October 3, 2020


One Billion Americans: What if Leftists Loved America, and Conservatives Were Cosmopolitan Again? : a review of One Billion Americans by Matt Yglesias (Alex Armlovich, September 21, 2020, Exponents)

The book proposes we achieve One Billion Americans by two paths: The first is growing the existing US population by materially supporting American families. Most US women report having fewer children than they would like, in large part because of the high costs of childcare, education, and scarce family-friendly urban housing near good jobs. Weak parental leave and childcare options force high-income women into a tough choice between career and family, while a safety net system that tolerates child poverty leaves low-income women caring for children in conditions that would shock a middle-class conscience. Zoning regulations beginning in the 20th Century that forbid traditional "granny flats" and duplexes in suburbs (and on most land in most cities) prevent multigenerational families from living together affordably to share elder and childcare. These and similar other problems are technically fixable problems and the book offers a sensible framework for solving them without getting bogged down in the details of any one of many reasonable policy approaches.

The second way to achieve One Billion Americans is to increase legal immigration in the national interest. America was a nation of nations founded on the idea that anyone who believes in the Enlightenment ideals enshrined in our founding documents can become an American. Regardless of faith or race or partisan politics, anyone can swear an oath to uphold our Constitution and pledge allegiance to our flag--and it just so happens that at least 158 million adults around the world told Gallup that they would like very much to do just that.

Mr. Yglesias endorses two main approaches to steadily increasing immigration in the national interest. First, a "points-based" approach to targeting high-skilled and English-speaking immigrants as the first immigration priority in the national interest. This skill priority approach is already successful in Canada, Australia, and the UK. Second is a "place-based visa" approach for immigrants at a variety of skill levels, as suggested by the economist Adam Ozimek. It would allow regions that have lost population--from the Rust Belt to Appalachia to rural towns--to sponsor immigrant visas to fill up otherwise-abandoned homes and shops and offices. While still a new idea, it shows promise in repopulating shrinking cities and regions without imposing internal borders to enforce the visa locations: Those who voluntarily stay in the sponsoring regions would be rewarded with green card eligibility, while those who don't go to the back of the immigration line.

The rest of the book concerns the nitty-gritty of accommodating a larger population while stopping climate change--which, on a technical level at least, is eminently achievable. The initial millions of place-based visas could repopulate the Rust Belt, New England's small towns, and any other place in America hungering for a return to their greatness and energy in the early 20th Century. Beyond that, we would need to permit a lot more housing to be built, especially near transit. We would need to build a lot of new mass transit and sustainable infrastructure of all kinds in order to decarbonize, densify, and expand America's urban environment while preserving America's vast and pristine rural environment. We would need things like congestion pricing and parking pricing to manage America's existing traffic problems and prevent them from getting any worse. We've pulled off incredible growth in an earlier America, when millions of immigrants built cities like Chicago from a town of 30,000 in 1850 up to one of the world's largest cities by 1900. We even do it today in growth-friendly places like Houston, though regrettably without Chicago's environmentally friendly system of electric trains. Mr. Yglesias treats all these solvable technical problems--including preventing further climate change and adapting to baked-in climate change while growing--in reasonable detail.

The ambition is entirely admirable, but ignores one key reform.  The United States is already too large for optimal governance at 300+ million citizens.  Too many of us feel too disconnected from the central government, which inevitably undermines its legitimacy.  Just as at the Founding we knit a set of polities that considered themselves whole into a greater whole, so too ought we now stitch a set of discrete regions into a United Nations of America.  This would simply require establishing a set of associated constitutional republics with an overarching, but strictly limited, central authority. 

Posted by at October 3, 2020 9:38 AM