Numlock Sunday: Matt Yglesias on One Billion Americans
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition. Each week, I'll sit down with an author or a writer behind one of the stories covered in a previous weekday edition for a casual conversation about what they wrote.
This week, I spoke to Matt Yglesias, author of the new book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger which is out September 15. The book is a compelling, well-argued case for a significant expansion of the U.S. population and a coherent set of policies to make that happen.
Matt needs very little introduction, and is a writer at Vox and has the podcast The Weeds. His new book takes on the radical idea that the United States needs to undergo a massive, determined campaign to increase the number of Americans. It’s a thorough, clever read that touches on fascinating ideas ranging from child care to housing to transportation and more.
We spoke about why the United States made it to the top of the world order, why that position is less certain moving forward, and why Yglesias thinks the best way to contend with that issue is expansion.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
In One Billion Americans, and you write a lot about how for a while, a lot of what the US had going for it was that we were the largest rich country and the richest large country. Now, some of that math has started to change. What drove you to write this book?
There's a biographical answer, but on a conceptual level, I've been thinking on and off for a long time about the United States and China and that relationship. I think it's been clear over the past few years that the really optimistic view where trade was going to make everybody democratic and happy has not been coming true. I'm not a national security guy, so I don't have any particularly hot takes on this, I just think that that's clearly how we're going. So, then I was trying to think about what are the fundamentals here?
And if you ask yourself, why was the US intervention in World War One and World War Two so decisive? It's because America is so much bigger than Germany. You look at the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union are comparably sized in population and land area and natural resources. But communism was not good, it didn't work, and this was a big point of emphasis in the Cold War. If it had gone differently, if the Soviet Union had become much more prosperous than the United States, the whole thing would have had a different outcome.
What's fascinating about China and troubling for the United States is that China is so large that, at a per-person income level that's similar to Mexico or Bulgaria, they by some measures match or even exceed the size of our economy. Even if they don't ever reach parity with the United States, they can keep catching up, to like a Spain or Portugal level of per-person income. It's not an extraordinary achievement, but they will become a country with incredible clout on the international stage, in a way that I think most of us would find regrettable for all kinds of reasons.
In American politics, there tends to be two games. One is the internal game, which is how you manage a country as diverse and as widespread as us. But then there's also this international component. A lot of your arguments in the book come from the idea of a world in which China has global hegemony that is very different than the one in which the EU is the one that supplants the US with global hegemony.
Exactly. I try not to be out on the edge of any incredible geopolitical hot take, but we're not talking about a rival that is incredibly cuddly, or that some significant fraction of Americans are like, "Oh no, actually, that political system is better." You look at Mike Pompeo talking about concentration camps in Xinjiang, and I think it's a little hypocritical of the Trump administration to be posturing as if they really care about the human rights of Muslims, but at the same time, they're not wrong!
Nothing in the basic critique that one would make of China is false. They're not getting a bad rap.
The way they did this crack down in Hong Kong raised the question of can they be counted on to uphold their commitments? And the answer seems no. And then very disturbingly, when some figures associated with the NBA were just critical, in English, on Twitter, of China's conduct, there was this very swift backlash internal to the professional basketball world. Not that basketball is the most important thing, I just happen to be a basketball fan, and you could see that the commercial clout of the China market was causing a reduction in Americans' practical freedom to just make statements and observations about what's happening.
I later learned as a result of that controversy that, for example, Marvel had changed a character in the Doctor Strange movie, so that it's no longer a Tibetan monk, but instead is played by Tilda Swinton. And it's not a big deal. Life goes on. But it's weird to think, this is America. Why can't we have a Tibetan character in a stupid comic book movie? And it's because of the influence of the China market and the fact that the Chinese government has its priorities that I don't think anyone in the United States really shares, but they're quite committed to them and they use their clout to advance them.
I love soft power in general, and I want to come back to that in a little bit, but one thing that led to me wanting to reach out was you had this idea of lots of contemporary, current events books, which are nine chapters describing a problem, and then one chapter alluding to possible solutions to this, but you very much didn't want to take that view with this book.
I want to hear about how you approach this because it works. You talk about things like the family fun pack, which I thought was just a deeply fascinating thing that even if we are talking about these heady affairs of state, lots of these problems are very simply solvable.
