Dean’s Distinguished Speaker Series Hosts Andrew Yang ’99

The surprise star of the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries tells Columbia Law students to hold on to their humanity and “figure out what you can get done in the world we live in.”

Andrew Yang ’99, whose supporters in his run for the Democratic presidential nomination became known as the “Yang Gang,” returned to Columbia Law School for a virtual visit, telling students that their “giant badge” as Columbia Law alumni will give them the power to make change, if they choose to use it. 

“What you do is hugely important,” he said. “Take yourself seriously.” 

Yang’s talk on October 27, part of the Dean’s Distinguished Speaker Series, attracted more than 300 online participants. Introduced by Gillian Lester, Dean and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, he spoke in conversation with Jedediah S. Purdy, William S. Beinecke Professor of Law. The two met in high school, where they were physics lab partners. Back then, Yang joked, he was far from being viewed as presidential material. Even in a race for student body president, “I would have gotten approximately zero votes.” 

Purdy remembered his classmate this way: “You were not self-serious, and you were not super cautious. And you said what came into your mind. . . . You were funny and loose and absurd.” Those qualities, Purdy added, were all reflected in Yang’s presidential campaign. “It was a very authentic persona. One of the things I enjoyed about watching you run is that it was so clearly you at every point.”

As a candidate without any previous electoral experience, “I couldn’t out-politician the politicians,” Yang said. “And so, if I was looking for a way to compete, it turned out that when I acted more like myself, we ended up faring better.” 

Yang was also conscious of breaking ground as the first Asian American male Democratic candidate to run for president. “I thought . . . having an Asian American face on the debate stage would be very, very positive for kids who grew up the same way I did, where I was first generation in this country,” he said—something he believes simply because “seeing someone like me on TV would have made me very happy when I was a kid growing up or even a bit older. . . . At any point.” 

Yang entered the 2020 race as a long-shot candidate, sporting a “MATH” (Make America Think Harder) lapel pin and focusing on the need to plan for working class jobs in an increasingly automated economy. By the time he ended his campaign in February, he had raised $38 million, earned a base of 400,000 supporters, and appeared in seven primary debates. Since then, Yang has campaigned and raised money for other Democratic candidates. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need for a universal basic income, his signature policy proposal, Yang said, adding that the fear of spreading infection is only accelerating the automation of tasks to eliminate workers.

It is “deeply wrong” that there has not been further federal stimulus legislation, he said. “We can all look around and see what’s happening—see that airline attendants and rental car clerks and security guards and gym employees and yoga instructors have all lost their jobs through no fault of their own. And so how do you keep them afloat? How do you keep our economy afloat? . . . Everything just comes back to, well, we should probably send money to folks.” 

“I couldn’t out-politician the politicians,” Yang said. “And so, if I was looking for a way to compete, it turned out that when I acted more like myself, we ended up faring better.” 

Raised in suburbs of New York City and educated at Brown University before coming to Columbia Law, Yang worked briefly at Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, a health care startup, and a test prep company. He then founded Venture for America, an organization that matches college graduates with startups. Now, Yang’s group Humanity Forward is advancing the proposals from his campaign: Yang advocates for ranked-choice voting; Congressional term limits; and reforming, rather than eliminating, the Electoral College. A constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College would never be ratified by rural states, he said, and he favors “trying to figure out what you can get done in the world we live in. And I get frustrated with the folks who, frankly, gin us up on things that have no chance of happening in reality.” 

He supports ending life tenure on the Supreme Court. “I remember being in law school and studying these Supreme Court rulings and worshiping them as wisdom from on high,” he said. That aura has been dimmed by the highly partisan confirmation battles for Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, he said. “The institutional decline is deep, and it pains me because part of the virtue of law school is that you believe these institutions should be functioning.” 

Yang would expand the court, and justices would serve 18-year terms, staggered to allow each administration to appoint two justices. “Modernization is well overdue.” 

He also favors greater regulation of tech “behemoths” like Amazon and Facebook. “The government had a much, much more significant role in a lot of the early broadcast mediums,” he said. “[With] the internet—the government's been absent. Government just has been sort of twiddling its thumbs saying, ‘Well, the innovators will handle this.’ And that hasn’t gone that great.”

Law graduates face the dilemma of choosing between a lucrative private sector job and going into public service work where it can be difficult to make a significant impact, Yang said. 

“My grand project is trying to make it so that if people do positive things—that, let’s say, counteract some of the corruption of the tech companies—they’ll have as good and as well- rewarded monetarily a life as the folks who’ve been in the bowels of those companies for years. And that’s a very tall order. But that’s my mission.” 

At the end of the conversation, Dean Lester asked Yang how law students could hold onto their compassion, despite the “deep polarization and anger” of the current times. 

“Interact deeply with folks that are not like you, because now you are part of a very rarefied tribe. And if you manage to interact with folks that are not like you—in a way that actually touches you—then that will help you preserve your humanity,” he said. “Find something that you believe in and stand for, that the market detests. . . . The market hates preserving our environment. The market hates mental health. The market hates caring for kids. The market hates single mothers. Just find one thing that you believe in, that the market does not like, and it will help you preserve your humanity.”

Watch the full discussion.