easier for people, it also brings about displacement. A 2017 McKinsey Global Institute study found that fully 60% of all jobs can have up to 30% of their activities automated, with 51% of American jobs, particularly those involving physical, structured labour, can be automated. Up to half of today’s labour activities could be automated by 2055. That said, productivity growth is set to rise precipitously, which begs the question of how the apparent economic benefits of automation will be spread through society considering the potential for disruptive job losses. In a time when politics focuses on Rust Belt deindustrialization, it’s frightening to imagine how automation can further hollow out communities and exacerbate inequality. The Church does not ignore the pitfalls of technology. In the recent encyclical Laudato Si (Our Common Home), Pope Francis pointed to the fact that the “social dimensions of global change include the effects of technological innovations on employment.”
More than others, Andrew Yang seeks to protect the American people from automation’s disruptive impacts. A central part of his platform, perhaps its underlying ideology, is something Yang calls “human-centered capitalism”. By this, he means that “humans are more important than money” and that “the focus of our economy should be to maximize human welfare.” More than a statement, this is a radical call to human dignity in accordance with Church teachings. Paragraph 40 of Rerum Novarum, the 1891 encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII, states that “the working man, too, has interests in which he should be protected by the State; and first of all, there are the interests of his soul.” Catholicism demands that the state intervene to protect the dignity of humanity from harm. Today, as Yang recognizes, the tide of automation threatens to cause severe unemployment, risking peoples’ ability to live a dignified existence through work.
Yang proposes policies to uphold human dignity. The aforementioned Freedom Dividend does just that. While $1,000 a month for each American older than 18 is far from enough to raise a family, it provides a launching pad for discussions about Universal Basic Income and allows people to supplant available jobs and/or pursue creative activities not valued as much by traditional economics. According to predictions cited by the campaign, such a scheme would grow the economy by $2.5 trillion by 2025 and increase the labour force by 4.5 million people. Americans would have more money to spend and live better. By providing all people with this benefit, resources gained from automation would be distributed to all Americans, helping offset the damaging effects technological change may have on less-educated, less-mobile people.
His other policies support human dignity by challenging the less-regulated-than-necessary advance of technology that threatens to encroach on human dignity. For example, no other candidate discusses reducing the harm caused to children by smartphones. A growing body of evidence demonstrates that excessive screen time may cause developmental delays, increases in obesity, and trouble sleeping. Worryingly, 22% of young children use smartphones today. In fact, the World Health Organization just released recommendations urging severely limited for children under 5. Andrew Yang recognizes that the drive for profit has led smartphone companies and app developers to reach out to younger markets, which requires, in turn, protective government intervention. As noted, Catholic Social Teaching emphasizes the protection of human dignity, and where technological obsession harms youth, the government should “provide guardrails to keep technology from corroding our mental and emotional wellbeing” as Andrew Yang proposes. Yang’s understanding of the role government can play here accords with Pope Francis’ in Laudato Si. In paragraph 47, Pope Francis writes that the omnipresence of technology can prevent people from thinking deeply and gaining wisdom. When its use becomes harmfully obsessive, especially among youth, technology threatens to sever humans from their own dignity and social relationships. In the same document, Francis notes that the solution to this is to subject technology to a paradigm of true progress in which we recognize both its benefits and drawbacks and ‘direct’ its use in the right way, awfully similar to Yang’s proposal. Therefore, Andrew Yang’s ideas seek to make technology uphold, instead of erode, human dignity. This sets him apart from the rest of the field, which ranges from cognizant to inept when it comes to issues of automation and technology and should appeal to progressive Catholics.
A second tenet of Catholic Social Teaching that Andrew Yang uniquely addresses is the Common Good. This element often reflects the actualization of human dignity. The common good involves loving one’s neighbour and organizing society with the good of all in mind. One aspect of the Common Good is the universal destination of goods or the idea that God created the world for all of his people, so that material goods should be accessible insofar as people can achieve well-being. Another part of this doctrine is the preferential option for the poor, which is the primacy placed on helping the poor and weak in society (182). The Bible verse Matthew 25:40 sums this up in the statement, “And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me’”. Thus, candidates’ ideas to tackle poverty and create opportunity demonstrate their commitment to the common good. This is an area in which most Democratic candidates do well. Senator Elizabeth Warren, for example, proposes thoughtful, progressive ideas on universal childcare and reforms to make housing more affordable. The list of Yang’s ideas that uphold the Common Good is immense, however; from Medicare for All, to affordable college, to a pathway to citizenship for undocumented migrants, his entire platform embodies this aspect of Catholic Social Teaching. However, it is Yang’s most creative policies that prompt interesting questions about how American politics can better serve the common good. It’s worth highlighting those that challenge the vague cookie-cutter promises made by some other progressives.
Of course the Freedom Dividend promotes the common good as it advances human dignity. As noted, it would ensure that all can share in the increased productivity and wealth brought about by innovation. Moreover, the spending generated by an additional $1,000 a month in the pocket of every American would help renew struggling economies and tackle poverty. The plan would be paid for by a value-added tax, in which the wealthy who spend more would pay more into the system than they get out. In all these ways, the Freedom Dividend helps promote the common good.