My general critique of the kind of books that are written by people like me is you'll see some problem that's a little obscure or not that well known, and you'll do like nine chapters trying to get people to agree that there's a crisis in the soul of crab fishermen or something. And not to disparage the problem.
And you build people up and you're like, "Yeah." And then you get to the solutions, and the solution is like, "Well, we need a national effort of uplift." And I'm like, eh, I don't know, that's not so good.
The frame of this book is about international competition with China. But if you read the book, it does not go on and on and on about how China's population is larger than America's, or how China's human rights record is bad. I say those things, but I just don't think they're that hard to persuade somebody of.
What's hard to persuade people of is that tripling the American population is feasible because if you say that to someone they will raise all kinds of objections. Like, "How are you going to do that? What about the traffic jams?" And there's reasonable concern. I think that this is a perfectly workable proposal, but it's a weird proposal. It's not what we are talking about normally, so, people have a lot of questions about how would it work. What made me excited about the project was just the idea of a book that's pretty narrowly dedicated to working through it. Like, "Do we have enough fresh water? Would this mean we have to pave over all our parks? Where is anybody going to live? Why would people have more children? What would facilitate that?" And that's what the book tries to do.
The family fun pack is an idea I picked up from Matt Bruenig and Liz Bruenig. She's a New York Times opinion writer, he runs a kind of one man think tank, People's Policy Project. And his basic idea there was like, "Okay, what if we just wrote down what do kids need, what do families with kids need, that is uncontroversial?"
When they're infants, they need somebody to take care of them, somebody from their family. They need diapers. They need food. All kids need healthcare. All kids needs some kind of daycare and childcare situation for years. And what if the government just provided all of that? And it costs money to have a comprehensive welfare state for ages zero to five, but at the same time, why not do it?
Some things, you could be like, "Well, does everybody really need a microwave?" I don't know. I have one, I like one. But we have to do something with kids. We didn't do it traditionally because it didn't seem like there was a crisis. Once kids reach school age, unless we give them schools, they're not going to learn to read. And so America was early in thinking that people should read. There's a Protestant religious reason for that and an economic reason, and so we built these schools. But people were mostly living on farms, people had plenty of kids. I don't know exactly what the childcare arrangements were like, but it was evidently good enough, and the population was growing, so we didn't think it was a huge problem.
But today, people are having about 1.7 children per woman, but women are saying they'd like to have more like 2.4 children. Men say a tiny bit less than that. And then you ask people, "Well, why don't you have as many kids as you want?" Roughly one fewer, it'd be one on average. And the reasons they cite, it all comes down really to cost in different ways. And so maybe we should cover the costs, and then people could live happier, richer, more fulfilled lives.
And I like how the book is very much grounded in these ideas. Housing scarcity is a very big problem, especially in very large metropolises, and you address these concerns fairly consistently with either A, you give people money, or B, you spend government money to build some stuff.
Beyond that, though, immigration obviously is one where there is a very clear, direct solution, but there's a lot of political ill will towards it. Do you get into this chapter about this? Immigration in general is going to be a key part of getting to 1 billion Americans. What's the course of action there?
Immigration is just great. Immigration is one of the most underrated things. To me, the most amazing thing about immigration is there's this incredible academic fight about the benefits of immigration in which the restrictionist view — like Donald Trump's famous immigration economist. His big conclusion is that immigration is bad for native born Americans who don't have high school degrees.
Now, maybe that's true, maybe it isn't true. I think the preponderance of evidence says that it isn't true.
But even if it is true, we're talking about something that is incredibly beneficial to the immigrants, and beneficial to the 91 percent of Americans who do have high school degrees. So, why are we tying ourselves up in knots about something that, even according to its critics, is beneficial to the vast majority of people?
Then another question is politics, what do we do about it? And it's fascinating to me that the Trump administration has this idea that, "Well, we should switch. We should select people based on their skills, but then having done that, we should cut the number of people who would come here by 50 percent." But if you get better at choosing immigrants, and immigrants are already beneficial, then you should take more. If you were selecting the best people, you should get as many of them as you can.
Last year I spoke to Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith who wrote a book called Open Borders. And it was basically the argument for, well, open borders —
— I love it. Do you go that far?
No, I don't. I think that there are reasons not to do that. Bryan is very much an anti-nationalist, which I am not, but I fear very much that his views about the basic economics of the situation as immigration is just highly underrated by people. I don't think total open borders works as a political program or as a way of thinking about a country or a society in a clear way, but to some extent that doesn't matter. I wouldn't be crying if we went back to 19th century, almost totally open borders.
