Andrew Yang on The Problem With the U.S. Economy

The problem with the U.S. economy, Andrew Yang writes in his book Smart People Should Build Things, is that too many of the United States’ best students choose to attend law school, enter the medical field, or go to work in finance. To help address the problem, Yang founded the nonprofit Venture for America (VFA). What follows below are bolded prompts I wrote to outline some of the content of the book. The bulleted quotations come directly from the pages of Smart People Should Build Things.

What percentage of students are choosing finance, consulting, medical school, or law?

  • In 2011, 29 percent of employed Harvard graduates went into finance or consulting, while 19 percent of the class applied to law school and 18 percent applied to medical school. That’s a majority of the class.

Why are so many students, who seem like they could succeed in any career, choosing such a small variety of professions?

  • Ambitious college students have no real idea what to do upon graduation, but they’re trained to seek the ‘next level.’ Many apply to law school, grad school, or even medical school because of a vague notion of status and progress rather than a genuine desire or natural fit. Those who try to do something independently often find themselves frustrated by their lack of rapid advancement, and so default to a more structured path of law school, business school, or graduate school. The concentration in professional services leads our national university graduates to congregate in a handful of metropolitan areas—primarily New York City, Silicon Valley, Boston, and Washington, DC.
  • If we want today’s graduates to take risks and build new businesses, we can’t have them systemically graduating with tens of thousands in debt that will take years to pay off in the best of circumstances.

Yang, himself, went to law school. What’s wrong with that?

  • Bloomberg Businessweek has projected a surplus of 176,000 unemployed or underemployed law graduates by 2020.
  • If year after year we send our top people to financial services, management consulting, and law schools, we’ll wind up with the pattern we’re already seeing: layers of highly paid professionals working astride faltering companies and industries. But if we send them to startups, we’ll get something else. Early-stage companies in energy, retail, biotech, consumer products, health care, transportation, software, media, education, and other industries would have a better chance of innovating and creating value.

What can possibly be the problem with a lot of talented students entering medical school?

  • From a value creation standpoint, it’s not ideal for a massive level of talent to be going to existing enterprises that have captured large economic rents or where people are fighting for a set of finite slots. The rents and slots will stay essentially constant. Contrast this with new business formation.

Yang uses that word value a lot. What does he mean?

  • The economy needs more companies to start, grow, and thrive in order for the service organizations themselves to prosper. For example, if Mark Zuckerberg had become an investment banker or gone to work in a bank’s information technology department, then the bankers wouldn’t have had Facebook to take public. It’s actually far better for the investment banks (and everyone else) that instead of heading in their direction, he started his own company.
  • People and companies around the country are solving real problems right now. For example, in New Orleans, Venture for America works with a company called Kickboard that provides a software application to help teachers track student performance. Kickboard was founded by Jen Medbery, who studied computer science at Columbia University and taught middle-schoolers through Teach for America. Jen created the product that she wished she’d had as a teacher. Now she’s building a company; Kickboard has dozens of school districts as clients and has grown to more than twelve employees.

What are some of the other problems caused by so many talented students going into these professions?

  • The concentration in professional services leads our national university graduates to congregate in a handful of metropolitan areas—primarily New York City, Silicon Valley, Boston, and Washington, DC. Those who become bankers or consultants are highly paid and heavily socialized, yet many become disaffected due to a lack of purpose or unsustainable lifestyle, and some simply discover they don’t enjoy their roles.
  • Our identification and distribution of talent in the United States has gone from being a historic strength to a critical weakness. We’ve let the market dictate what our smart kids do, and they’re being systematically funneled into obvious, structured paths that don’t serve them or the economy terribly well.

If we want to change the system that causes so many people to choose so few career paths that don’t create value, what are we up against?

  • A friend who works in financial services recruiting estimated that her firm spends $50,000 per recruit. If you project the analogous expenditures from every major bank and consulting firm to develop talent pipelines, you have tens if not hundreds of millions being spent each year at major campuses across the country. One hedge fund spends so much on recruitment that it offered to pay Dartmouth students a hundred dollars each to tell the company why they chose not to participate in its recruitment process.
  • The financial services industry has mushroomed in size, with Wall Street firms employing 191,800 at their peak in 2008, up from only 65,300 in 1975.4 The growth in professional services has given rise to an accompanying set of recruitment pipelines only in the past several decades.

So what’s the solution? Yang founded the nonprofit Venture for America (VFA) with plans to accomplish the following:

  • Our immediate goal would be to help create 100, 000 new US jobs by 2025. To do that, we would provide to startups and growth companies around the country the talent they needed to expand and hire; and we would train a critical mass of our best and brightest to become business builders and entrepreneurs.

