One Billion Americans, by Matthew Yglesias
Most discussions about America’s future role in the world have a set of underlying assumptions that are simply incompatible with reality. We would like to continue behaving roughly as we have been, making whatever minor policy adjustments make it out of our broken political system. And, we’d like that course of action to allow us to retain supreme global leadership — economically, militarily, and politically. The combination of those two desires is impossible. If we remain on our current course, we will cede global leadership to China. That is already happening in many areas, a trend that will steadily expand over time, eventually accelerating to the point where it shapes everything we encounter. The exact timing of the shift is debatable, but it’s well underway. Every serious observer of the data knows this is true, but almost nobody talks about a real strategy to come to grips with it. This book does just that.
The issue isn’t that China is working harder than the US, nor does it have anything to do with capitalism, socialism or communism. It’s just a few basic facts and simple math. Right now, China’s productivity, the amount of economic output per person, is substantially lower than the US. However, for reasons nicely articulated in this book, China’s productivity is growing much faster than the US and will steadily close that gap. The US is a very large nation with 330 million citizens. However, China is four time larger with 1.3 Billion citizens. The size of an economy can be calculated by multiplying the productivity of the economy times the population. So, when China’s productivity matches our own they will be four times larger than we are. That’s not an ideological assertion. It’s just simple math. For perspective, that gap is roughly the same as what the US enjoyed vs other nations for most of the 20th century. In other words, China is likely to be as globally dominant in the 21st century as the US was in the 20th. They’re really big.
We can wish this weren’t the case or we could hope their rapid development stalls for some reason but neither of those is an acceptable or even moral strategy. I’ve written on the topic myself. It’s one of the realities that shaped my thinking and recommendations in The Fifth Paradigm. The solution Matt proposes in this book is to recognize the simple math and accept what it tells us. If we wish to retain our global leadership or even just be a serious rival to China, we need a lot more people. As the title says — we need roughly a billion. In my work I offer an alternative strategy, but what Matt proposes is intellectually coherent.
Setting aside the competitive rivalry logic, the book also notes that while America’s birth rate is falling it’s because young families are increasingly unable to have as many children as they’d like. As a society, we ought to see this as a problem in its own right. The ability for families to have and raise kids is a pretty basic measure of national socioeconomic success. The fact that American families are unable to have as many children as they’d like indicates something isn’t right with our current socioeconomic paradigm.
The two-pronged strategy proposed in this book is to address those systemic fertility problems, thereby increasing US birth rates, and to dramatically accelerate immigration into the country. One of the shortcomings of the book is that it’s light on analytics. I would have liked some sort of estimate on our total population over time, what that looks like with today’s trends, and how much that would change through each of these initiatives. I’d like to know when Matt sees us getting to his one billion target. My own back of the envelope math suggests it could take quite a while.
Let’s set that “quibble” aside for the moment and simply consider the proposed strategy. I’m a professional strategist and appreciate the value of clear strategic objectives. They’re powerful tools in their own right, helping focus attention and providing clear grounds for evaluating different options. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs often talk about the importance of setting “Big Hairy Ass Goals” or BHAGs. A target of a billion Americans certainly provides a clarifying BHAG! There are several points in the book where Matt describes some long running policy debate where the answer becomes quite clear if you accept his Big Hairy Ass Goal. That’s the power of strategic clarity.
One of the other strengths of the book is its generally pragmatic, non-ideological approach to the various issues it surfaces. It starts by examining our declining fertility. Matt offers several observations about the root causes, many of which relate to how advanced our economy has become and some of which can be traced to an economy that’s simply poorly designed for its citizens. In the 21st century most people need a college education to get a decent job. That takes time and, given the policy choices we’ve made on higher education, leaves most folks with considerable debt. That combination along with rising home prices in our more populous areas means that couples don’t reach a level of financial stability until much later in life than was true in the past. Having kids just gets pushed out into the future.
Kids are also very expensive. Their healthcare, child care, and education all take considerable resources. They also demand a great deal of parental time, something not subject to any sort of technology improvement or productivity advance. We have numerous policies that exacerbate these issues for young families all of which can be readily fixed once we decide we want families to feel financially secure having kids. Matt’s discussions on these topics, like many others in the book, are greatly enhanced by citing examples from other developed nations. This sort of external “benchmarking,” as it’s known in the corporate world, is something that rarely seems to move US political thought, but it should!
