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Andrew Yang is ready to talk robots on the Democratic debate stage

"The Takeout" - Andrew Yang

Andrew Yang's reason for running for president isn't quite like any of his fellow Democrats in the crowded field. Ask why he's campaigning and he won't point to climate change, Wall Street, inadequate health care, or President Trump. In fact, he would like to talk a lot less about the current occupant of the Oval Office. 

He'll say the greatest threat to America — and the reason he's running for the highest office in the land — is how unprepared the country is for the automation of the American workforce. No other candidate is stressing that point. And now, after reaching the Democratic National Committee's threshold of 65,000 unique donors, he qualifies to take his case to the Democratic primary debate stage. 

"I'm running to win," Yang told CBS News in a recent interview. "But I'm also on the record as saying that if the winning candidate ends up adopting my policies and ideas then I would be thrilled with that. That I'm not someone who is lying awake in bed plotting my path to the White House, and that my goal is to try and help society manage the greatest economic and technological transformation in our history."

Automation, Yang says and argues in his 2018 book "The War on Normal People," may be revolutionizing our economy, but it's also eliminating jobs. The consulting firm McKinsey and Company estimated in a 2017 report that half of all work activities will be automated by 2055 or sooner. Last week, the Government Accountability Office released a report outlining how federal agencies are doing little to prepare for the looming automation of the trucking industry. Driving a truck was the most common job in 29 states in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

The U.S., Yang said, is in the middle of a transition that will increasingly displace millions of retail workers, call center workers, fast food employees and truck drivers. But working class jobs aren't the only ones automation will eliminate, Yang argues. He believes even high-skill professions like doctors and accountants will be replaced by increasingly smart robots.

Mr. Trump's 2016 winning campaign message of protecting the men and women who lost jobs in shuttered coal mines and factories was a "red flag" for Yang that automation was already undermining the American way of life. 

"When Donald Trump won in 2016, it really was to me a giant red flag, where to me the reason why he won was that we'd automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa, most of which I had spent years working in at that point," Yang said.

Unlike the president, Yang doesn't tell voters that most of those jobs are coming back. When Yang first came to Washington to find out what the federal government's plan for tackling the challenge was, he "came up empty." So in 2017, he left his position as CEO of Venture for America, the nonprofit he founded, and officially filed his candidacy with the Federal Election Commission on Nov. 6, 2017.

"It was not like, 'Oh I'm thinking about running for president'…it was more like, 'Oh my gosh, this country is reaching crisis-level problems.' And for whatever reason our political establishment seems out to lunch on the nature of the problems and meaningful solutions," Yang said. 

Since then, the 44-year-old Yang says has campaigned in Iowa, New Hampshire, California, Washington, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, the District of Columbia, Florida, Louisiana and Texas. 

A centerpiece of Yang's proposed solutions is universal basic income – in the ballpark of $1,000 per adult per month. That money would largely come from new value-added taxes (VAT) -- a tax placed on a product at every point of sale -- levied on technology companies driving automation advances. Yang claims a VAT tax at half the level of Europe will cover the $12,000 annual payment for adults.  

That universal basic income is intended to help supplement income that will be lost to automation while the U.S. braces for the impact and prepares for the future, Yang says. While many conservatives frown upon the idea, that hasn't always been the case. Yang points to Milton Friedman, the Nobel-winning economist who had a major influence on Republican policy making during the Reagan years, as a supporter of universal basic income. 

"If you look at the history of this, Thomas Paine was for it at the founding of the country," Yang said. "Martin Luther King was born in the 60s and then Milton Friedman and a thousand economists including many conservatives were for it in the 70s," Yang said. In energy-rich Alaska, Yang notes, a similar proposal was implemented by "a Republican governor and is a deeply conservative state."

Yang doesn't think his ideas are too liberal for conservatives. Some Trump supporters, he claims, have said they'd vote for him.

"There've been dozens, maybe hundreds, of Trump voters who have come up to me and said they voted for Donald Trump and they're gonna vote for me because I'm an outsider and a business guy. And I'm talking about solving the same problems that he was talking about."

Yang believes the Democratic Party can win back Middle America, but to do so they're going to have to start listening to voices in the working class hardest hit by automation. 

"l think the Democratic Party has lost sight of the solutions," Yang said. "And when I was with a trucker in Iowa a couple weeks ago he said that he did not feel like the Democratic Party cared about someone like him. And I thought that was a disaster because he's a working class American. Being a trucker is the most common job in 29 states, and the Democratic Party used to stand for the working class." 

"So why the heck does this trucker think the Democratic Party doesn't care about him? And that's what I think Democrats need to address if we're truly going to solve the problem that got Donald Trump elected."