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Matthew Yglesias Thinks There Should Be ‘One Billion Americans’

ONE BILLION AMERICANS
The Case for Thinking Bigger
By Matthew Yglesias

There will never be one billion Americans.

Matthew Yglesias, the author of “One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger,” thinks it would be great if America were that populous. He also admits that there’s no real political constituency for such a policy. Conservatives think the country is already full, he notes, while liberals tend to think the same thing about their own towns and cities.

The question is moot, anyway. Even if everybody wanted America to grow to one billion people, it would never happen. Yglesias himself concedes that the concept is “impossible and absurd.” The arithmetic is pretty simple: There are about 330 million Americans right now, which means that getting to one billion would mean adding 670 million net new humans. For comparison, the aggregate population of Mexico, Canada, Guatemala, Honduras and the rest of Central America is not much more than 205 million.

To put it another way: China did manage to grow from 330 million people to more than one billion people, but it did so against a backdrop of 180 years of global population growth. With the world’s population expected to start shrinking in about 45 years, there’s no way that the United States is going to repeat that feat.

Why, then, write a book about an impossible policy goal that few people want? The answer, in this case, seems to be that the “one billion Americans” conceit is a kind of holdall into which Yglesias, a co-founder of Vox and longtime economics journalist, can throw an otherwise random assortment of his favorite center-left policy prescriptions.

The tell is simple enough: At no point does Yglesias try to quantify the effect of any of his preferred policies on the size of the U.S. population, nor does he look at the effect such policies have had in countries where they have been implemented. He devotes a whole chapter to “the dismal economics of child rearing,” for instance, wherein he proposes policies that are common in Western Europe, such as greater subsidies for child care and tertiary education. Those might well be noble policies to adopt, but a glance at the European fertility rate, which is, on average, significantly lower than the rate in this country, should call into question the idea that such moves would spur another baby boom.

Much the same can be said for Yglesias’ other ideas, from introducing congestion pricing and “S trains,” which traverse cities efficiently, to promoting the immigration of skilled workers. They’ve generally been tried elsewhere, often with positive social results, but almost nowhere have they been associated with significant overall population growth. It’s impossible to imagine that such policies could move the population needle in a country as huge as this one.

This book, then, often feels as though it’s making the weakest possible argument for otherwise good ideas. However desirable they are, none of the prescribed policies are good because they will cause population growth — and most of them wouldn’t even do that.

Particularly odd, given the impossibility of his goal, are the lengths to which Yglesias goes to be “pragmatic” about achieving it. On immigration, for instance, he’s happy to assuage xenophobes by being open to fairly unrestricted immigration from “Canada, Australia, the Anglophone Caribbean, America’s NATO allies or some other subset of countries that seems popular.” Would it be unfair for these immigrants to pay taxes without being able to vote? Not to Yglesias, who’s willing to propose that they be forced to pay higher payroll taxes than citizens do.

Setting himself an impossible task also does weird things to Yglesias’ sense of perspective. “Our rate of population growth is pretty easy to alter,” he writes, adding that attracting skilled immigrants to places like Toledo is “not hard” and that the problem of population loss in Rust Belt cities “can be easily fixed.” There’s also, he insists, “nothing particularly difficult” about providing financial support for Americans with children. Similarly, revamping commuter rail lines so that they don’t terminate in city centers “isn’t hard at all.”

Indeed, when measured against the impossible goal of one billion Americans, even climate change seems like a relatively tractable problem. The strongest case against massive population growth is that 670 million new Americans, each emitting 16 tons of carbon per year, would together emit some 10 billion tons of carbon annually. That’s more than China, which is currently the largest emitter in the world. But Yglesias blithely asserts that “if people were able to magically relocate themselves, climate change wouldn’t be nearly as big a problem” — and declares that climate change is a technological problem, with technological solutions. One billion Americans, he suggests, would more rapidly discover technologies to “make prosperous lifestyles sustainable,” which in turn would render “irrelevant” the sheer number of prosperous Americans. Needless to say, he cites no climate experts in support of this thesis.

Many economics books devote themselves to cataloging the world’s ills, and then end with a curiously short “solutions” chapter that doesn’t really solve most of the problems in the book. “One Billion Americans” is a novel twist on this model. It starts with one curiously short and unconvincing chapter on the problem of having less than one billion Americans, and then dives into a long catalog of solutions. Most of them are very good ideas. But none of them solve the problem.

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