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One Billion Americans—A Review

A review of One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger by Matthew Yglesias, Portfolio, 288 pages (September 2020)

Matthew Yglesias began his career as an online wonk, advocating a muscular American foreign policy that amounted to social work in the Middle East. While still an undergraduate at Harvard, he blogged up a storm, hoping to kickstart a democratic revolution in a region whose regimes he regarded as sufficiently evil and dangerous to warrant American intervention. Two decades later, the author of One Billion Americans wants to bring the revolution home.

Yglesias proposes that the United States ensure its position as global hegemon by tripling its population over the course of this century. To achieve this grand demographic enterprise, he suggests a buffet of old and new public policies. His preferred admixture combines the pro-natalism of the French Third Republic with the planned economy of Olof Palme’s Sweden—a publicly subsidized boom in home construction that would make even the likes of William Levitt blush. He also recommends a massive expansion of legal immigration into the United States with the expectation that most of the newcomers will be or become tech-savvy and cosmopolitan urbanites. Sprinkle in the child-rearing sensibilities of Plato’s Republic and you get a rough idea of how Yglesias seeks to shepherd a country he regards as largely empty into a bursting-at-the-seams 21st century economic colossus. Beyond the abstraction of “national greatness” and access to new technologies, the benefits of this aspiration to America’s existing population of 330 million are never adequately explained.

Today, Yglesias is a pundit and podcaster best known for co-founding the Vox media empire, and this new book adds another catalogue of ideas to the long-tenured and bipartisan “restoring American greatness” section of your local bookstore. Titles in this section include David Brooks’s The Second Mountain, Paul Krugman’s Arguing with Zombies, and pretty much everything by Thomas Friedman. In these invariably well-written and often insightful works, self-help masquerades as sociology and the TED Talk set learn how to remake our world as we remake ourselves through some eccentric civic aspiration. One Billion Americans is a solid contribution to the genre. Yglesias is a thoughtful analyst, a provocative writer, and, often, a counterintuitive thinker. He captures the après moi, le déluge ethos of the genre as well as anyone. And he writes clearly and concisely. At times, he has a Gladwellian touch as a storyteller, using banal examples to express complex ideas. Nevertheless, One Billion Americans also bears many of the less flattering hallmarks of its genre. Like many books in the “restoring American greatness” section, its greatest flaws are the policy ideas it puts forward, which have either failed before or belong in the realm of Sid Meier’s Civilization rather than on a serious political platform.

Like much of the American intelligentsia, Yglesias sees the nation as unprecedentedly divided and lacking in purpose. This, he says, is a surefire recipe for China and India to overtake the United States as the world’s leading economic power. His overarching policy prescription—the rapid expansion of America’s population in the 21st century—is, he says, a return to the sense of purpose he regards as galvanizing the nation’s grandest achievements—taming the West, defeating the Nazis, and winning the Cold War. Considering his domestic turn in recent years, it is instructive that Yglesias still views America’s greatest hits as rooted in foreign policy and expansionism. No public intellectual sits more comfortably at the junction of progressivism and neoconservatism than Yglesias.

Yglesias favors national policies over local control at every turn. For example, he’d like to entice hundreds of millions of new Americans to settle in the high vacancy rust belt cities of the urban north. He proposes the use of location-specific visas as well as a panoply of public subsidies to convince immigrants to settle in places like Flint or Rochester rather than the already densely populated cities where most immigrants are choosing to move such as Los Angeles and New York. He seems to be completely unconcerned with what the residents of these “empty” cities want for their communities. Yglesias sees the rust belt as a potential warehouse for new Americans rather than a diverse set of political communities with a shared set of economic problems arising from a combination of automation and the offshoring of American manufacturing. The author’s vision for the deindustrialized cities of the urban north would undermine the political, economic, and cultural control that the majority poor and majority African American residents of many such cities have asserted within their communities in recent decades.

