One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger, by Matthew Yglesias (Portfolio, 288 pp., $28)
In his new book One Billion Americans, Matthew Yglesias, the Vox co-founder and gadfly progressive, goes wild. He shape-shifts from MAGA enthusiast to immigration devotee, from Swedish-style democratic socialist to Cold War nationalist to Focus on the Family stalwart. Fortunately, he manages to do this trick while advancing a coherent argument. There’s a reason that Yglesias has been affably interviewed by Glenn Beck and Tyler Cowen, Ben Shapiro and Ezra Klein. There’s something for everyone to like in this heterodox book—which means there’s also something for everyone to troll.
The serious, but perhaps not literal, title reflects the author’s view that the United States needs more people—a lot more. Indeed if it doesn’t become three times bigger than its current 330 million, he writes, the country is at risk of finding itself in the back seat of a Chinese-dominated world.
At its peak, America, “the greatest nation in human history,” had “more people, more wealth, and more industrial capacity” than any other country, but its advantage is shrinking. With a massive population and a growing economy, China influences what movies can be made, what CEOs and basketball players can say out loud, and even what subjects can be studied in universities. A billion Americans may not guarantee global hegemony (India is not about to become a superpower), but aggregates matter, especially in a globalized marketplace.
This “unhinged nationalist,” imperialist thesis has caused some progressive hair to catch fire. Yglesias appears to have expected as much. He waves away concerns that a larger population would reduce our quality of life. He observes that ailing cities like Philadelphia, Detroit, Rochester, and Dayton were all thriving when they had more people than they do now, and beyond these needy cities, America has plenty of space for more people. If the Lower 48 had 1 billion people, for example, it would still have only the density of France. Denser places have all sorts of advantages over more rural provinces. The resulting talent clusters bring business investment, specialization, higher productivity, and more innovation, not to mention more downstream services like cleaners, shops, bars, and restaurants.
To meet the inevitable rise in demand for housing, infrastructure, and transportation that would come with tripling the population, Yglesias would build more and bigger. He is a certified YIMBY; his previous book, The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, is a brief in praise of zoning reform that would allow taller and more efficient buildings, an argument he revisits in this volume. He is a fan of congestion pricing and more European-style public transportation. At the same time, he proposes increasing funds for repairing the nation’s decaying highways.
To the dismay of many of his fellow travelers, Yglesias doesn’t see global climate change as an existential threat. Yes, he worries about carbon emissions and a warming climate, but he also sees danger in a faddish eco-pessimism that shies away from technological solutions.
Yglesias has a gift for describing complex policy ideas in simple conversational language, and he is unapologetically wonkish in debates generally bogged down in ideology and partisanship. “Technocratic thinking is out of style in American politics today,” he writes. He’s right to remind us of the innumerable practical questions facing policy makers, but his forays into the details of Dutch farm policy and Singaporean traffic management will not be to every reader’s taste.
Assuming we could troubleshoot the practical problems facing a more crowded America, there’s still the question of how to get to 1 billion people. Yglesias has made some more feminist-minded progressives nervous by stressing that we “start taking family formation seriously as a priority.” He hangs much of this part of his argument on research from the demographer Lyman Stone showing that American women would like to have more children than they actually do. Money, he says, is at the root of the problem. Larger families need larger homes, more day care, universal preschool, more money for food, clothing, vacations, and summer programs. To pay for all of this, families need high-paying jobs, which require many years of expensive education. To get these things, young adults delay childbearing, which also tends to limit their family size. If we really like families as much as politicians say we do, he suggests, then we would support them with parental-leave policies, subsidized child care, baby bonuses, and a regular child allowance.
It would be foolish to deny that the “systematic cost of raising children is a huge influence on American society,” and not just for lower-income families. But here is one of several instances where Yglesias’s technocratic mindset limits his imagination. Clearly our anemic marriage and fertility rates are the result of more than just a lack of welfare-state benefits. European countries like France and Sweden, with many of the family benefits he recommends, have fertility rates as low as our own (though, as Yglesias points out, countries with less welfare support, such as Italy and Spain, are even worse). Yglesias’s personal story is a case in point. He mentions that he and his wife, who own their own home in DC and seem to be financially comfortable, find one child to be “plenty for us.” That someone with his resources and with his enthusiasm for children still prefers a minimalist family suggests that there is more to this story than is dreamt of in his philosophy.
The other way to get to a billion is to open our borders to far larger numbers of immigrants. Yglesias views mass immigration as part of “a strategy for national growth and greatness,” rather than a humanitarian policy on behalf of people in war-torn and poverty-ridden countries. While he is open to a points system that would prioritize newcomers with more education and English-language skills and proposes more student visas from Anglophone countries and NATO allies, he views low-skilled immigrants as essential to his nation-building project.
For one thing, low-skilled immigrants could help repopulate dying Rust Belt cities. To nudge newcomers away from the crowded coasts, he supports the “Heartland Visas” proposed by economist Adam Ozimek. Such a program would tie new immigrants to a specific city or town in a depopulating region for a set number of years. Decentralizing the federal government is another approach to the Rust Belt problem. Why not move the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to, say, Youngstown, Ohio? It’s not a bad idea.
But Yglesias makes a number of such optimistic assumptions in his discussion of immigration. In the first sentence of the book, he laments America’s “absence of a shared sense of purpose.” He’s right about that, but at no point does he consider whether mass immigration would shred whatever fragments of shared purpose we have left. Instead, he takes the easy route, calling out the “paranoid rhetoric” of “demagogues” and outright racists in the immigration debate.
It’s hardly unreasonable to wonder whether, as we get bigger and more diverse, it will be that much harder to define common goals. This would seem especially obvious at a time when some of the country’s founding principles are being questioned or even explicitly rejected. Sociologist Eric Kaufmann recently polled a group of liberal-leaning Americans about how best to solve racial and gender inequality in the United States. The results were not encouraging for someone with hopes for American hegemony as a unifying national purpose. About 80 percent said that they would approve of writing a new American constitution “that better reflects our diversity as a people.” A similar number said that they were in favor a new national anthem and flag.
A little national and technocratic optimism can be a good thing, but tripling the size of our polarized, irritable, and generally ill-educated population could be the wrong answer at the wrong time.
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