Taking One Billion Americans Seriously

Taking One Billion Americans Seriously

Matthew Yglesias has written an important new book to remind us of the timeless truth that Having More People Is Good. But perhaps the most interesting thing about this synthesis of immigration, pro-natalism, and urbanism, is the national greatness mantle that it’s wrapped in. One Billion Americans is in many ways an optimistic, liberal response to Ross Douthat’s book The Decadent Society, which was released earlier this year. To push against the tides of economic stagnation and cultural repetition America needs to grow in a very literal sense.

The bulk of the book covers various policy levers for facilitating this goal of higher US population growth, with increasing rates of immigration, a more generous welfare system for parents, and a better built urban environment taking the majority of the book. Readers familiar with Yglesias’s work will find some of these to be well-trodden reviews of the literature, but with some new, compelling ways to frame the issues.

For example, in the chapter on the dismal economics of child-rearing, he points out that Baumol’s cost disease means that in real terms, the cost of raising a child is higher than in the past because the parent’s opportunity cost of time and labor is now greater. This helps explains why having a child *feels* more expensive now than it perhaps did in the nostalgia-tinged ’60s. Parents actually have to give up more now!

One Billion Americans also confronts us with the geographic reality that America is thinly populated, especially compared to Europe. If our population-density tripled, we would be about as dense as France, and still only half-as-dense as Germany. Neither of these countries are urban hellscapes and both feature plenty of farmland and nature preserves that casual readers might fear losing when first hearing the idea. This relative emptiness also shows up in the zero-sum political fights over whether we should prioritize the vibrancy of our rural communities or coastal cities. A growing America means everyone can benefit.

Can we reach one billion?

It’s notable, however, that Yglesias never breaks down a specific path to reaching the titular one billion target. Making it easier for parents to have the number of kids they want makes sense, but it’s also unclear exactly what magnitude of change pro-natalist policies might induce in the behavior of parents. The Scandinavian countries have a suite of generous welfare programs that end up being the basis of many US designs, including some of Yglesias’s, and yet the evidence for their effectiveness in terms of actually boosting birthrates is quite modest.

As Lyman Stone, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, summarizes the evidence in this area:

“There’s one thing we do know: government policy tools, Nordic-style or otherwise, appear to have very limited impacts on long-term fertility. They may be good for other reasons, of course (I for one think more family leave for parents would be a great thing!), but their impact on women’s ability to achieve their desires is ambiguous at best.”

Again, we should pursue some combination of pro-natalist policies simply because they will make the lives of parents easier, and because the large positive externalities of even a small boost to U.S. birth rates likely justify the price tag for many of these programs. It’s “investing in our future” in a very tangible sense. But we should count ourselves lucky if the bucket of pro-natalist policies (including child cash benefits, paid family leave, better school and daycare options, etc.) gets the US birthrate simply back to replacement levels of 2.1 births per woman, up from its current 1.77.

To actually gain ground — and eventually make it to a billion people — would certainly require a very large, sustained increase in the rate of immigration. I’m for more immigration of all types, and the skills-based, placed-based immigration system that Yglesias outlines would probably be the most politically tenable way to increase legal immigration. Over a long-enough time horizon (which again, Yglesias doesn’t really specify) we could perhaps reach one billion people. But there is a tension between the lofty goals of the slogan and the political realism he consistently encourages in the book. In practice, the US is not going to set an arbitrary population target and flood the country with immigrants, come what may. But this platform would be a recipe for achieving moderate population growth, and that’s a great win.

Can we govern one billion?

In a book that spends a lot of time talking about the importance of getting our physical infrastructure right in preparation for such a project, there is surprisingly little said about our governance infrastructure. How to make sure that a country of one billion Americans can be run competently enough is a hugely important question, and a surprising omission from the man who claims traditional American governance structures are doomed. Many of the pressure points Yglesias quite presciently identifies in that earlier piece could be made even more brittle with a larger, more diverse America.

When pressed on this in a recent interview with Tyler Cowen, Yglesias demurs a bit and suggests the right answer probably has something to do with federalism. A whole chapter sketching out what that might look like and what particular areas would make sense to decentralize in an America 3x the size would have been helpful. Both because it is an urgent and important policy hurdle to realizing this vision, but also because the American left has traditionally given less lip-service to federalism and hearing it from the in-group might have been useful.

