A conversation with Matthew Yglesias on families, the economy, global competition, and One Billion Americans
I want six kids.
It is this, of all my various eccentricities, in which I feel most utterly alone when I listen to conversations about public policy. Progressive America no longer has much of a social script for people who want big families. Wanting lots of children is called selfish, stupid, fanatical. Religious conservatives seem to be America’s only interest group that reliably comes out in favor of people choosing to have big families — but I’m a polyamorous atheist lesbian co-raising my two kids with three other committed co-parents, and religious conservatives have no interest in building an America with families that look like mine.
It’s into this void that my colleague Matt Yglesias’s new book, One Billion Americans, most powerfully steps. It’s a book that asserts that it’s good, actually, when there are lots of people in the United States. It’s good for those people, who will be richer and live deeper, more diverse, more interesting lives. It’s good for our country, which, Yglesias argues, benefits from its large population when it tries to provide economic and political incentives for freedom and democracy. It will mean we don’t cede the future of the world to China, which is currently engaged in brutal ethnic repression and which has shredded earlier hopes that it might politically liberalize.
If you survey Americans about how many children they want, on average they say about 2.5. That includes the ones like me who want six and the ones who want zero. But while people want 2.5 kids on average, in practice they have fewer — about 1.72 in 2018, the book says. Increasing America’s population needn’t involve regression from modern liberal ideas. It would just require making it possible for people to get the thing that they already want.
The book’s proposed policy changes are mostly nudges at the margins — more immigration but not open borders, an expansion of public education to also provide free preschool and day care, subsidies and tax credits for parents, fixes to our housing and transportation policy so the cost of living isn’t intolerable.
Despite its simplicity — maybe because of its simplicity — it’s compelling. Matt Yglesias thinks America is good and it’d be good if everyone who’d benefit the country was allowed to live here and everyone who lived here was able to have their ideal family size. And while that simple vision elides a lot of challenges — some of which are beyond its scope — its vision of America is at least worth rooting for.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Why should we have a billion Americans?
We should have a billion Americans for two big reasons. One is that in a globe of international competition, it’s good to be a big country as well as a wealthy country. And the United States has historically benefited from having a large population relative to a lot of its competitors.
And then the other reason we should have a billion Americans is that it will make this country a better place. The steps we need to take to get there will improve the country and make us richer as well as larger.
You talk a lot about international competition in this book. What can we expect from US/China relations for the next like 20 years?
I think 20 years ago, there was a lot of optimism that economic growth and economic integration would naturally lead to a liberalization of their political system. We’ve now seen that that’s really not true. They have become, if anything, more repressive domestically, more aggressive in their relationship with other powers around the world. And they’ve also started aggressively using economic interconnection to sort of export their values, censor western movies, and put pressure on American celebrities and athletes to stay silent about human rights abuses there.
I’m not a militaristic person or fan of international conflict, but I think that we want to clearly put distance between ourselves and them as the world’s number one economic power so that decisions we make about free speech and other things carry the most weight in the world if companies need to pick between the American market and the Chinese market. We want America to stay number one, as it has been for a long time, because this country, for all its flaws — there’s a world of difference between the American constitutional system and human rights practices over there.
I totally agree with that. I’m curious if you’ve gotten pushback on it, or there are people who respond to this by saying “Oh, you know, we have shortcomings as a country, China has shortcomings in the country, American greatness isn’t something I feel unconflicted about pushing for.”
You know, what’s interesting is that there’s very few people who actually say that the problems or the systems are equivalent. What is true, is that there’s some people who just don’t like the idea of politics that they see as stoking nationalism or appealing to patriotism.
Aggressive militarism, I think, is quite bad, and has been a problem for American foreign policy in the fairly recent past. But a healthy sense of pride in what’s good about one’s country and the desire to see it succeed doesn’t have to be that.
One thing that makes America different from some of the other countries that I find right now admirable is that America has built into its national story and its national identity a certain kind of expansiveness. People from all around the world have moved here historically and become American.
I’m curious from what directions you’ve gotten pushback about this book. What are the main lines of disagreement you’ve run into?
So one school of thought — Felix Salmon said this — he thought the whole pot was unnecessary, but the specific policy ideas mostly seemed really good to him. He didn’t get why you’d frame them around one billion Americans. And some people are harsher — they say, “No, this is bad. That this kind of national vision is pernicious, and masks neoliberal machinations.”
The specific ideas here are mostly straight out of the progressive toolkit. Yet a number of people on the right have said, “I like this idea. A lot. I have some disagreements about the particulars.” And that’s great. That’s what you have politics for, to some extent. I feel like we could have a much healthier American politics built around a consensus that we are not going to engage in military adventurism, but we’re also not going to just accept national decline. We need more people, we need more growth. And now we’re going to talk about the details: How should immigration work? How should a welfare state be designed to support that? How should we adjust our housing and infrastructure policies?
That to me feels very hopeful and optimistic. And I hope more people on the left will read some of the coverage on the right, and see that there’s something to the idea of speaking the language of national greatness, as an aspect of one’s political practice.
Another direction from which I’ve seen some pushback is that it seems like a lot of progressives just don’t totally believe that there being more people is good, for environmental reasons or the ways it’s tied to American hegemony.