The second prong of the strategy is to accelerate immigration. Matt argues our policies need a much more strategic focus on attracting those people who are most likely to become major economic contributors. One of our greatest national assets is that America is incredibly attractive to precisely those folks. The whole discussion on this topic is a clear strength of the book. Many of the studies Matt cites are ones I’ve cited myself in The Fifth Paradigm. Others add further to the already mountainous pile of analyses that prove immigration is an unambiguously good thing. The discussion on the Mariel Boatlift from Cuba provides an excellent example where Matt notes that, despite ongoing debate, the points of agreement on the wage impact of that event are more than enough to sway the overall arguments on that specific issue.
I have no issues with Matt’s full-throated endorsement of this aspect of the strategy. He does note it needs to be managed, that it’s not an “open borders” policy and it will generate political resistance. However, it does so many good things for the country (and the world) it’s something worth pursuing regardless of whether you accept Matt’s overall strategic rationale and goal.
In fact, the same can be said about many, if not most, of the policy recommendations in the book. For this reader, one of the most thought provoking aspects of the book is the extended discussion of “hollowed out cities” and the agglomeration effects that are central, both to that phenomena and its solutions. This is a vitally important topic, one that is steadily reshaping our nation in ways that few commentators seem to have realized. While I have questions and issues with many of Matt’s recommendations I think they are all well framed and worthy of serious discussion. They all have promise and I’d love to see us give most of them a try.
Another “quibble” begins with the important topic of innovation. Matt notes that “more people means more ideas.” That’s true, but not quite the right formulation. In the 21st century, innovation is a collaborative activity that currently spans all boundaries. All those ideas from all those people are in play all the time regardless of what nation houses any subset of them. One of the most remarkable events in human history is the global collaboration to solve the Covid19 pandemic. The collaborative aspects of that endeavor are rarely noted anywhere, but for the scientists and doctors engaged in this project it’s central.
Having one billion Americans wouldn’t change any of that. However, where these people are located can impact how and where economic value flows. In the field of solar energy, our combination of bad industrial policies has left us on the sidelines when it comes to driving innovation in the field. We still retain the ability to create value through installing panels all over the country and that’s a good thing. However, the value that accrues to the innovators of that technology is all going to China. Simply having more people would not overcome the bad economic policies that lost us the innovation role in that important sector.
There are lots of other potential objections to Matt’s strategy including whether one billion Americans would make us too crowded, where all those people would live, how to expand access to housing, whether we’d run out of water or other scarce resources, how to handle expanded transportation needs and, of course, whether this would be good or bad for climate change. The book examines and offers pretty clear answers to most of those points.
IBM designed and runs many of the congestion pricing systems Matt lauds as useful additions to urban transportation problems, so I’m quite familiar with them. I agree they have their place, but I’m not nearly as bullish on them as Matt seems to be. I also found the several scattered discussions on climate impacts to be less than satisfying. I do agree with Matt that those issues should not dissuade us. I just think those arguments can and should be more effectively constructed.
Coming back to my earlier “quibble,” I actually have serious doubts about how the math works for this strategy. Just to hold the line vs China we’d need to grow our population at least as fast as the delta between their productivity growth and our own. That’s not completely impossible, but it’s pretty dramatic. Closing the birth-rate gap between what people want and what they’re currently achieving wouldn’t be anywhere near adequate, so the immigration arm of the strategy has to provide a lot of lift. While I agree with that approach, I also believe there are real limits on just how many immigrants we can assimilate at any point in time. In my own work on the subject, I concluded immigration needs to be capped at about 15% of the population. For Matt’s strategy to work mathematically I suspect we’d need to drive that a lot higher.
Which brings me to my conclusion. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Unlike so many commentaries, this is firmly grounded in reality and offers a serious take on issues we rarely even acknowledge. I like and would support almost all of the various policy positions Matt offers. However, I don’t agree with the core strategy. I do not think our answer should be to match China’s scale. I think our strategy should be to create a society that is far more desirable for its citizens. That’s a radically different leadership strategy than we have had in the past. In fact, in some ways its almost 180 degrees different. The policies I think would put us on that alternate path are spelled out in The Fifth Paradigm. Here’s what’s really interesting. None of the policies I propose in my book are in conflict with any of the policies Matt proposes in his book. I actually think many of my ideas would enhance Matt’s vision and I know that many of his ideas have already enhanced mine.
So, whether you agree with the overall strategy or not, the information and ideas in this book are well worth understanding. They’re practical, rooted in reality and offer an ambitious agenda for the nation. We need many more debates framed in that fashion.