What if the answer to many of America's most thorny issues could be found in one "simple" solution? Increase our population to 1 billion. An audacious proposal that addresses immigration, housing, jobs, environment, international economic competition and everything else you might think to ask. This argument to think bigger is a completely fresh thought-puzzle—and arguing with Matthew Yglesias along the way is a whole lot of fun.
What would actually make America great: more people.
If the most challenging crisis in living memory has shown us anything, it’s that America has lost the will and the means to lead. We can’t compete with the huge population clusters of the global marketplace by keeping our population static or letting it diminish, or with our crumbling transit and unaffordable housing. The winner in the future world is going to have more—more ideas, more ambition, more utilization of resources, more people.
Exactly how many Americans do we need to win? According to Matthew Yglesias, one billion.
From one of our foremost policy writers, One Billion Americans is the provocative yet logical argument that if we aren’t moving forward, we’re losing. Vox founder Yglesias invites us to think bigger, while taking the problems of decline seriously. What really contributes to national prosperity should not be controversial: supporting parents and children, welcoming immigrants and their contributions, and exploring creative policies that support growth—like more housing, better transportation, improved education, revitalized welfare, and climate change mitigation. Drawing on examples and solutions from around the world, Yglesias shows not only that we can do this, but why we must.
Making the case for massive population growth with analytic rigor and imagination, One Billion Americans issues a radical but undeniable challenge: Why not do it all, and stay on top forever?
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About the Author
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America Is Too Small
The American political system has fallen into a state of torpor and dysfunction driven by, among other things, the absence of a shared sense of purpose.
Disagreement and debate are vital in a free society. But it’s also useful at times to have common goals—settle the West, beat the Nazis, win the Cold War—that structure the disagreements. What we’ve been doing lately isn’t so much debating how to proceed as a country as it is simply fighting with one another. And now the country faces a very real challenge that we must meet: rapid ongoing economic growth in India and especially China is leading to the relative decline of the United States of America as a great power and threatens its position as the world’s number one state in the not-too-distant future.
Contemporary American politicians give no sign of wanting to accept that decline, but they’re also not proposing to do anything about it. There’s no way that all the specific ideas in this book will ever command broad consensus in American society. But I think the big picture idea of the book, that America should try to stay number one, already does. The question is what follows from that.
For starters, it is beyond dispute that there are fewer Americanpeople than there are Chinese or Indian people, as is the fact that China and India are trying to become less poor and seem to be succeeding. Maybe they’ll just stumble and fail, in which case we will stay number one. But it would be unfortunate for hundreds of millions of people to be consigned to poverty forever. It’s not an outcome we have it within our power to guarantee. And even if we could, it would be hideously immoral to pursue it.
By contrast, tripling the nation’s population to match the rising Asian powers is something that is in our power to achieve. It would require more immigrants and more programs to support people who want to have additional children. And of course if we had a lot more people, we’d need to adjust a number of other things to make sure they had jobs and places to live. Working out the exact details of how best to structure family support programs, how best to pay for them, exactly which additional immigrants to let in, and how to improve our infrastructure and increase our housing stock are good things to argue about. The ideas laid out in this book are the best ones I could find. But nothing will command universal assent or be beyond the realm of political dispute and political bargaining.
But think of how much healthier our politics would be if there were really a debate about how to accomplish great things rather han a food fight over semi-imagined offenses to “real Americans” that serves as a mask for an endless procession of tax cuts for the rich. Why not make America greater than ever instead?
Conservatives argue that the country is “full” and we can’t take more immigrants. Progressives tend to disagree, even while being inclined to say that the particular towns and cities they live in are full and don’t need more real estate development. America’s birthrate has slipped to historic lows and nobody in the political mainstream seems to think we can or should do anything about it. Meanwhile, the seemingly unstoppable rise of China as a world power hangs like a dark cloud over American politics.
None of this is right.
Early in my career, I focused largely on foreign policy topics. But for more than a decade, I’ve primarily covered domestic issues. And as I’ve done so, I’ve been struck by the growing popularity of the view that somehow foreigners—whether through immigration or trade—are to blame for our various domestic problems.