I think there are two big disagreements. One is just philosophically, is more people better, or not? And I think it is right, but I don’t have a prolonged defense of this in the book. It’s a big issue people talk about in the in the moral philosophy world. But I think a universe of seven really happy people all being treated really fairly, is worse than a thriving planet of 7 billion, even if some of those 7 billion people are living in worse conditions than what existed in the seven.
The other [disagreement] is the extreme of eco-pessimism. If you look at what is the actual public policy of the United States of America, climate change is a much more serious problem than our current policy makes it seem. We should be doing a lot more than we actually are. It is a much bigger deal than it’s treated as.
At the same time, if you ignore actual policy, and you just look at takes written … it’s not as bad as they say. I don’t want to “both sides” it — actual public policy is really important here. But we’re not teetering on the brink of human extinction.
We should do a lot to address climate change. But we shouldn’t prevent poor countries from becoming richer, we shouldn’t prevent poor people from moving to opportunity, and we shouldn’t prevent people from having children. We should try to develop and deploy cleaner ways of making electricity.
The United States is actually one of the countries that is best situated to weather a change in the climate. I don’t want to downplay the sort of costs and problems that we face. But compared to a tropical country or more agricultural country, we are better situated to withstand changes. So us being open to people moving here from around the world is actually a major contribution that we make to the adaptation side of climate change.
So one doubt I had about a bunch of the prescriptions in One Billion Americans is that a lot of countries in Europe have kind of desperately tried various stuff at this rate to get their birth rates up. But it mostly hasn’t worked. Their birth rates are mostly still well below two. Why do you think we could make that work here?
I think the evidence is that pronatalist policies do work, that they elevate birth rates above what they would otherwise be. If you look at the Nordic countries, people have more children there than the people in the sort of Southern European, Latin Europe countries. And that’s because of the sort of, you know, welfare state stuff that they’re famous for them there.
At the same time, obviously, religion is a dominant factor here. We have more children than Europeans, because we are a more religious country. If you look in the United States, religious people have more children than non-religious people.
We’re talking about change at the margin, not a giant change. And I think the evidence supports the idea that, you know, if we paid a child allowance, if we made more provision for preschool, if we did more to help out with summer programming and other things like that, people would go from one to two kids, to two to three kids. We’re talking on the margin. But margins matter when you’re talking about population growth, compounding.
Another hesitation I had about the book was that, in some ways, it felt like it was assuming a 21st century that would look a lot like the 20th century in terms of nation states as the big drivers of policy and change, and in terms of where people physically live mattering a lot. And as you know, I’m a little bit more inclined to think this century will see transformative technological change.
One thing I think is that the less we know about exactly what’s going to be important in the future, the more we can say that being a big, prosperous country is a kind of general purpose toolkit right now.
For one example [of a specific vision of how the 21st century will play out], I think the conventional wisdom among military people is that aircraft carriers are really important. And even though the US and Chinese economies are pretty close, we have a huge lead in aircraft carriers. So if you think aircraft carriers will be all that matters forever, you might say, “Look, this is fine. We’ve got a big lead and naval aviation, we can double down on that. We have allies who we can share aircraft carrier technology with, like, we can just like ride naval aviation until the end.”
If we’re not confident [that we know what we’re going to need to survive the 21st century], we can still say that having more scientists and more people, and having kids who are healthy and stuff like that, that’s probably going to matter, probably going to be useful for whatever comes next.
So, you know, I think we should take uncertainty about the future in some ways more seriously than the foreign policy specialists do. And think more about the underlying wellsprings of national strength and a little less about the specific modalities of diplomacy and military.
The fundamentals of national health — a large and growing population, people coming there and integrating — if you can’t say for sure what’s going to happen, you want to sort of boil down to the most generic attribute of national strength that you can think of, and make sure you’re paying attention to it.
And that’s how many people we have.
Yeah, I think that’s about it. How many people you have, how advanced your technology is. How happy people are is of course also important.
Something that spoke to me about your book was that I’ve mostly only encountered pro-natalism from the conservative side of the aisle. And that’s often religious conservatives — and I’m gay, and they are not interested in supporting the formation or thriving of families like mine at all. So this book is sort of great as a progressive vision of a good future where lots of kids are growing up.
Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, we want that Secular minded people have children. Lots of gay people have children. I mean, there are also gay people who are religious.
When you look at the policy detail, progressives generally want to be more supportive of families with children — they have a raft of bills, sitting around in congressional Democrats’ offices about parental leave and prenatal care and pre-K and child allowances and things like that.
But then there’s a reluctance to say that one of the reasons all this is a good idea is because it’s nice to see people having happy, thriving families. You have to keep saying, “I’m not talking about Handmaid’s Tale or crazy programs to pressure people into having more children.” People mostly want to have two or three children. And it’s really difficult.
It’s, of course ,most difficult for poor people. But we shouldn’t treat it strictly as a poverty issue. Because, you know, people would like to have children, but they also don’t want to have their standard of living completely on the table when they do that. When we think about preschool, I think we should think about it not as a sharply means-tested program for the people who absolutely couldn’t afford it, but as something that is good and important, because we want to support a society in which people have kids.
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Author: Kelsey Piper