My big view is that we need to try to find a politically feasible way to get more people in here, and I think it's a skills-based path that the Australia Canadian model is a good way to do that. I think research shows it's more politically sustainable, instead of doing what Trump does. Trump's basic way of looking at it, or Tom Cotton's way is, "Look, we've got to cut immigration levels, but that's going to be really economically disruptive. So, then how can we improve the immigration system to limit the economic damage of our indulging our xenophobia?" That's dumb. What we should do is not indulge the xenophobia and just try to make the immigration as good as possible.
But like Canada and Australia don't have a billion people in them, and if we went to the systems, that wouldn't get us there.
Well, but their populations are growing at a significantly faster rate than the United States, especially Australia. It's not that we should become Australia, which is very arid and has not that many people in it, but that they show a way to an immigration system that is more supportive.
Australia's conservatives are seen as an anti-immigrant political party. They get support from Rupert Murdoch's media, things like that. But what that amounts to is that they have very tough, verging on cruel, policies toward would be refugee groups, but the legal immigration system to Australia is not that politically controversial there, even though they are allowing in many more people relative to the population than we have in the United States.
And I think that's a telling example for us, specifically because Australian political culture is inflected by the same kind of right wing nut jobs as we have in the United States. Because if you're on the left it's easy to be like, "Well, we should be more like Sweden," which is to say, "Well, we should have a completely different public culture." But Australia has a similar public culture. And so when they manage to find solutions to problems that work, that's more instructive to us.
Anytime that the solution is like, "We should have a completely different society," oh man, buddy, sorry, this is not going to go good.
Right. Exactly. What question does that answer?
A lot of what I think you really get into in the book is this idea of soft power and how the United States has had it for quite some time and really benefited very strongly from it. Getting to a billion Americans involves — one way or another, whether it's through incentivizing birth or immigration — getting an additional 700 million people to come here. And I'm curious if you think that we are we exhausting a lot of our political and global soft power, specifically in the past several years? Do you think that there's enough gas in the tank to get us there?
I think there is. But I definitely think it is true that before the pandemic, before this kind of stuff happened and Trump was holding things together in some ways, a lot of what he was doing was spending down accumulated stores of capital.
I really think about the way he pulled off his NAFTA renegotiation, which was a very Trump moment. Which was essentially to, just for no reason, abrogate an existing international agreement with two friendly countries who haven't done anything bad to us, and just say he was willing to damage the entire North American economy, on the knowledge that it would be more damaging to Canada and Mexico than it was to the United States, unless they made unilateral concessions that were only designed to benefit some very narrow interests. It helps American dairy farmers and auto workers in Michigan.
It was just a revolution in the relationship between the United States and two neighboring countries whose only purpose was to help Trump get re-election in two states that happened to be important in the electoral college. And it worked, it's this mastermind strategy: What if we didn't care at all about things that matter and only cared about Donald Trump's narrow self interest? And he pulled it off, but he generated incredible ill will in the governments of those other countries.
There was a cost.
It's a long term cost to America. It makes us seem like assholes to do things like that. We can't stay on that kind of course separate from big bang failures, like we see with this disease. We can't just bully our way to the future, especially because the underlying fundamentals of demographics are not on our side in this matter. The fact that the vast majority of people around the world at this point would still say, whatever they think about Trump, that American leadership is superior to Chinese leadership, that they're more comfortable with that from the alternatives, that counts for something. Well, we can't just throw it away. You have to live up to it.
The book is One Billion Americans. It's all about how there are some easy things that we can do that feel hard right now, but will help get this population growth that keeps us on the map. Do you want to tell people about what the quick elevator pitch for the book is and where they can find it and where they can find you?
One Billion Americans says the United States should not accept relegation to second class status on the world stage, that we should add people by doing more to support parents and families, by doing more to accept immigrants, stay number one forever, build extra houses, build extra transportation infrastructure, address the environment. I try to go one by one through the major obstacles.
These are solvable problems. We can make America greater than it's ever been forever and ever. Check out the book. They're in stores, available for preorder, available as an audiobook. I exist on Twitter as @MattYglesias, got a podcast called The Weeds, and write for Vox.com.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.