America’s path to one billion citizens doesn’t only rely on immigration. According to Yglesias, America’s declining birthrate is making the nation less economically competitive by shrinking its workforce, skilled and unskilled. This has become the common sense view among progressives and serves as the practical end of their argument for open borders. Citing a range of recent surveys, Yglesias also argues that America’s declining birthrate is making the nation a less satisfying place to live. Many middle class American families want more children than they choose to have and feel like their lives are the poorer for it. This statement is no surprise to cultural traditionalists but will certainly ruffle the feathers of many of his regular readers, so he emphasizes his support for reproductive freedom to keep progressives from giving up on the book’s premise.

Despite his conservative instincts on the issue of family, Yglesias’s solution to the problem is not a cultural but an economic one. He says that the primary reasons Americans aren’t having as many children as they used to are the costs of childcare and education. Rather than reinvesting domestic life with meaning by limiting state intrusions into “the haven in a heartless world,” or discouraging contempt for stay-at-home mothers, or encouraging people to forgo career and treasure for family, Yglesias calls for the further displacement of the family in the rearing of children by government functionaries.

He advocates taxpayer-financed dawn-to-dusk daycare from the cradle through college as well as a number of other smaller programs aimed at subsidizing or subcontracting the tasks of child rearing. It ought to be obvious that the hyper-management of raising children does not encourage families to have more kids. There is no indication that the much broader array of childcare options available to families in 2020 than a generation ago have encouraged an uptick in the birthrate. Yglesias also wants college to be universal, STEM-centric, and wholly subsidized by taxpayers, regardless of a student’s aptitude for book learning or their inclination to pursue higher education. In essence, his educational model streamlines the creation of the largest state-subsidized technocracy in human history.

Wittingly or not, the social consensus Yglesias seeks to build through his policy prescriptions seem destined to sap the variety and complexity out of the American experience. While he clearly wants to make the United States, already the most diverse society in human history, even more racially and ethnically diverse, the platform he puts forth in One Billion Americans would foster a stifling uniformity of lifestyle across the country. If implemented, the policies Yglesias recommends would make America a much larger and more culturally homogenous place.

In many instances, Ygelsias shows off the refreshing gadfly streak he demonstrated in his writings for the American Prospect and Slate. His willingness to annoy both urban planners and suburban developers is admirable. I’ve never before seen a policy analyst who advocates both sprawl and density. Yglesias says explicitly that he wants the United States to be roughly as densely populated as France, a country which has three times as many people per square mile as the US and has not been known in the past couple of centuries for its harmonious social relations. Similarly, it would be interesting to see how his contempt for urban zoning laws would play out if instituted in already densely packed American cities like New York and Boston. And while he favors investment in clean energy technologies, he seems similarly willing to draw the ire of environmentalists. The entire premise of adding 700 million Americans over the course of the next 80 years runs completely counter to the tenets of sustainability. Yglesias seems to think that cities are self-evidently magical spaces of innovation but he comes out strongly in support of investing in rural infrastructure, including broadband Internet service, demonstrating that his sense of largesse in not just directed towards urban areas.

In the end, Yglesias’s path to preventing America’s decline is to make it more like India and China, the two countries he fears will supersede the United States in the 21st century. The nation he envisions in One Billion Americans will be much like the one that his airport newsstand shelf-mate Thomas Freidman fears—hot, flat, and crowded.

 

Clayton Trutor holds a PhD in US History from Boston College and teaches at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont. His reviews have been featured in the New Criterion, Publisher’s Weekly, and Reason.  You can follow him on Twitter @ClaytonTrutor.

Photo by Victor Rodriguez on Unsplash

Comments

  1. A couple of quotes come to mind. Lincolns: “The best way to defeat my enemy is to make him my friend.”

    And one from a good golfer referring to a better and more consistent golfer (I can’t remember or locate the actual quote): “I go out and try to beat my opponents, he just goes out there to play good golf.”

    To defeat China and India the US needs to stick to the economic and political principles and systems that have made it a great nation (assuming people put their money where their mouths are and are correct in believing capitalism and democracy are the best systems around), If the Chinese and Indians want to be as great they’ll have to come over to adopting the same systems and principles.

  2. American hegemony relies on one, maintaining a faster pace of scientific innovation than China, and two, an entrepreneurial market environment. The planted axiom is false that size of population is consequential. In the past it was so, in terms of the numbers fielded in battle. This is now obsolete.

