One Billion Americans

Matthew Yglesias’s One Billion Americans helped calm me through the storms of the long post-election vote counting drama. The book contains a political program so ambitious–far beyond the scope of even the most impressive Biden landslide–that it was not acutely disappointing to read it knowing that the results came down as they did. It was particularly comforting for me as I’ve probably read almost all of the dozens of pieces that he has written that were weaved together into this text calling for investment, immigration, and improved support for families.

While ambitious, the agenda is not radical in anything beyond the framing device. American politicians uniformly take pride in the country’s leading global role and are not prepared for the eventuality that another land (i.e. China) may take it’s place. Yglesias takes these arguments literally and seriously. Economic and cultural power are derived in the main from the size of the economy. The USA has been bigger and richer than every other major power, but with rapid Chinese economic growth and its population 4x that of the US, this does not seem likely to last long. Tripling the American population would be radical and likely overkill for keeping the US economy far larger than China given that country’s own demographic trajectory.

If you read or listen to Yglesias, you will know the voice on the page (or, even more so, I suppose, in the audio book version). It feels like the longest Weeds soliloquy of all time. Argumentation is often through thought experiments with support from various white papers and experts. Cities should be larger, yes there is space, trains should be built more cheaply and run more smartly, climate change does not alter the calculus, immigration helps immigrants and the existing population, having children is incredibly expensive and more support is needed, etc.

Quibbles: (1) there is not really a breakdown of what the eponymous 1 billion would look like, what share comes from immigration (from where?) versus from increased family size. This is probably because he does not actually care about 1 billion other than the catchy title (which, fair, and numerically, it would have to be immigrants that make up the far bulk of a race to 1 billion as moving from 1.8 to 3 children per woman wouldn’t get us there for … generations). (2) Relatedly, there is not a sense of what these policy changes would mean for the world–other than continued American leadership. Would 1 billion (or just a lot more) Americans mean that global population estimates increase by half a billion or so? Or should the expectation be that this is shifting people around in space not increasing our numbers?