Updated below with Amazon response.
U.S. presidential candidate Andrew Yang, a startup entrepreneur from New York known for his data-driven approach to major challenges facing the country, has nothing against technology on principle.
He plans to use a 3D hologram to make multiple campaign stops simultaneously, and appearing in person at Gas Works Park on Friday evening, he reiterated his vow to become the first president to use PowerPoint in the State of the Union. That prompted the Seattle crowd to break into a chant of “PowerPoint, PowerPoint, PowerPoint!”
“Yes! This is the nerdiest presidential campaign in history! We did it, Seattle!” Yang joked. “We weren’t quite there until that moment, but then you just did it!”
— Dr. Robin the unapologetically feminist scientist (@diygeochemist) May 4, 2019
But he’s also a realist, and one of the central issues of his campaign for the Democratic nomination is job loss due to artificial intelligence and automation. Yang is proposing to address the issue with a program of universal basic income, a “Freedom Dividend” that would provide $1,000 a month to every adult over 18 in the country.
Yang has been focusing heavily on the technology in his stump speech. He frequently calls out Amazon, in particular, for its role in reshaping the economy through technology and automation, while paying no federal income tax in the last two years. With the tech giant’s headquarters visible across Lake Union behind him Friday night, Yang echoed his past statements with a Seattle twist. Amazon is playing by the rules, he acknowledged, but the system is flawed.
“We must’ve messed up if we’ve designed a system where a trillion-dollar tech company can pay less in federal taxes than everyone here in this park tonight,” he said. “All the Amazon employees are like, ‘Oh shit, is Jeff watching me right now? Should I cheer for this?’ ” he said, referring to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. “It’s cool. It’s cool. Jeff is looking at some rocket to Mars right now. He’s not paying attention to this park. He’ll pay attention later when I’m in the White House.”
In an interview with GeekWire prior to the event, Yang was more specific and pointed — calling on Amazon to publicly acknowledge the reality of its impact on jobs and the economy.
“Well, it’d be fantastic if Amazon just came clean. What irritates the heck out of me is that Amazon seems to just be planting all these puff pieces everywhere about all the jobs they create, and Amazon, no doubt, creates a lot of jobs. But then you can’t look at the jobs they’re creating in isolation. They open up a fulfillment warehouse that employs, let’s call it 20,000 people. How many retail workers worked at the malls that went out of business because of Amazon?”
“So first, the greatest thing would be if Jeff Bezos just stood up one day and said, ‘Hey, the truth is we are one of the primary organizations automating away millions of American jobs. We’re creating jobs. Yes, but we’re automating in all certainty a much higher number.’ And I have friends who work at Amazon and they say point blank that ‘we are told we are going to be trying to get rid of our own jobs.’ The goal is to make yourself obsolete and if you succeed then we’ll either have no use for you or maybe if you’re lucky there’ll be some other place for you the organization.’
“So we need to have an honest conversation about the impact of automation. And it would be tremendous if Jeff just came out and said, it’s not our intention, but we are 100% going to automate away many other Americans’ jobs.”
Yang said he supports the idea of preventing platform providers such as Amazon from selling their own house brands on those platforms, one component of the proposal from another Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren. However, he said he doesn’t support the idea of breaking up big tech companies or reversing their past acquisitions, calling it a “20th Century approach to 21st Century problems.”
“The dynamics of tech are such that consolidation actually, in some ways, ends up making sense,” he said. “No one wants to use the fourth-best navigation app, and there’s no public interest being served being like, oh, we need to have like you competing. It’s like, well maybe one of them just has the most data and then it ends up giving us the most accurate directions.”
Asked to comment on Yang’s remarks, Amazon pointed out that it employs more than 250,000 people in the U.S., in addition to more than 450,000 jobs indirectly created in the country by its investments in areas such as construction, logistics, and other professional services. The company says it has invested more than $200 billion in the U.S. since 2011, including infrastructure and compensation to employees.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos addressed the issue of Amazon’s third-party marketplace in his annual letter to shareholders, noting that third-party sellers’ share of physical gross merchandise sales on Amazon.com have grown from 3 percent to 58 percent from 1999 to 2018, outpacing the company’s own first-party sales.
“Third-party sellers are kicking our first party butt. Badly,” he wrote, making the implicit point that there’s not a problem to fix.
In the same letter, Bezos wrote, “Amazon today remains a small player in global retail. We represent a low single-digit percentage of the retail market, and there are much larger retailers in every country where we operate. And that’s largely because nearly 90% of retail remains offline, in brick and mortar stores.”
Yang has proposed to fund the Freedom Dividend with a Value Added Tax on big companies, calling out Amazon and Google specifically in his campaign materials. He drew a large, enthusiastic crowd to the Seattle event, and he displayed his sense of humor as he put a local twist on a call-and-response tradition at his rallies, noting that one state already offers its residents a dividend.
“And what state is that?” he asked.
“Alaska!” the crowd yelled.
“And how do they pay for it?”
“And what is the oil of the 21st century?”
“Marijuana!” Yang joked. “That’s right, Seattle. No, you are right. Technology. … It’s marijuana-related technology.”