Keeping Up With China

‘One Billion Americans’
Immigrants repeat the Pledge Of Allegiance during a Fourth of July naturalization ceremony in Seattle. (Chuck Pefley / Alamy Stock Photo)

When the results of the 2020 census are finally tabulated, they will likely show that the U.S. population has grown to around 330 million, an increase of more than 20 million since the last decennial count in 2010. A big number, right? It depends who you ask. In his latest book, Vox’s Matthew Yglesias argues that America not only could but in fact should dramatically increase its population even further, both by admitting more immigrants and by offering incentives for people to have more children. Hence the book’s attention-grabbing title: One Billion Americans.

In the aftermath of the American Civil War, the Radical Republicans promised freed slaves “forty acres and a mule”; British reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries called for a somewhat more modest “three acres and a cow.” The land area of the United States is only about two billion acres, so Yglesias cannot quite offer even the latter (and he doesn’t mention farm animals).

This sort of exercise in simple division gives the illusion that America could accommodate a population of one billion only at the cost of intense overcrowding and the loss of tranquil open spaces. In reality, many of the additional people would live in cities or towns, where they would occupy far less than two acres each. Yglesias clearly exaggerates when he says that “America is empty,” but our nation is actually much less densely populated than you might think:

Right now the United States has about 93 people per square mile. If the aggregate population tripled, then density would too. Many, many countries are far denser than this, [and] not just city-states like Singapore (more than 20,000 per square mile)....  Successful developed countries that include a healthy mix of cities, suburbs, and countryside manage to far exceed tripling America’s population density. South Korea has 1,337 people per square mile and Belgium has 976.... [T]he population of the Lower 48 even when tripled would leave the main part of America about as dense as France and less than half as dense as Germany.

Cities that have declined in population since the mid-twentieth century, such as Philadelphia, Detroit, and St. Louis, could potentially accommodate many more people. To make room for the rest, Yglesias thinks we should allow greater density in residential construction by reforming local zoning laws. As a self-described YIMBY (“Yes In My Backyard”), he is perhaps somewhat too sanguine about the power of a deregulated market to guarantee an adequate supply of affordable housing, especially when he is rightly skeptical of magical thinking about laissez faire in other domains. But there is no denying that zoning laws have historically been wielded in exclusionary ways, and that they need to be carefully reexamined.

 

There’s a long list of objections to permitting, let alone encouraging, a gargantuan increase in population.

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.

 

So what is Yglesias’s actual rationale for the “one billion Americans” agenda? It essentially boils down to the tautology that “we have to stay on top.”

So what is Yglesias’s actual rationale for the “one billion Americans” agenda? It essentially boils down to the tautology that “we have to stay on top”:

The United States has been the number one power in the world throughout my entire lifetime.... The notion that this state of affairs is desirable and ought to persist is one of the least controversial things you could say in American politics today.... But while some left-wing intellectuals might suggest that the end of American hegemony would be desirable, I’ve never heard an elected official from either party articulate that view.

Needless to say, “because both major parties think so” is not an argument anyone should find compelling. (If pointing that out makes me a “left-wing intellectual,” I guess I’ll take that as a compliment.) In any case, what exactly Yglesias means by “number one power in the world” is fuzzy. Military preeminence is certainly part of it, though he is thankfully no fan of CIA-backed coups or violent regime change. He is more interested in ensuring that the United States stands ready to reprise its World War II role as the “arsenal of democracy.” “America alone had enough economic mass to take down its rivals” during that conflict, he explains, primarily because of its comparatively large population.

“Economic mass” seems to be central to his understanding of American hegemony. There are different ways to measure that concept, but Yglesias is singularly focused on the size of our gross domestic product as the one true metric of success. And he is just as fixated on making sure that our GDP is bigger than that of one other nation in particular: “the People’s Republic of China, a country that’s aggressively using its commercial clout to try to silence critics abroad, conducting egregious human rights abuses against its Uighur minority, and cracking down on freedoms in Hong Kong.”

These are all serious concerns, but how tripling our population is supposed to address them is not clear. One might assume this is part of an argument about ensuring that America retains its influence over international institutions like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, so as to prevent the Chinese Communist Party from extending the reach of its authoritarian system or exporting it abroad. Yglesias does gesture in this direction when he says that “a strong, powerful, and confident United States is much more likely to lead the world to the kind of global cooperation that is needed [on issues such as climate change] than is a suspicious, inward-looking, declining America locked in to peer competition with the rising powers of Asia.”

For the most part, however, “suspicious and inward-looking peer competition” looks to be exactly what he is calling for. All that matters is the size of the GDP, which Yglesias takes to be even more important than GDP per capita, a common proxy for living standards. His observation that “China doesn’t need to catch the United States in per person terms to beat us in the aggregates” is puzzling. Then again, the consequences of being beaten by China may not be all that dire after all: “It’s not exactly clear what would happen if the United States did allow itself to slip to the world’s number two economic power.... [I]t’s not as if we’d have Chinese tanks rolling down the streets of Washington.”

It’s good to hear that Yglesias is uninterested in recklessly heightening military tensions with China, but this only makes his rhetoric all the more confusing. Why should we care if our economy is bigger than theirs? The international community can bring pressure to bear on China over human-rights concerns even if the United States doesn’t have the largest GDP on Earth. It’s not as if global concern about the plight of the Uighurs or pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong would evaporate if we slipped into second place.

It is truly perplexing that “beating China” in one narrowly defined way is not only central to Yglesias’s case for one billion Americans, but indeed is his whole case. And not just perplexing but also potentially harmful: at a time when both Republican and Democratic leaders have sought to scapegoat the Chinese for our own failures to respond effectively to the coronavirus pandemic, and hate crimes against Asian Americans have risen, even seemingly innocuous talk of China’s “threat to America” could be dangerous in its validation of Sinophobic beliefs.

One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger is a very aptly titled but not-so-aptly subtitled book. I learned quite a bit from it about what America would look like if there were one billion Americans; I did not learn as much about why it matters whether there are a billion Americans or not. In any event, Yglesias’s creative wonkery does point the way toward a more equal and just America. And that’s what ultimately does matter: that we work to build a better society, regardless of how many people live in it.

One Billion Americans
The Case for Thinking Bigger

Matthew Yglesias
Portfolio
$28 | 288 pp.

Published in the November 2020 issue: 

Matt Mazewski is a PhD student in economics at Columbia University and rapporteur of the University Seminar on Catholicism, Culture, and Modernity. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattmazewski.

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