Book Review: One Billion Americans – The Case for Thinking Bigger by Matthew Yglesias

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Certain issues with obvious premises are sometimes crucial to lay out in the mainstream simply because of wildly neglected and consequential nature. The connection between America’s population and its relative economic might vis-a-vis China is certainly one. America falling behind in GDP means less global influence, and a relatively stronger China means greater global pressure for illiberal values. One Billion Americans attempts to break the relative silence on this topic and layout paths to reach the title’s ambitious target. 

A few basic factors seem to be fundamental to the continued strength of global superpowers: a strong military; a network of reliable allies; a functioning government; economic prowess; a resilient culture. Yet perhaps the most obvious factor is a population sufficient to produce enough excess wealth to dedicate towards the end of global influence. No matter how innovative the culture and economies of Singapore, Sweden, and New Zealand might be, their smaller populations place firm limits on their global clout. In the 21st Century, they will never hold the global influence that the US and China do.

For many patriotic Americans, the benefit of having America play a leading role in the world is a no-brainer. To them, acknowledging our international mistakes doesn’t refute our greatness by any means. Yet understandingly, many others resist the notion that America need play a leading role at all. For them, wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are echoed as examples suggesting that the right amount of international involvement is little to none at all.

Yet, as so often occurs in such discussions, there is an absence of counterfactual reasoning. America does not act in a vacuum, and if you consider what other actors will do in America’s absence, the conversation becomes muddied and the cry for America to back off rings hollow. Here, a common Churchill quote is effectively employed, albeit in modified form. As “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”, perhaps America has been the worst global superpower, except for all the others. Assuming the EU is unable to foster cooperation of the sort that will provide credible protection to South Korea while promoting its liberal influence across the world, the only other realistic world leader in the next 50-100 years is China. For those with a liberal and democratic mindset, this should be a terrifying future.

America has been the worst global superpower, except for all the others

Yglesias notes that the way we have been able to lead up to now isn’t by dominating the population metrics. We can’t rely on, and shouldn’t hope that less wealthy countries stay poor. He hammers down on this point repeatedly. Despite the threats associated with climate change, stalling poorer countries’ growth is profoundly immoral, even if it would reduce emissions. This results in an acknowledgment that the only moral future available is one where poorer countries with larger populations follow our economic growth and challenge our dominance in gross GDP statistics.

Meanwhile, pushing back against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is one of the few areas Democrats and Republicans often agree on in the Trump (and likely post-Trump) era. While the exact nature of the pushback is up for debate, both sides are certainly rooting for team USA and against team CCP. Noting this, Yglesias attempts to engender a set of proposals compatible with further bi-partisan action. 

He introduces numerous ideas to foster population growth in both of the two possible avenues: immigration and babies. Here, Yglesias demonstrates himself to be a competent and wide-read interlocutor on the subjects of pro-family and pro-immigration policy. Comparing us to Canada and Australia, he shows how accepting more immigrants in a points-based system could bring us hundreds of millions of people over the next century. Such a points-based system could value skills like knowledge of English and the ability to immediately get a job, making integration of immigrants swifter and less prone to conservative pushback.

On the family side, he suggests the Family Fun Pack, a collection of proposals including a baby box of items for newborns, universal child medical care, and other family-friendly policies. Following in the footsteps of most other wealthy nations, he suggests we adopt parental leave, more holidays, universal daycare, and create a more friendly culture for families with children. This is sensible. The lack of such policies makes childrearing in the United States much more arduous than in many parts of Europe and East Asia. 

Yet the connection between such policies and population growth is limited at best. Yglesias doesn’t take this fact seriously enough. He would likely respond that this would still likely marginally increase childbirth, but acknowledge that it would really take increased immigration to lead to massive population growth. I think this is a serious fact worthy of greater consideration. Relatedly, he fails to seriously examine the connection between religion and childbirth, which might not directly affect policy in America, but obviously still matters in considerations of population growth.

Yglesias addresses numerous objections to his proposal, including which cities residents will go to, housing shortages, and transportation woes. As he points out, we have more than enough space to accommodate massive population growth. One billion Americans would make us about as dense as France and half as dense as Germany. In addition, many American cities are shrinking, especially in the midwest. Greater immigration and federal government relocation of jobs to these areas could foster revitalization of these areas. 

Problems of housing shortages can be alleviated by making zoning regulations and housing policy decisions at a higher level of government with more sensible incentive structures. This would allow more duplexes and residencies that accommodate greater numbers of people to be built. Congestion will go up, but policies like fixing roads, reducing cars on the road via taxes, and investing in smart urban transit (like S-trains) can alleviate much of this issue. Except for some odd takes, including how it would be a waste to go to Mars (which certainly doesn’t fit with the theme of the book) this section is replete with sensible analyses of urban policy. 

All in all, I admire Yglesias’ patriotic and direct perspective. This is an important and timely book, especially in an era of divided government seemingly perpetually bereft of unity itself. We need to rediscover a healthy variety of patriotism and love of fellow countryman and woman. We need to remember that the alternative to American leadership is not leadership by the UN or the EU. Currently, the alternative is leadership by a government that fully believes in its fusion of Maoist political totalitarianism with state capitalist economic policy. Pushing America to be larger can curb this dark vision. To this end, I would be happy to welcome a future with one billion Americans.

Review by Alexander Pasch


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s