The truth is exactly the reverse. We didn’t prosper in the late twentieth century because we won the Cold War; we won the Cold War because our underlying political and economic system was a lot better than Soviet communism. Today our international situation is imperiled because we have let a staggering array of lingering problems fester and prevent us from becoming as big and as rich a country as we ought to be.
But the United States is not “full.” Many of its iconic cities—including not just famous cases of collapse like Detroit but also Philadelphia and Chicago and dozens of smaller cities like Rochester and Erie—actually have fewer residents than they had decades ago. And virtually all of our thriving cities easily have room to grow and accommodate more people.
And we should accommodate more people. Immigrants of virtually all stripes help make native-born Americans richer, make our retirement programs more sustainable, and offer the fuel for innovation that can help the country grow. Housing shortages are endemic in many parts of the country, but the tools to surmount them are easily available and—like immigration—would cost taxpayers nothing. Providing adequately for America’s families—by offering not just paid leave but financial assistance, preschool and aftercare services, reasonable summer programming, and affordable college for all qualified students—would cost money. But it would greatly benefit America’s children and make it much easier for middle-class people to have the number of kids they say they want.
As a policy reporter, I’m much more a generalist than a specialist. And I like doing stories about solutions. Like many people, when I look at something long enough I start to see patterns in it.
--The solution to America’s new urban housing crisis is to build more houses so more people can move to in‑demand cities.
--The solution to the illegal immigration crisis is to let more people come legally, not tie ourselves into knots trying to stop the flow.
--Both America’s vast rural hinterland and many of its agingn ortheastern and midwestern cities need an influx of people to prevent their current priceless assets from wasting away.
--America’s families need help from a more robust welfare state in order to be able to have and raise children with secure middle-class lifestyles.
But for a long time these patterns seemed to be parts of a puzzle whose pieces didn’t quite fit together. More immigration is good, but the cities the immigrants tend to move to already don’t have enough housing. More housing is good, but that might only exacerbate rural depopulation. What put it all together was glancing back into the foreign policy realm. What the various diplomats and admirals and trade negotiators and Asia hands who think about the China question don’t want to admit is that all the diplomacy and aircraft carriers and shrewd trade tactics in the world aren’t going to make a whit of difference if China is just a much bigger and more important country than we are. The original Thirteen Colonies, by the same token, could have made for a nice, quiet, prosperous agricultural nation—like a giant New Zealand. But no number of smart generals could have helped a country like that intervene decisively in World War II.
If sane, humane child and family policy gives us more people; and sane, humane immigration policy also gives us more people; and if declining areas need more people but expensive areas also need more housing, then the solution to the puzzle is that we shoulddo it all and stay number one forever.
A more populous America—filled with more immigrants and more children, with its cities repopulated and its construction industry booming—would not be staring down the barrel of inevitable relative decline. We are richer today than China or India. And while we neither can nor should wish for those countries to stay poor, we can become even richer by becoming larger. And by becoming larger we will also break the dynamic whereby growth in Asia naturally means America’s eclipse as the world’s leading power.
The United States has been the number one power in the world throughout my entire lifetime and throughout the living memory of essentially everyone on the planet today. The notion that this state of affairs is desirable and ought to persist is one of the least controversial things you could say in American politics today.
We should take that uncontroversial premise seriously, adopt the logical inference that to stay on top we’re going to need more people—about a billion people—and then follow that inference to where it leads in terms of immigration, family policy and the welfare state, housing, transportation, and more.
Table of Contents
Introduction: America Is Too Small ix
Part I The Problem
Chapter 1 A Very Short History of American Power 3
Chapter 2 America Is Empty 17
Chapter 3 The Dismal Economics of Child Rearing 51
Part II The Solution
Chapter 4 Taking Families Seriously 69
Chapter 5 More and Better Immigrants 105
Chapter 6 Comeback Cities 143
Part III We Can Have Nice Things
Chapter 7 Curing Housing Scarcity 185
Chapter 8 Getting Around 215
Chapter 9 A Land of Plenty 243
Epilogue: We the (Not Enough) People 261