One billion good Americans

Should this country be bigger or not?

Historically, Matt Yglesias and I have tended to have almost comically similar views on big economic issues. We’ve both had our turns as neoliberal shills. We both wrote short books arguing that big, prosperous cities need to build a lot more housing. We are both passionate monetary-policy doves, and so on. So I had to chuckle to myself when I learned that Matt had written a book making the case for thinking bigger—and specifically for making America bigger, substantially, by about 670m people. Because back in 2017, I also started on what I thought might become a book about American bigness and greatness, which would have felt very similar in spirit to Matt’s latest, One Billion Americans

The idea was going to be that the end of the Cold War deprived the nation of a sense of public purpose, which contributed to a certain listlessness and fatalism in the face of a rising China. And the pitch was going to be that we could give ourselves a kick in the pants by recognizing that with certain policy shifts America’s population level could be arbitrarily large, and that the way to capitalize on that recognition was to think of struggling American regions as something like an internal emerging market which could be utterly transformed for the better with lots of new investment. Not exactly Matt’s book, but definitely sharing a vibe.

But I didn’t follow through on the project, for a number of reasons. For one, I was, at the time, going through a process of rethinking some things. I realized that other issues and questions interested me more, and I kept following those threads until I figured out that I actually wanted to write something very different, which is in the works now. And for another, I lost confidence in the argument. 

I’ll elaborate on this below, but let me first note that Matt’s book is only kind of about making America bigger. The overwhelming majority of it consists of concise, well-stated arguments for a number of sensible domestic policy reforms. There are, naturally, bits on making it easier to build in prosperous cities. There are arguments in favor of more and better transportation investment, more immigration, expansion of the social safety net, ambitious new spending on education and so on. I want all those things too, and it’s worth the hour or so of your time it will take to read the case he makes for them. Of course, you don’t really need any broader thesis to justify all this stuff. The reason to do it is that it would make a lot of people’s lives better. You don’t need a Chinese bogeyman to feel intense frustration at the fact that our cities aren’t more affordable and functional, for instance. Reducing the pointless hardship that America’s social policy imposes on families is all the reason you need to spend much more on education at all levels, extend the social safety net, and adopt labor-market and family-leave policies common in other rich countries.

But Matt frames all of this as a way to bolster American national greatness, in the way I was tempted to do back in 2017. He begins the book with a straightforward point: that while America has about 330m people, China has 1.4bn. That population disparity means that even a level of GDP per person no more than half of America’s would give China an economy far larger than our own, giving it a geopolitical heft America simply couldn’t match. That, for a variety of reasons, would be bad, and so America should pursue the policies listed above specifically because they would increase the size of the US population and change the Sino-American competitive dynamic. You can see the logic and, beyond that, one might imagine that a national greatness framework could be an effective way to sell some of Matt’s policy recommendations to people who might not otherwise be ideologically disposed to them.

The trouble is that this just doesn’t strike me as the right way to think about the strategic competition between the US and China, or about American greatness, or about the changes America is likely to need in order to remain a strong, prosperous and liberal state in the future.

Start first with China. Matt rightly says that it would be silly to just assume that China won’t continue to close the gap with American income levels until such time as its economy is far larger than ours. But it’s also a mistake to understate the challenges China faces as it seeks to keep its growth miracle going. Potentially a quite consequential mistake, as an America which has been persuaded that Chinese dominance is inevitable might opt for destructive policy responses in addition to or in place of expansions of the social safety net (and similar). 

Convergence between rich countries and poor ones remains the exception rather than the rule. China, despite its unprecedented economic miracle, remains a far poorer country than America. Its boom is also running out of gas. Growth in total factor productivity has fallen off a cliff since the global financial crisis; economic growth since 2007 has been powered by massive amounts of investment, subject to sharply diminishing returns. Perhaps the Chinese government can pull more magic out of its hat. But in the East Asian countries which managed the difficult trick of growing from poor country status to rich, reform was a constant process, and one which included political liberalization. And while China has a much larger population than America, its demographic picture is in many ways worse than our own. China’s workforce is already shrinking, and the UN projects that China’s population will drop by 400m people between now and the end of the century.

Despite China’s economic heft, it is not an attractive partner in the eyes of much of the world. China threatens its neighbors, tramples freedom in Hong Kong, practices ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang, and remains—despite Donald Trump’s efforts—a far worse steward of the rule of law than America. The people who have most to fear from China’s government are those living in China and in vulnerable countries nearby. China is not America in the 1950s: a place which, despite its weaknesses, offered a vision of a better tomorrow to people around the world. It is much more like the Soviet Union of the 1950s: an unfree place enjoying a burst of real but fundamentally unsustainable growth.