Check out some of the possibilities if college graduates begin to choose a more diverse set of fields:

  • What if the same level of talent that is currently heading to finance or law school or management consulting instead went to starting or developing growth companies? … What if 25 percent of our top graduates went to startups around the country each year instead of to Wall Street? How long would that take to generate thousands of new jobs, companies, opportunities, and even industries?
Andrew Yang Smart People Should Build Things #YangGang

Andrew Yang founded Venture For America to        Create Jobs in the United States

How does Venture for America work?

  • The first ever five-week Venture for America training camp started at Brown University in June 2012. The VFA team and I moved into apartments and dorm rooms in Providence to prepare.
  • The best way to become an entrepreneur is to learn from a more experienced leader as he or she builds a company. We provide that operating experience, as well as training, networks, and support for enterprising college graduates who are accepted into our two-year program. We also offer seed funding to some of the Venture Fellows who perform well and want to start their own businesses. Our goal is to make it as straightforward to become a startup manager or entrepreneur in Detroit or New Orleans as it currently is to be a professional in New York
  • If the US economy had generated as many startups each year for 2009–12 as it had in 2007, the country would have produced almost 2.5 million new jobs by 2013.5 If we’re interested in spurring long-term job growth, we want as much talent as possible heading to new firms so that more of them can succeed, expand, and hire more people.

Has Venture For America Been Successful? This answer comes from the VFA website.

  • VFA fellows have contributed to the growth of over 450 startups. There have been 365 jobs created by 129 fellow funded companies, and VFA has provided 50 million dollars in seed funding. VFA has received over 10,000 applications from people interested in becoming fellows.

Thank you for taking the time to read about Andrew Yang’s Book Smart People Should Build Things. If you found this post informative, please share it by using one of the social media buttons on this page or by copying and pasting the link. If you have thoughts in response to this post, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section. If you have requests for future posts or story ideas, pass them along.

Coming soon: The War on Normal People. 









Appalachian State University Beat Reporter Ethan Joyce

Ethan Joyce is the Appalachian State University beat reporter for the Winston Salem Journal. Ethan is my guest for this week’s Torg Stories podcast Monday, September 2 Labor Day edition.

An Appalachian State graduate, Ethan continued his education and earned a master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University in New York. Some of my favorite writing by Ethan was a three part series he did on the fate of assistant football coaches when the head coach gets a new job. I started my conversation with Ethan by asking him about a typical work week during football season.

To hear my conversation with Ethan, click the media player under the picture below or check out “Torg Stories” on iTunes via the podcast app on your iPhone or by clicking here .

Ethan Joyce and Bill Torgerson. Appalachian State University. Winston Salem Journal. football

Ethan and I on the campus of App State University in Boone, North Carolina


Hope you enjoy this week’s Torg Stories Podcast!



#My Yang Story: On Coming to the Candidacy of Andrew Yang

It wasn’t until the first democratic debate that I realized Andrew Yang was a candidate. For the first time in my life, I sat down with my wife and daughters ages 11 and 13 to watch the presidential debates. I don’t know if I’ve ever tuned in so early during a presidential race, and it was certainly the first time we’d watched a debate as a family. I was surprised and excited to see how interested my kids were in what was being said. 

Yang spoke the least of all the candidates at 2 mins and 50 seconds, but it seemed like no matter what he was asked, he quickly pivoted back to an idea about giving every person in the United States $1,000. Somewhere–maybe I heard it on television or read it on Twitter–Yang was described as the candidate who was trying to buy every Americans’ vote. It took me until almost the second debate to realize that it wasn’t just that $1,000 was going to go to every working age American if Yang got elected. The promise was to give every working age American one thousand dollars a month. What?!!! 

Andrew Yang #YangGang

Andrew Yang photo by Andrew Frawley

When it came time for the second debate, my kids and I were ready for more Andrew Yang. They knew him as the guy who didn’t wear a tie and the candidate who’d said ass when talking about the Russians “laughing their asses off” when it came to their interference in the U.S. presidential election. I have to say that I was close to laughing at Yang for the way I thought he would just keep hammering the audience with his $1,000 a person gimmick. I was, at least, really getting a kick out of his candidacy. 