However, beyond this aforementioned centrepiece, Yang’s platform furnishes thought-provoking ideas to uphold the Universal Destination of Goods and the Preferential Option. One idea unaddressed by other candidates is free marriage counselling. Yang’s platform calls for free or heavily subsidized marriage counselling to help couples work through problems. This seems like a nod to the ‘family values’ Republicans speak about, and it furthers a Catholic notion of the Common Good. Marriage rates are declining among younger Americans. Just 20% of those aged 18-30 are married, while 40% of boomers were at the same age. A full 36% of adults under age 65 are unmarried, an increase of 10% since 1990. Marriage brings about many societal benefits, particularly for life satisfaction and children’s’ upbringings. Marriage issues particularly exist among working-class families and couples; poorer and working-class adults are less likely to get married, with the share of adults aged 18-55 married at 26% for the poor and 56% for the middle and upper middle class. Thus, providing free or cheap marriage counselling would make marriage a more attractive idea and help keep fragile poor and working-class families together. The Catholic Church upholds the “matrimonial covenant” as a sacrament because “God himself is the author of marriage.” Therefore, by facilitating stronger marriages, particularly for vulnerable Americans, Yang’s platform creatively promotes the Catholic value placed on strong families, along with the societal benefits marriage promotes, aspects of the Common Good.
Another pro-family policy, this time with more emphasis on the Preferential Option for the Poor, is Yang’s agenda to help single parents. Yang devotes a portion of his website to the issue, promoting ideas like tax breaks for childcare, communal housing for single-parent households, and helping increase recruitment for programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters that provide positive role models. Yang also proposes family leave policies that would benefit all families, but particularly single-parent households. For years, both Democratic and Republican policies disproportionately harmed single mothers. The poorest 10% of children of single mothers experienced an 18% decline in incomes from 1995 to 2005 due to welfare cuts signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton. Therefore, Yang’s policies particularly reach poorer single-parent households and ensure that they have the financial and emotional support for children in these households to succeed, a break from previous policies. This would most benefit the vulnerable and uphold their right to participate fully in society and its institutions. Therefore, both Andrew Yang’s ideas contribute to a more Catholic conception of the Common Good within the Democratic Party, upholding the party’s historic commitment to the vulnerable.
A third element of Catholic Social Thought is Solidarity or the recognition of the bonds of community that drive humanity towards justice. Solidarity recognizes that people are inherently social and interrelated. As per Saint John Paul II, Solidarity is a responsibility towards all people together. The Compendium further outlines that Solidarity represents the commitment towards others stemming from this responsibility as well as the moral virtue that orders society to protect against sin. Policies that bolster the relationships between different communities and within them further solidarity. Structuring institutions such that they promote a genuine, tangible sense of inclusion strengthens these bonds. Because of humanity’s universality, Solidarity operates on many levels—between different countries, regions, counties, neighbourhoods, classes, essentially any communities. Solidarity in Rerum Novarum, therefore, encompasses ideas that encourage humility in the face of social interaction so that all communities can share in its benefits.
Solidarity’s most interesting application is in bringing Americans together against today’s divided backdrop. The sense of national solidarity that bred so much progress appears to be gone. Political polarization is skyrocketing; politicians speak in divisive rhetoric and voters see the other party with a decidedly negative view. This makes government ineffective and driven by petty grievances instead of a common drive for success. Rural America and urban America are both equally convinced that the other looks on them scornfully. Hatred and fear abound. FBI statistics note that incidences of hate crimes in America increased for the third consecutive year in 2017, with nearly 60% directed against people based on their race and ethnicity. While it’s foolish to think that a few policies can change the course of a country whose very culture of solidarity appears to be in freefall, change can start with outside-the-box education ideas that Andrew Yang embraces. When policymakers ensure that education reflects solidarity, perhaps they can begin to conquer mistrust and hatred. The 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum mentions that “if Christian precepts prevail, the respective classes will be united in … those [bonds] of brotherly love.” This statement applies to all groups, and Yang gives us a head start on elevating Christian precepts of solidarity and promoting inclusive national unity.
One of his fascinating ideas is the American Exchange Program. The American Exchange Program would allow high school students to enter an exchange program within the US to a community or region they might never have visited before. As per Yang’s website, this would emphasize the bonds between Americans and expose youth to Americans different from themselves. This idea builds on the contact hypothesis, which holds that contact between different groups should decrease prejudice. This notion is empirically backed by a 2018 meta-study evaluating 27 different studies of the contact hypothesis. The American Exchange Program relies on this contact to inculcate empathy and tolerance through immersion, similar to cultural exchange programs abroad. While the program’s details aren’t fully fleshed out, it represents a starting point for initiatives to tackle declining social solidarity, especially when paired with Yang’s other ideas like mandatory life-skills education in high school. This shills training incorporates communication and conflict management; if children learned these values early on, perhaps they would grow up to be more respectful, responsible citizens. While conservatives might lambaste this as ‘social engineering’, Yang uniquely acknowledges how the government can play a role in restoring solidarity. This goes beyond other candidates’ proposals, like John Delaney’s also-helpful idea of mandating national service because it focuses directly on education through immersion in different communities. Yang’s idea calls on Americans to recognize their fundamental humanity and build relationships and friendships, all as part of schooling. His particular focus on youth should give Catholics hope that policy solutions can support the growth of solidarity in a divided America.