That gets to another weakness in the framing of the book. America didn’t win the Cold War alone, and it doesn’t need to defend liberalism by itself today either. Most people who live in advanced democracies don’t live in America! Indeed, if you add up the populations of rich countries with democratic governments, you arrive at a figure of about 1bn people. On a purchasing power parity basis, the world’s rich democracies account for about 41% of global GDP, or more than twice that of China. China’s demographics aren’t destiny. The only thing which can hand China a dominant role in global affairs is a failure of cooperation on the part of the free world.

Of course, that sort of cooperation can be hard to sustain. And the biggest threat to it in recent years has been Donald Trump. Which prompts a question: is the best way to advance liberal ideals, prosperity and all the rest of it to add to America’s demographic heft? Are we, at this point, a beacon of hope to the rest of the world or a cautionary tale? In terms of equal protection under the law, economic justice, and functional democracy do we offer other countries a model to follow, or are they better off looking elsewhere? If we suppose that the one billion American mark is to be hit a half century from now, how sure are we that the America that is home to that billion won’t have regressed into an illiberal democracy, or worse? It’s possible that population growth might, in itself, help relieve some of America’s ideological problems. Faster growth means that political disadvantages are more likely to be temporary, and might thus reduce the stakes of at least some controversies, for example. The book would have been stronger had Matt spent more time exploring how population growth might interact with the evolution of what increasingly looks like a fundamentally broken constitutional system here in the US. 

Despite these American weaknesses, there is in fact an extremely compelling reason for trying to make the US a place which is more amenable to population growth—one which Matt acknowledges in the book. It’s climate change. Climate change isn’t going to spare America its hardships; current events make that all too clear. But as a large, rich and temperate country, the US is in a far better position to weather the worst of what’s to come than are poor countries. Migration is critical to reducing the human and economic costs of a warming planet, and the rich world has a moral obligation to help residents of poorer places survive a crisis to which those poor countries have, after all, contributed almost nothing in comparison with rich, industrialized nations.

The moral piece seems critical to me. The subtitle of Matt’s book is “The Case for Thinking Bigger”. And in one particular dimension it absolutely does what it says on the tin. One billion is bigger than 330 million. And yet, advocating for one billion Americans also manages to somehow not amount to bigger thinking at all. As Matt notes, America has been able to throw its weight around until now because it’s bigger than other rich countries and richer than other big countries. And to continue to throw our weight around in the future we need to...keep dominating the big and rich quadrant by increasing our population. That is, geopolitics in the future will operate along the same dimensions as geopolitics in the past.

But at some point we need to get beyond this. It’s silly to think that America can be or should be the dominant global power forever. Given this, a very important part of securing the welfare of Americans far into the future is nurturing respect within the US and around the world for a few fundamental values: like a recognition of the inherent human worth and essential equality of every single person. Reading Matt’s book, it becomes increasingly clear that American influence has been undercut by our failure to embrace these values. If we took them seriously, we would already be building much more housing in thriving cities and spending far more on education and other public goods. We’d already be letting more immigrants into the country, in a manner that allows them to fully develop their potential as human beings. We’d already be investing massively in green technologies. We’d be doing far more to support the welfare and purchasing power of the non-rich: and knocking ourselves out of the macroeconomic doldrums that have hamstrung the economy over the past two decades in the process. 

We find ourselves losing global influence, in other words, because we have given up working to be a place which is morally deserving of that influence. Not because there’s some vengeful deity punishing us for our sins, but because the erosion of American values other than the pursuit of profit has undermined our ability to act collectively and make the most of our endowments as a nation. 

Perhaps that’s an unfair way to criticize Matt’s book. It is, in the end, about making America big, not making America good. But I feel America neither can nor should be the former if it can’t be the latter. Let’s think bigger! Let’s talk about how to build broad support for humanitarian values. Let’s talk about how to achieve a moral renewal within this country, of the sort that might allow rich urbanites to see those on low incomes as something other than a threat to their property values, the well-off to see the underemployed as something other than undeserving freeloaders, and the powerful to recognize the moral obligations that come with their power. Because where I’d really like the world to be a century from now is a place where respect for human dignity and autonomy and welfare is so universal that it doesn’t matter how many Americans there are.