    Productivity per capita is consequential, and it is important to compensate everyone who contributes in that regard. It is not necessary to naturalize them.

  3. He seems to be completely unconcerned with what the residents of these “empty” cities want for their communities.

    Does he have any idea what the newcomers are going to do when they get there? Looking at a place like West Baltimore, which has been emptying out for fifty years now, the thought that springs to mind isn’t “boy, if we could just get a quarter million Bolivians in here, this place could really be something!”

    Edit: by the way, this is not meant as any knock on Bolivians, it’s just that Baltimore was once a manufacturing and industrial hub city, but now it isn’t. There’s a reason it’s been emptying out: local demand for labor, skilled and otherwise, has been falling for a long time. Just transplanting large numbers of immigrants there won’t be likely to change that unless the immigrants are extreeeemely entrepreneurial.

  4. Hard to believe that anyone still believes in infinite growth.

  5. One Billion Americans? During a time of rising sea levels and hotter deserts? In an economy of emerging robots and self driving trucks and drone delivery? Even our fighter planes are becoming autonomous. America needs fewer people, not more.

    Thumbs down.

  6. “His preferred admixture combines the pro-natalism of the French Third Republic with the planned economy of Olof Palme’s Sweden—a publicly subsidized boom in home construction that would make even the likes of William Levitt blush”

    Mr. Yglesias, I realize you don’t understand this, but the U.S. was founded on the idea of individual freedom. It is the basis for what has made this country great. I realize that people like yourself believe that you are smarter than people like me and only if the citizenry adopts your programs we will all join hands in kumbaya. I, to the contrary, believe that through the combination of freedom and free markets we will excel. If we adapt big government programs we will fail as we always have or, perhaps your suggestions will succeed just like socialism will be a success someday. Big and intrusive government is a terrible waster of resources.

    There is a reason the Constitution was written. I suggest you read it and if you don’t like it, then change it legally. In the meantime respect individual freedom.

  7. Real growth and real excellence develops organically from within the people. It is not imposed through government planning and centralization. Although I’m a well-educated academic, unlike the intelligentsia that Ygelsias plainly considers himself a part of, I’ve never imagined that I know better what my neighbors need than they do. A policy that encourages freedom and independent innovation, in other words a set of policies that encourages local growth and development by the people that live there, a policy of taxation and regulation that rewards small business, family enterprises including family farms, that encourages the distribution of wealth (not the redistribution) and wealth generation broadly through the society is the pathway to creating great places to live. We ought to be more concerned with encouraging individual greatness, local community greatness rather than creating a great (read powerful) America. When America’s people are great and America is humble (not humbled, there is a difference) then American influence will be great. America probably had more influence in the world when we were truly a city on hill that attracted people to it, that caused people to want to emulate our ways of life, than we have had through imperialistic or Wilsonian or Neo-Conservative nation-building efforts. Being a city on a hill, casting our imperfect but bright light from within worked far better than sending our young men and women down into the dark valleys, kicking in doors and illuminating with search lights and flashlights.

    The neo-con, progressive, muscular approach means more government, more regulation, more taxation and less freedom for ourselves and the world. We ought to be focusing on America first, on Americans first, on American communities first. Get government out of the way and let people and local communities decide our own fates rather then listening to the old tired mantra of the intelligentsia and the technocrats. Thanks for your thoughts Mr. Yglesias, now go back to your coffee shop and let us blue-collar and redneck folks do what we do best, become great people in great communities, building a great life for our kids in the ways we know best.

  8. @quillette: Yglesias is a pundit (…) and this new book adds another catalogue of ideas to the long-tenured and bipartisan “restoring American greatness” section of your local bookstore.

    Unfortunately, in the “restoring American greatness” section of a bookstore the book is completely misplaced. It obviously belongs in the section “Dystopias”, right next to the Communist Manifesto and all the Zombie Apocalypses.

  9. The writer betrays an astounding cosmopolitan ignorance of cultural ingroup and the psychology that is bred in by nurture to the bottom 50%. It is precisely the mass movement of peoples which has brought an end to the cosmopolitan liberal centre, throughout Europe and has caused populism to emerge throughout the West and even in Eastern Europe.

