One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger
by Matthew Yglesias, Portfolio, 2020, 288 pp
The title of Vox co-founder Matt Yglesias’s latest book, One Billion Americans, may sound like a contrarian hot take meant to draw clicks. But underneath the hood is a persuasive argument that should resonate with both those interested in an agenda of national greatness and those who prize the family as the center of economic life.
The book aims to keep America a geopolitical powerhouse as more populous nations see their standard of living rise, and lays out policy steps to maintain our advantage. Of course, to get to a population of one billion, you can either grow Americans here at home or import them from abroad. Each of those paths will aggravate at least one political coalition: conservatives often tend to have mixed feelings on immigration, while many progressives feel their skin crawl when the power of the state is used to make it easier for women to have more children.
While pro-natalism gets a bad rap from some on the left, Yglesias embraces it, relying on Lyman Stone’s work on unrealised fertility preferences to justify a broad swath of policies aimed at increasing population growth. He adopts parts of socialist policy analyst Matt Bruenig’s “Family Fun Pack,” an ambitious if flawed approach to use government spending to ease cost burdens on families.
The chapters on family policy take seriously problems like marriage penalties in the tax code and counterproductive cultural narratives around work and family life, and should inspire pro-family conservatives to come up with competing solutions as well.
Yglesias writes like a blogger, with punchy, declarative sentences and chapters that zip along. One Billion Americans evinces a familiarity with the finer details of urban planning and utilities infrastructure that don’t often make the mainstream.
But some of his claims skate past broader disagreements among academics or researchers. On immigration, particularly, few will have their mind changed by rehashing competing studies over the impact of immigration on working-class jobs.
Yglesias nods to a point-based immigration system with very high caps:
“We should be reasonably selective about whom we let in, but we should let in a lot of people.”
But he would have benefited from grappling with Reihan Salam’s fears of a semi-permanent underclass detailed in Melting Pot or Civil War?. His citation of “Heartland Visas” for declining Rust Belt cities has merit, but exploring the tensions and success in northeastern cities that have welcomed a large influx of immigrants and refugees would have been helpful.
Yglesias’s honestly-won contrarianism, such as his cool-eyed appraisal of the evidence around police reform, has caused him to run afoul of the identity-politics left. His signature on the notorious Harper’s “cancel culture” letter led to an uprising by some of his Vox colleagues, even leading conservatives to come to his defense.
A prior generation of former liberals adopted neoconservativism when they were “mugged by reality.” A healthy center-right, one that sought out converts with the same zeal with which some seek out heretics, would make room for the contrarians being run out of town by the left.
Yglesias’s vision of a bustling and vibrant America presumes a confidence in the American experiment that is seemingly in short supply on the left. Amid a progressive chorus of voices arguing that having children is bad for the climate, Yglesias offers a robust defense of American growth and ingenuity that conservatives should welcome.
Pro-natalism from the left still requires more government intervention and expenditure than some conservatives will have the taste for, but One Billion Americans, despite the cheeky title, is more than a provocation. It is a reflection on what it might take to restore American vitality, and a potential set of policies that could get us there.