ONE BILLION AMERICANS: THE CASE FOR THINKING BIGGER
(New York, NY: Portfolio/Penguin, 2020, 288 pages, hardcover, $24)
Reviewed by Jason Morgan
Canadian journalist Doug Saunders’ 2017 book Maximum Canada: Why 35 Million Canadians Are Not Enough is about growing Canada’s population in order to amplify the nation’s presence on the world stage. At the end of One Billion Americans (on the very last page, buried in the Acknowledgements), Vox co-founder and Beltway pundit Matthew Yglesias writes that his book “owes a vast inspirational debt” to Saunders and Maximum Canada. “In tweet form,” Yglesias says, “this whole book [i.e., One Billion Americans] is simply ‘Maximum Canada, but for America’” (p. 267).
What precedes this curtain-call hat tip is a somewhat haphazard menu of policy items that Yglesias would like to see implemented in and by the United States. Yglesias wrote his “maximum America” prescriptions during the Covid pandemic, at a time when few in the U.S. or around the world thought that the American government was getting a lot right at any level. Yglesias, however, is undaunted. America may be going through a rough patch, he acknowledges, but he is optimistic that Americans can overcome the hard times and make their country—or the federal government, at least—great again.
Despite this book’s grandiose title, its contents are mostly less than fanciful. As an establishment liberal living in the Washington, D.C., area, Yglesias is given to proposing many of the ideas one is likely to encounter on Vox or one of the other left-of-center publications run by the garden-variety wonks and anti-Trumpers who throng our nation’s capital. Yglesias wants to rebuild failing cities and string them with efficient light-rail networks and stud them with high-efficiency buildings. He wants to bring in more immigrants. (A lot more.) He wants to repair infrastructure, especially roads. He wants research parks, universities, punitive congestion fees, and better health care. If this sounds familiar, it should. Many of the policy vignettes Yglesias advances in One Billion Americans come from Vox, or from the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other reliably left-leaning journals of influence.
This is not to dismiss One Billion Americans outright. Far from it. Many of the ideas in this volume are not bad. Nor is Yglesias irresponsible in much of what he proposes. Yglesias does not just throw out a list of wants, he plots a course (mostly) to achieve what he proposes.
For example, Yglesias suggests that the U.S. issue “National Renewal Visas,” a variation on the “Heartland Visas” that other thinkers have proposed (pp. 175-176). Under this program, immigrants would be welcomed not to the United States as a whole, but to a particular location in need of more people, such as Detroit or Philadelphia or, as Yglesias suggests, Toledo (p. 176). Yglesias also gets into compelling specifics about zoning laws, showing how many of the problems facing urban areas—such as traffic jams, shoddy housing, and lackluster tax revenues—can be traced back to poor municipal planning and local political logjams. (Yglesias’ 2012 book, The Rent Is Too Damn High, was a foray into many of the problems and solutions that he considers in One Billion Americans.) Yglesias may perhaps be accused of indulging in a bit of reverie in proposing that the population of the United States be tripled (the same formula that Doug Saunders prescribed for Canada). But many of his ideas are not necessarily tied to his big-ticket population scheme, and even when they are, they are mostly worth considering in their own right.
There are some big hitches to One Billion Americans, though. For one thing, Yglesias does not seem to have much of a feel for culture. In a key section in the middle of the book on the Mariel boatlift, for example, Yglesias wades into the academic debate between University of California, Berkeley professor David Card and Kennedy School of Government professor George Borjas over the repercussions of the massive influx of refugees from Cuba in 1980. To sum it up for the home audience, Card states that wages remained basically unchanged even though “the size of the labor force in the Miami metropolitan area increased by 7 or 8 percent within six months” (p. 114). Borjas, to put it even more succinctly, disagrees (pp. 115-118).
This debate has big ramifications for Yglesias’ argument, because he needs to convince skeptics that bringing in a lot of foreigners won’t drive down take-home pay for people already in the labor market in the U.S. (He makes the same case using the Bracero program, which brought in farm workers from Mexico to help with seasonal labor [pp. 119-121].) Yglesias is arguing here (as he must if he wants his billion-Americans program to succeed) that immigration is a net positive, and that those who adopt anti-immigration stances have little or nothing to fear, and plenty to gain, from rapid population increases.
Perhaps. But while I was reading these and many similar passages in One Billion Americans, I was thinking of places like Minneapolis and Los Angeles, where multiculturalism has tended to produce not a melting pot but a pressure cooker of ethnic tensions and ill will, enclaves of immigrants and their progeny who may branch out and join the big American pageant, but who often remain inside their respective compasses. In Miami, Yglesias admits, the Mariel boatlift drove up the murder rate and precipitated a “three-day riot in some of Miami’s Black neighborhoods partially inspired by perceived labor market competition with the newcomers that left thirteen people dead” (p. 114). To put it mildly, this greatly complicates the rosy picture on immigration that Yglesias is trying to paint.
Maybe such problems really do work themselves out over time. But then again, maybe you have Watts.
