There’s a long list of objections to permitting, let alone encouraging, a gargantuan increase in population. Yglesias ably addresses many of these, beginning with the idea, popular in the political discourse around immigration, that more workers would mean lower wages. All else being equal, this would seem to be the natural consequence of an increase in the supply of labor. But there are also reasons to think it might not be the case. More workers means more demand for consumer goods and services, for instance, which could actually lead to increased hiring and higher wages overall.
Yglesias summarizes a long-running academic controversy among labor economists over the consequences of the so-called “Mariel boatlift” on the compensation of workers in the Miami metro area. In 1980, Fidel Castro temporarily allowed free exit from Cuba, and the size of Miami’s labor force increased by about 7 percent over a six-month period—a truly massive rate of growth that provides a unique “natural experiment” in the economics of immigration.
The evidence on what happened afterward seems to indicate that the effects on incumbent workers’ wages were fairly muted, with only the relatively small population of high-school dropouts seeing clear wage decreases. Yglesias’s takeaway is that “even an enormous and almost comically poorly designed influx of migrants worked out just fine for the typical Miami native, even according to the leading immigration-skeptical researcher [economist George Borjas, a key participant in the debate].” This is not to say that the terms on which immigrants arrive are irrelevant: so-called “guest worker” programs that tie immigrant employees to a single employer and do not provide even a pathway to full political rights are favored by business interests precisely because they undermine labor standards. But research does not seem to support the contention that immigration itself always depresses wages.
Yglesias also takes seriously the worry that a larger population would be ecologically harmful. This is admittedly a fear that does not surface very often in American politics, probably because it does not fit neatly into either major party’s narratives about immigration and the environment. Yglesias acknowledges that immigration may lead to higher carbon emissions, because the United States already has comparatively high per capita emissions. Allowing people to move here from countries with low per capita emissions would therefore increase aggregate carbon output. But nations with low emissions also tend to be poor, and “keep people poor” is not an ethical strategy for climate-change mitigation. Saying that prospective immigrants from developing countries should be kept out of the United States because it would be bad if they adopted our high-carbon lifestyles is missing the point: the carbon content of all Americans’ consumption needs to be brought down, both by shifting consumption toward “cleaner” goods and services, and by coming up with new technologies that allow “dirty” goods and services to be produced more cleanly. What Yglesias says here is reminiscent of Pope Francis’s complaint in Laudato si’ that “[t]o blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.”
On the whole, Yglesias’s rebuttals to these and other doubts about the viability of tripling the population are quite convincing. Far less convincing is his insistence that “one billion Americans” should be a deliberate national goal, rather than just a benign and manageable side effect of policies that ought to be adopted for other reasons.
His discussion of how our government can work to reduce the cost of having and raising children, for example, contains a wealth of great ideas. Based in large part on the “Family Fun Pack,” a set of proposals detailed in a white paper by Matt Bruenig’s socialist think tank, People’s Policy Project, Yglesias’s desired reforms include an unconditional monthly child allowance of around $250 per kid (plus a bonus of $3,600 paid out at birth), at least three months of paid maternity and paternity leave, free childcare, free school meals, universal preschool, and more vacation time for families to enjoy together. As a concrete symbol of society’s commitment to supporting all children regardless of family background, he would also follow Finland’s lead in sending all new parents a “baby box” containing a variety of essentials for newborns.
He insists that this program does not constitute paternalistic “natalism,” but rather offers a blueprint for dismantling the economic barriers that prevent couples from having as many children as they really want. Data from studies like the General Social Survey have consistently shown that “desired fertility” exceeds “completed fertility,” and the gap today is perhaps larger than ever: in 2018 the New York Times reported that women on average would like to have 2.7 children but end up having only 1.8. The Bruenig/Yglesias platform does not so much provide incentives for childbearing as eliminate disincentives that are baked into the current system. (And although Yglesias is pro-choice, there is no reason why pro-life organizations should not be championing all these ideas as well.)
But what exactly does better family policy have to do with pursuing a goal of “one billion Americans”? Eradicating childhood poverty and alleviating financial stress on working-class parents are moral imperatives. If our economic model makes life harder for families, that is a problem that ought to be dealt with regardless of its effect on population.
A similar point could be made about Yglesias’s proposals for immigration law, which he thinks should give priority to those who are likely to add the most economic value: scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs, doctors, and the like. While he does admit that it would be “morally scandalous to not allow refugees into a country that has always defined itself as a haven for people in need,” he still thinks that “imposing quantitative limits on the number of cases we’re willing to take on is perfectly reasonable” and that we should really be “targeting individuals who are likely to be solid contributors.” But Yglesias himself believes there isn’t much economic downside to admitting even a large number of migrants with little formal education, so it’s hard to know how he thinks we should decide on a “reasonable quantitative limit” on the number of refugees, especially if we are still willing to take in more “solid contributors” who are presumably not in urgent need of safe haven. But all that’s beside the point, which is that caring for refugees and attracting innovators are both criteria based on considerations other than the size of the population per se.
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