Likewise, some readers may be frustrated by the lack of discussion around the practical hurdles of integrating this new large flow of immigrants to the US. But there’s fairly good research around the type of policies that can help accelerate or slow immigrant integration, and much of it already aligns neatly with the One Billion Americans agenda. For example, the heartland visa system that Yglesias cites would be a fruitful avenue for distributing incoming immigrants around the country in a manner that offsets regional enclaves which can slow integration. And boosting the rate of native-born births means that the children of immigrants are growing up with more native peers, which increases the already impressive speed of second-generation immigration integration, making pro-natalism and pro-immigration two great tastes that taste even better together.

Is a larger America good?

In a policy environment racked by anti-China fever, Yglesias perhaps wisely finds the emotional grounding for his agenda. It is (mostly) taken for granted by American politicians and voters in both parties that it would be good for the US to remain the top dog internationally. But taking that seriously implies a reckoning with the numbers of population growth that doesn’t get much play on the national stage, Yglesias maintains:

“What the various diplomats and admirals and trade negotiators and Asia hands who think about the China question don’t want to admit is that all the diplomacy and aircraft carriers and shrewd trade tactics in the world aren’t going to make a whit of difference if China is just a much bigger and more important country than we are. The original Thirteen Colonies, by the same token, could have made for a nice, quiet, prosperous agricultural nation—like a giant New Zealand. But no number of smart generals could have helped a country like that intervene decisively in World War II.”

This is correct in broad strokes, although it perhaps oversimplifies the relationship between population heft and strict military power in the year 2020. Military strength today is determined more by the number of rocket scientists and the quality of missile guidance systems they create than by sheer population size. India, after all, is no military hegemon. But more generally, it is certainly true that having a bigger country with a bigger population and a bigger economy means you simply get to exert more influence around the globe (and should also get you more rocket scientists).

Indeed, for some critics further to the left, this is precisely the issue with the One Billion Americans goal.

Yglesias sort of addresses this line of criticism in the book with a nod to the failed idea of an EU megastate that in an alternative world might have been a democratic counterweight to US hegemony. However, the world we find ourselves in today sees an increasingly-totalitarian China as the most likely beneficiary from a weaker US. So Yglesias is correct to see continued US leadership around the world as a goal worth pursuing.

Yglesias further argues that an America of one billion would have less to fear from a rising China and India and this could make issues of global governance less zero-sum. There is a perverse incentive for national security hawks worried about the effects of a rising China to promulgate policies deliberately or implicitly designed to impoverish the people of China. But this would be a moral disaster! The decline of extreme poverty around the world (especially large in China) has been the greatest humanitarian victory of the past 50 years. An America of one billion could be confident enough in its staying power that China doubling its GDP per capita would pose no real threat to the global balance of power.

There are a few other ways in which Yglesias’s agenda would end up exacerbating trends that American progressives worry about today. Narrow measures of income and wealth inequality within the US would certainly go up as the average immigrant tends to be less well-off than the average native-born citizen, and centralized American governance could very well get more sclerotic in a more diverse nation. And yet, the agenda is still worth pursuing for all the reasons Yglesias outlines and many others. With some self-reflection, this should perhaps lead to a re-prioritization of issues for some American progressives.

A cure for decadence

Of more value than his analysis on a particular policy lever (although those are valuable in their own right) is the realization that so many of these larger issues the US struggles with fit within this larger conceptual framework, which Yglesias lays out very straightforwardly. The US is not large enough or dynamic enough to be the global leader it imagines itself to be. Our country could be more prosperous, more culturally dynamic, and more family-friendly if we took the message seriously.

In this light, the book is best read as a companion and a progressive answer to Ross Douthat’s “The Decadent Society” that came out earlier this year. Douthat identifies many of the American neuroses and complacencies that have led to American decline, and Yglesias lays out an intellectual project that could help reverse it.

Both One Billion Americans and The Decadent Society put a heavy focus on declining American birthrates and the dual role it plays as a symptom and cause of economic stagnation. An America with fewer kids becomes an older, risk-averse population that starts fewer companies, produces less innovation, and finds itself play-acting the same political and cultural fights that dominated when its population was younger. Additionally, both books highlight our inability to change our urban environments for the challenges of the 21st century. A broad cultural NIMBYism and a promiscuous distribution of veto points stops everything from high-density housing to efficient public transportation. Douthat’s book is particularly good at tracing the cultural complacency that undergirds this, and Yglesias takes the next step of identifying the policy levers for making tangible progress.  

More broadly, the Yglesian America would be one that has conclusively escaped decadence as Douthat describes it. While less comfortable in some ways, America would be a live player, with forward momentum and the ability to shape itself and the world.

One Billion Americans is not a complete accounting of this counter-decadence project, and I may quibble with a few of the details, but it is concise, well-written, identifies many of the right policy levers, and includes a very catchy slogan. That’s more than enough reason to buy the book.