The pillar of Catholic Social Teaching which Andrew Yang diverges most from the rest of the Democratic field is subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is not as often discussed as the aforementioned values, but without it, putting Catholic Social Teaching into practice in government is impossible. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church discusses subsidiarity as “higher order societies” helping, promoting, and protecting “lower order societies.” Simply put, this means that government should not stifle the participation of lower-level governments, civil society, and communities themselves in policy and action. In turn, subsidiarity recognizes that “functions of government should be performed at the lowest level possible, as long as they can be performed adequately”. This is not, as it may at first seem, a call for libertarian-style paring back of government. Certain activities, like interstate highway construction, universal primary education, and financial regulation cannot be performed adequately by private groups or local governments; thus, the central government does play a role in Catholic Social Teaching. Less about small government, subsidiarity emphasizes effective, participatory government.
Many Democrats, however, discard this principle as the party drifts in the direction of a central government with ever-expanding authority and responsibility. The much-debated Green New Deal, for example, relies on the federal government to upgrade existing infrastructure, retool America’s food system, and upgrade buildings all around the country. The federal government must play a role in combating climate change, but the level of centralization proposed must be attuned to local needs and circumstances. Other Democrats now embrace the mantle of socialism, which empirically has often been applied to centralize power and command large economies. Socialism is not always Maoist China, Maduro’s Venezuela, or Lenin’s USSR, but these examples demonstrate the rather extreme potential result of pursuing major social change without keeping subsidiarity in mind. An over-centralized government apparatus often lacks accountability and flexibility, both necessary to protect the dignity of families, individuals, and civil society.
Andrew Yang, however, promotes wholesale progressive change through the Freedom Dividend and universal healthcare, among other policies, without forgetting that centralization is not a panacea. In one sense, as a venture capitalist, Yang realizes that excessive government intervention can encumber social progress and prevent people from participating fully in the economy. Therefore, unlike other Democratic candidates, Yang proposes automatically sunsetting old laws by defining and incorporating performance indicators into proposed spending legislation. These could be measured and debated at the end of a predetermined period to decide whether to discard or continue a law. Yang promises to veto spending bills without performance indicators and target inefficient rules for elimination. This would force policymakers to pass legislation with realistic proposals and weed out laws that are needlessly complex. He also supports cutting the federal bureaucracy by targeting redundancies in the federal workforce and employing advanced technology. These reforms ensure that the federal government continues to represent and act on the desires of the American public, a practical goal of subsidiarity. The Compendium notes that oftentimes, government agencies become dominated by “bureaucratic ways of thinking” that lead to “enormous increase in spending.” Yang’s policies reflect this observation and promote a unique cultural-political shift towards making government leaner and more effective, but not any less progressive.
In a similar vein, Andrew Yang’s policies would strengthen lower order governments and communities, eschewing exclusive reliance on the federal government to promote change. His local journalism grants would support local news sources through grants of $25,000-$250,000 to help find new ways to sustain viability. This policy wields the federal government’s financial resources but allows lower-order societies in the form of media companies to creatively address their challenges. Especially when media centralization and declining readership lead to entire staffs being laid off, most recently at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, it’s important for the federal government to support independent local media, which elevates perspectives often ignored by larger-scale reporting. By ensuring that national narratives don’t drown out regionalized experiences, this fosters trust in proximate media, which is seen as more accountable and engaging. Therefore, Yang’s creative idea fights political attacks on the media by empowering the sources of media most threatened by an unrestricted free market. Another one of Yang’s policies that further subsidiarity is his idea of prosperity grants that through the IRS, would give working age Americans $100 a year to donate to a registered 501(c)3 non-profit. Prosperity grants would spur a revival of non-profits who understand and address local needs. While the federal government does much good, oftentimes, locally-led groups are cast aside by centralized bureaucracy. This change strengthens local associations with federal funding while giving voters the choice to choose a cause, promoting political buy-in and a renewed sense of community. Yang realizes that subsidiarity should guide policy and promotes decentralization through solutions like local journalism grants and prosperity grants. In elevating the groups between families and the government, Yang’s ideas would contribute to a more efficient government paired with a stronger civic culture.
Andrew Yang’s seemingly outlandish ideas might strike observers as unattainable and material for memes. However, what matters more than their practicality, considering that Yang is polling at an average of 1.3%, is the fact that policies furthering Catholic values will get a mention in the Democratic primary. Andrew Yang qualified for the first Democratic debate in June due to his polling and donor figures, assuring his place on the television screens of millions of Americans. This is the perfect platform for Yang to reach progressive Christians with an appeal to the faith values that his policies uniquely suit. What remains to be seen, however, is whether Democratic Catholics will listen, and whether Yang’s presence will force other candidates to consider their appeals to human dignity, the common good, solidarity, and subsidiarity.
Edited by Alec Regino