The case for a billion Americans

Swear them in by the carload.
Swear them in by the carload.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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Americans can’t agree on anything—but can they agree on more of themselves?

Matt Yglesias, a policy journalist and co-founder of Vox, argues that they can in a new book, One Billion Americans: The case for Thinking Bigger. His big idea is to grow the US population to that eye-popping number, a 200% increase, by encouraging massive new waves of immigration and child-bearing.

Can this be done? Yglesias argues that the US has plenty of room for new people to live without compromising living standards or threatening wild spaces: even a billion-person population will leave the lower 48 states less densely populated than Germany, Italy, or the UK are today. The US has the resources, physical and financial, to accomplish this transformation.

Should it be done? That rests on two arguments: The first is that America’s global preeminence is due to its economic power, a result of being bigger than richer countries and richer than bigger countries throughout the 20th century.

Now, growth in emerging markets is driven by huge populations adopting modern technologies and business models. Yglesias argues that American policymakers who expect to vie with China and India for global leadership must understand that future economic power will come from integrating new people into an already-leading economy.

But the bigger driver of this agenda is to package disparate policy solutions to a bunch of basic American problems in a veneer of national greatness. A population growth agenda is one of cheaper housing, more children, and more immigrants. And what bedevils Americans right now? High housing costs limit the prosperity-producing power of metropolitan areas, often due to arbitrary restrictions on building. American families complain that they can’t afford to have as many children as they want, particularly with both parents working and the US well behind other wealthy countries in supporting families.

Those problems are often seen as particular to urban professionals, but Yglesias emphasizes that they hurt the entire country, including more conservative rural areas. The large size of the American market is what allows for trade agreements that prioritize US agricultural exports, beyond providing a domestic market for the same. The closing of rural hospitals is a healthcare policy failure, but it’s ultimately rooted in the vicious cycle of depopulation in smaller cities and rural towns that shrink as young people seeking economic opportunity leave. It’s one that population growth could reverse.

“Getting Americans to see ourselves as a single national community rather than warring tribes divided by the critical issue of who drives a Prius and who drives an F-150 can feel impossible at times,” Yglesias writes. “But the fact is our fates are distinctly linked, both on the level of international competition and economic growth.”

What makes the billion person agenda appealing, Yglesias notes, is that on one level it’s all very easy. It’s not hard to let immigrants come to the US—indeed, it’s much harder to keep them out. Lifting the often arbitrary rules that prevent people from building environmentally-friendly housing isn’t technically difficult. It would be comparatively simple to harvest the low-hanging fruit from global transit best practices to make more efficient and affordable metro areas.

Critics cite climate change as the undoing of this plan, but fears of a billion high-emitting Americans are misplaced. Many needed adaptions for climate change are part of this agenda—more efficient homes and transportation among them. Welcoming climate refugees can reduce the human toll of global warming. Ultimately, the US will more likely contribute solutions to global problems like climate change if it is not a declining power convinced geopolitics is a zero-sum game.

Indeed, the challenge is not so much the “one billion” as it is the “Americans.” Progressives may be willing to welcome new immigrants as compatriots, but conservatives in the White House are intent on a white nationalist rump state. Liberal pro-family policy may start with benefits for working parents, but conservatives remain skeptical about supporting anything that’s not a traditional family.

A telling example from the book is the discussion of “universal” aid programs, which like Social Security provide guaranteed benefits to everyone. Yglesias argues that designing programs in this fashion ensures that middle and upper class recipients provide political protection to initiatives that disproportionately benefit the poor. He sees universality as key to his pro-family agenda.

But this method is out of vogue: Republicans like to exclude anyone underserving by dint of national origin or lack of employment from social services, and leading Democrats seek to exclude higher earners from benefits, using “means-testing” as a way to limit the up-front cost of services. Both betray an impoverished view of American interest.

Yet the wide range of contributors of Yglesias’s plans—market economists, social democrats, socialists, even communitarian conservatives—suggest that there may be a wider audience for these ideas than at first appears. Maybe pandemic nihilism and the crumbling of American institutions have gotten to me, but this little book is at once hopeful and utterly depressing: A reminder that if there was consensus that the US possessed a common wealth, it could be grown beyond measure.