Yglesias downplays tensions caused by suddenly transplanting people from one culture to another—in Yglesias’ case, many millions—perhaps hundreds of millions—of people. But in reality, tripling America’s population by relying on foreign influx is bound to come with the hidden cost of importing many of the tensions riling various places around the world today. Anti-Asian hate, anti-Jewish attacks, anti-Black rallies, anti-white marches—these are all painful to see, but in their own way they attest to the fact that groups are often not so culturally malleable as governments would like to believe. Harmony takes time—hundreds of years in America’s case, and we’re still working at it. Yglesias wants a billion Americans, but he seems to have entirely too much faith in the predominant culture, or entirely too little appreciation of cultural differences in general. Humans are much, much more complex than he appears to allow.
In this mention of the predominant culture we glimpse an even bigger problem with Yglesias’ book. The problem, in fact. It is not just that Yglesias places too little value on culture. He also does not place enough value on human beings. In a conventional, but for that very reason unmistakable, way, Yglesias repeats the mantras of the culture of death, the predominant culture that values power, things, and the planet over human persons. This is the great irony of his scheme, and the reason why I am skeptical about the kinds of proposals Yglesias details here.
Take the planet, for instance. Yglesias is no environmental ideologue, to be sure, which is a refreshing change from much of his colleagues’ rhetoric these past ten years or more. He spends much time considering climate change, but in the end decides that more people will not necessarily be a bad thing despite his concerns about global warming. “One billion Americans” is an optimistic goal, and I certainly welcome anyone’s bucking the current anti-natalist trend that sees would-be, or even current, parents lamenting additional births because of the strains that extra people will place on our allegedly distressed atmosphere. If anything, I think Yglesias disposes of the planetary considerations far too breezily given the opposition he is likely to face to his population-increase plans from his climate-justice peers. I am much more of a skeptic about global warming than Yglesias is, but even I came away much less than convinced that he really has it all figured out when it comes to squaring the corners between more people and reduced emissions of greenhouse gases.
But this example demonstrates the weakness of Yglesias’ approach to his thesis. The argument, even when it works out in a seemingly pro-population growth direction, is framed in a distinctly anti-human way. If we want more people, then we shouldn’t have to justify their existence using greenhouse gas actuarial tables. One Billion Americans takes just this kind of quantifiable view of humans, even when discounting what the tables might seem to say. For Yglesias, people appear to be subordinate to policy goals. A person takes up space, produces carbon dioxide, consumes resources, innovates, invents, pays taxes, and so forth. Even in the aggregate, however, these do not make up the miracle of a human life. Not by a billion light years. In the end, Yglesias does not want a sprawling fecundity in America. He still desires control over reproduction and population, the same control that Washington liberals have been preaching for decades. He just swerves this control in a surprising direction to argue for increasing the American population rather than decreasing it.
Therefore, and as should be expected, Yglesias carves out big caveats for the usual orthodoxies on birth control and abortion (p. 52). The meaning of people circles back to affordability, not in terms of carbon but in terms of dollars—which is a distinction without much of a difference. Yglesias explains that the reason people stopped having children is that it costs too much to raise a child (p. 53). By the same token, he advances the argument that couples had many children in the past because infant mortality was higher and parents wanted to “ensure that a few would survive into adulthood” (p. 52). Yglesias assumes that economics is a given and that it explains fertility, but this is arguably something only a late-American Beltway liberal could so glibly avow. “People should be equipped with the tools they need to avoid pregnancy and childbirth,” Yglesias writes, “but also with the kinds of social supports that are needed to have and raise children. And that means recognizing that the natural evolution of the market economy really is making this approach harder and harder” (p. 57). So “one billion Americans” is a way to use people to control the vicissitudes of capitalism. What Yglesias wants, ultimately, is not life, but bodies. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Yglesias, following Saunders, has come up with a kind of Cloward and Piven strategy in reverse—instead of using “the weight of the poor” to collapse the federal government, Yglesias wants to use the heft of the childrearing middle class to empower the federal government to extend its rule more efficiently over the North American continent and beyond. (With a bit of a backhand compliment to a mere one hundred million Canadians, perhaps.)
In the background of this Washington chauvinism is not Ottawa, though, but the People’s Republic of China. Yglesias knows that China is big and undemocratic, and he wants the United States to outstrip the Chinese behemoth by matching population density to policy savvy. But here, too, Yglesias’ anthropology is pretty thin gruel. His vision of America boils down to a numbers competition with China, and his idea of American history, by extension, is predicated on having had “enough economic mass to take down [America’s] rivals,” such as the Axis Powers during World War II (p. 4). In the new standoff with the People’s Republic of China, Yglesias thinks that we need to beef up census figures in order to throw more geopolitical weight around and once again take out some illiberal empires shouldering in on America’s righteous supremacy. People make the government strong, in the end. This is a kind of natalist nationalism that was common in Japan and Germany during the war eighty years ago, but which I suspect grates American ears outside of the I-95 corridor in a very weird way. Does Yglesias want more people because he is pro-people, or because he is pro-policy and ultimately pro-political? I wish I could say it was the former, but I think, unfortunately, that it is probably the latter.
While there are many intriguing policy ideas in One Billion Americans, and while I applaud Yglesias for thinking beyond the knee-jerk anti-human stance of so many of his peers on the left, in the final analysis it seems that Yglesias is aiming for one billion citizens, and not one billion human beings. There is a big difference, and Yglesias may very well understand it, but there is little in his book to suggest that he takes the difference seriously.
—Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.