    The only country has largely escaped this fate is Australia with its market dominant policy, which largely reduces the tensions and resentments caused by the tendency of poorer migrant to self-segregate upon arrival. This is accomplished by the fact that highly skilled or highly successful migrant population have a far greater proclivity to disperse and integrate, making themselves feel welcomed in the process. It also has the benefit of protecting the bottom 40% of the host population from the forces of Social Darwinism that socially corrosive competition in the lower skilled part of the market guarantees.

    Any other approach leads to friction, as historian Niall Ferguson has observed through the study of history. Three times in the past, the US population reached around 14% foreign-born citizens. Although an economic downturn was also a factor, each time populism emerged as a political force. Every time until now, the response by conventional politicians was to close the doors to migration, until the existing population had the chance for civic integration, and cultural integration to the extent that that they spoke the common language and adopted local customs.

    The West is unique in that it is the only cultural form which has evolved to the point that race can largely be ignored, provided their is a common culture which can unite people into a larger circle of common humanity. But that larger circle isn’t necessarily as strong or as inclusive, when it comes to culture. A prime example of this dates back to the Great Migration. Before this time, there is ample evidence to suggest that African Americans in the North were largely integrated into the social fabric, sharing schools in many cases with white classmates. But the Great Migration brought a new and unique culture, washing away all that hard won progress.

    Cosmopolitans don’t understand in-group, or the fact that it is a human universal everywhere except within the upper third of people in countries which are Western Educated Industrialised Rich and Democratic. The love new experiences and new cultures and imagine that everybody else in the world feels like them. When they are off travelling the world they never stop to wonder what the almost exclusively culturally conservative people they meet think of them. To be sure, they find them odd and amusing, but were they ever to rest their feet and settle, or try to compete in the local economy in any numbers, they would soon find they had outstayed their welcome…

  10. Neither of which will happen. China is graying out and its economy is very likely a house of cards. And why pursue a diverse and open economy if China is the modern model? It is neither.

  11. “[Yglesias] proposes the use of location-specific visas…”

    Maybe I am focusing too much on one quote, but this is the kind of elitist thinking that gets people like Trump elected.

    As the husband of a legal immigrant I despair at how people like my wife are treated compared to illegals. Illegals are allowed to do as they wish–and live where they wish–so why should legal immigrants respect the wishes of elites like Yglesias? To demand the legal immigrants jump through a bunch of hoops only to see politicians, journalists (Seriously, when was the last time you saw an article focusing on the needs and concerns of legals?), and others focus all their attention on illegals is not the way to build an inclusive, happy society. And making an already fraying society less cohesive with fewer shared experiences is a recipe for potential disaster.

  12. That bit especially seems like exactly the way that China would do it. That doesn’t mean America should imitate it.

  13. Didn’t the old Soviet Union use something along those lines (internal passports)?

  14. Yes, they did, and China did too. And both China and the USSR did massive relocations of large populations – Stalin building new cities in Siberia. Even before the Cutlural Revolution, China in the 50’s and 60’s picked whole institutions (like say, a whole university, or a large factory and all its employees) out of the the big eastern cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, and moved them to provincial cities. Of course they’ve also long been relocating Han Chinese to Tibet and Xinjiang to pacify the local ethnics Han do not willingly choose to move to Xinjiang, but if you get the job offer to go there, it’s probably an offer you can’t refuse.

  15. Anyone who has traveled knows that we are in a time of population apocalypse. We have too many people. This is true in the USA, in India, in Syria, in China, in France, in Mexico, in Central America.

    In India, they have populated themselves into a situation in which they have run out of fresh water. In many cities, cisterns are dry. Water tables have gone from 25’ below to 150’ below. And many places that depend on glacier supply are completely out of water.

    If you go to ANY attraction, imagine 3x more people in that. 3x more in Disneyland. 3x more in line for a restaurant. 3x more waiting for plane tickets. Yes, capacity will expand, but right now, we are seeing COVID-collapse, which will not recover for 10 years.

    It is true that there are places in the USA with low population. I live in SD, a large state with 850,000 persons. There are vast spaces which are spaces for a reason - low or no water.

    Where is the water for 1,000,000,000 USA citizens?

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