In the second debate, Yang got a lot more air time, a whopping 8 mins and 53 seconds that still put him last for total talk time among the field. I stopped getting a kick out of him and started taking him seriously upon the delivery of his opening statement. Here’s a bit of what he had to say during the second debate: 

  • As someone who has run a business, our current healthcare system makes it harder to hire; it makes it harder to make them full time employees; it makes it harder to switch jobs, and it’s certainly a lot harder to start a business. If we can get healthcare off the backs of businesses and families, watch American entrepreneurship recover and bloom. 
  • If you go to a factory here in Michigan, you will not find wall to wall immigrants. You will find wall-to-wall robots and machines. Immigrants are being scapegoated for issues they have nothing to do with in our economy.
  • We should go back to the writings of Martin Luther King who in his 1967 book Chaos or Community? said we need a guaranteed minimum income in the United States of America. 
  • There is record high GDP and stock market prices. You know what else is at record highs? Suicides, drug overdoses, depression, and anxiety.
  • I’d like to talk about my wife who is at home with our two boys right now, one of whom is autistic. What does her work count at in today’s economy? Zero, and we know that is the opposite of the truth. We know her work is among the most challenging and vital.
  • We’re up here with makeup on our faces and our rehearsed attack lines playing roles in this reality TV show. It’s one reason we elected a reality TV star as our president.
Andrew Yang 2020 Math Hat

Yang says the opposite of Trump is an Asian Man Who Likes Math

Following the end of that second debate, I purchased Yang’s book, Smart People Should Build Things: How to Restore Our Culture of Achievement, Build a Path for Entrepreneurs, and Create New Jobs in America. In reading that book, I recognize in my own students what Yang describes as the limited choices students recognize upon their college graduation. Many of the students I work with are talented, hardworking, and ambitious, but they just don’t see many opportunities outside of work in finance, law, or healthcare. I’m impressed by Yang’s ideas for the economy, and I look forward to sharing some of what stands out to me in future posts. 

Thanks so much for taking the time to read my thoughts here. I look forward to joining you in conversation about the upcoming 2020 election.

Podcast: Appalachian State University Women’s Basketball Coach Angel Elderkin

App State University Women’s Basketball Coach Angel Elderkin on the Torg Stories Podcast.

Angel Elderkin Appalachian State University Women's Basketball Coach

Appalachian State University Women’s Basketball Coach Angel Elderkin


Click the audio player below to listen to the podcast or download it via the podcast app on your iPhone.


Coach Elderkin’s Appalachian State women’s team is coming off a 22 win season during which they won the the WBI post season tournament. My conversation with Angel was in part guided by a project I do with my students in the writing across the curriculum courses I teach at App State. The students study discourse communities of their choice, and I ask them to interview prominent members of the discourse community. In this case, the discourse community is that of basketball coaches. One of the features of a discourse community is that there is a set of common goals. I started off by asking Angel about the short and long term goals of the women’s basketball program.

Angel Elderkin and Bill Torgerson Appalachian State University

Coach Angel and I standing proud in front of the big “A” at the Holmes Center

The Evil Reading Check Quiz

Through the experience of some of the education courses I took in graduate school and then during my time teaching at St. John’s University, I accepted the idea that giving a reading quiz was the wrong pedagogical move. For the first time in thirteen years of teaching composition, I have a textbook for the course. I face a question a lot of we teachers face: How will I entice the students to read?
One way I try and get students to read is that I read out loud a part of the text that will be assigned for the next class with hopes this will spark some interest. If I can find the writer online saying something interesting, I show a bit of that to the class. One of the concepts in our textbook is that “texts are people talking.” In prep for reading Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts,” we watched her TED Talk. I also offer some focusing questions to give the students an idea about why I have assigned the reading. For example, we read Richard Straub’s piece about working in peer groups, and I pointed out Straub asks nine questions related to responding to others’ writing. I ask the students to try and remember two of those questions and apply what he says to what they might do when in a peer review group. Those focusing questions become the material for the reading quiz.
The quizzes are two or three questions. I am not trying to trick anyone with the questions. I have pretty much given the questions before the quiz. I hope the students will try and wrestle with the ideas in the piece. Because I believe writing is thinking and to be more literate is to be more powerful in the world, I don’t think I am wasting the students’ time with the assignments.
In grading the reading quizzes, I see some students still aren’t reading. Sometimes they apologize on the quiz for not reading, and I try to write something positive back to them. I wonder if those students not reading will start. I also learn that many of my students are reading and trying to apply the ideas in the text to their thoughts on writing.
There has been a really fun surprise in my giving of these quizzes. Because my questions require a couple sentences worth of a response, I am starting to feel like I am passing notes with my students about the subject of writing. What I’m doing reminds me a little of high school life in the 80s when classmates used to pass notes. When I respond to the students’ answers and write notes back to them, I see I am in about 90 different mini conversations with writing as the main topic. I thought responding to the quizzes was going to be something boring I did for the purpose of trying to get the students to read so that our time together in class was more interesting. It’s been a nice surprise that the pieces of paper the students and I are passing back and forth are feeling more like conversations about writing.