Could Tripling Our Population Make Us Great Again?

immigrants, babies
Reading Time: 14 minutes

America faces a daunting array of problems: homeless people on our streets, a frayed democracy, roads clogged, a healthcare system on the brink, and regular power outages in our most populous state, to name a few. 

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had a saying that the solution to an insurmountable problem was to create a bigger problem and then tackle that.

In a way, our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Vox co-founder and senior correspondent Matthew Yglesias, is suggesting exactly that.

He argues that what the US needs to do is… triple its population to 1 billion people!

Even in the face of climate change and crumbling infrastructure, Yglesias argues for vastly increased immigration, more generous family leave, and tax concessions for larger families and greater suburban density. 

He makes a step-by-step case that scale is the only way for America to maintain great power status in the 21st century. He insists that the advantages far outweigh the challenges and he sees nothing but economic good in population growth. He maintains that it may be the answer to bringing new vigor to American places that lack cultural and economic life right now.

It’s a conversation sure to make zero population growth advocates blanch, and the rest of us sit up and take notice. Even while seriously questioning a bracingly counterintuitive idea. 

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Full Text Transcript: 

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

For 50 years, since Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb in 1968, we’ve believed that less population is essential to our own survival. Our movies and popular culture have been filled with dystopian science fiction ideas around the idea of overpopulation. Using everything from birth control to mass genocide, movies like The Avengers, Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, Inferno, and Fortress, just to name a few, have been built on our primal fear of America with too many people. Our fear of immigration in part comes out of this mindset.

Jeff Schechtman: Today the onset of climate change, shortages of water, and decaying infrastructure have all reinforced this notion, as science fiction gives way to real science. But what if there’s a fundamental flaw in the logic? What if more people are actually better, or that it could solve some of our problems, and if so, better for what? Do a billion Chinese give that country more power, more money, and more clout? My guest, Matt Yglesias, thinks we need to think about tripling the population of the US, and that it could well be our greatest asset in the coming battle for influence and dominance with China and India.
Jeff Schechtman: Matt Yglesias is the co-founder and senior correspondent for Vox. He also hosts the political podcast The Weeds, and as a regular contributor to NPR. It is my pleasure to welcome Matt Yglesias here to talk about One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger. Matt, thanks so much for joining us.
Matt Yglesias: Thank you, thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: First of all, as we look around, we see that there are more homeless on our streets, that our democracy is frayed, that our roads are clogged, our healthcare system has been taken to the brink. How is more people better?
Matt Yglesias: Well, you know what, the question is, are these problems that we can solve? Are they problems that we cannot solve? Homelessness is a terrible problem in America. It is scandalous that we have people who can’t get a place to live. It’s particularly scandalous because we know how to build more houses. It costs zero public dollars to create more houses, but instead we have a government, particularly in your part of the country, that just makes it illegal to build apartment buildings in places where there’s incredible levels of expense. We can change that stuff, we can create plenty of houses for all the people that we want.
Matt Yglesias: So the question is, why is population growth desirable? There’s two parts to that. One is simply, Americans would like to have more children than they have. Not a lot more children, we’re not talking huge families, stuff like that, but Americans have fewer kids than they say they want to have. And they say the reason for that is they can’t afford it. In particular they can’t afford the childcare. So we should have programs to help people get their kids into preschool, to help out a little bit with the cash you need at the beginning of life.
Matt Yglesias: The other part of this is immigration. We know there’s a lot of people who would like to move here, we know that historically America has drawn incredible strengths from immigrants, and that everywhere from so many of the people who found our big technology companies, to so many of the people who pick the fruits and vegetables that we eat, are from abroad. We should be welcoming that as a source of strength as we historically have.
Matt Yglesias: Now obviously there are going to be some issues, right? More people, more problems, to some extent. On the transportation front, a few other things. The fun of this book, to me, if anyone happens to care to buy it, is thinking these things through. It’s like, how do we deal with the housing piece? How do we deal with the transportation piece? How do we structure the welfare state to support families? How do we think about immigration so that we can be more generous, but also smarter about who comes here?
Jeff Schechtman: Years ago Donald Rumsfeld used to have this saying that the solution to an intractable problem was to create a bigger problem, and that maybe that would help. There’s a sense that that’s what you’re talking about here.
Matt Yglesias: Yeah, I mean, one of those things that I’m thinking here is, look, we have so many little problems, right? Whether it’s traffic jams in one place, or a tax base that can’t support the infrastructure. I was speaking to a radio station in Detroit and they don’t have big traffic jams in Detroit. The problem they have is they don’t have enough tax revenue to fill their potholes.
Matt Yglesias: If we have big national goals, historically, we have met big challenges, but right now we’ve fallen into a kind of culture war politics, where people who like to drive pickup trucks, and people like to drive Prius’s, or whatever, just kind of yell at each other. And all of our politics all the time is Americans fighting with each other. And I would like us to get to a place where we are talking about something we have in common. I don’t think anyone in this country wants to live in a world of Chinese hegemony, the kind of country that has Uyghurs in concentration camps, that’s questioning liberties in Hong Kong, where they are the number one power in the world.
Matt Yglesias: If we can reason together as a country, we can solve these problems, and we can also solve the big problem of our kind of internal domestic warfare.
Jeff Schechtman: Does their power and influence, does the power and influence of China though, depend on having a larger population? What’s the nexus between a billion people and the potential for Chinese hegemony?
Matt Yglesias: Well, you look at China on a per capita basis. They are about as wealthy as Mexico or Bulgaria, depending on whose statistical series you bank. And you maybe go to Mexico on vacation if you’re an American, you probably don’t go to Bulgaria. I have some good friends who are from there. But those countries don’t make the headlines. We don’t think about, well how do we meet the foreign policy challenge of Bulgaria? Because they don’t matter that much.
Matt Yglesias: Then conversely you have rich countries like Canada, New Zealand, very nice places, democracies, high standard of living, but they also don’t count for that much in the world stage. The United States counts for a lot, China counts for a lot, and that’s because they’re big countries, they are countries with a lot of people. And it really matters, in the Chinese sense.
Matt Yglesias: There was this great report from Pen-America, and it came out, it was about how Hollywood movie studios now let Chinese censors dictate to them what can be the content of their movies, because they need access to the China market. And if we let China keep growing, the question is, where does that go next? Right now Disney censors its movies to please China’s government. Disney also owns ABC News. As far as we know, they don’t censor ABC News to make the Chinese government happy, but at the end of the day, if Disney is dependent on the China market to get their Avengers movies and their Star Wars movies operable, they may have to make that call.
Matt Yglesias: NBC Universal owns a lot of domestic news properties here in the United States. They could face the same pressures too. It’s a very, honestly, threatening environment. And right now we have this kind of dispute about TikTok, but going to war with Chinese video meme apps is not equal to the size and scale of the issue we’re dealing with here, which is simply that if China becomes the world’s number one economy, that’s going to give them more and more power in the international realms.
Jeff Schechtman: But is our lack of power, or declining soft power, is that being determined by lack of scale, lack of population?
Matt Yglesias: I mean, I think it clearly is, or I wouldn’t even put it that way. The reason we have as much power as we have now, the reason the United States is so much bigger deal on the world stage than Canada or Ireland, or some other countries are, is that we are so much bigger than those countries. We are the number three country in the world in population, that’s a really big deal. The problem is, as China has become less and less poor, the fact that they are bigger than we are looms larger. And if we get back on a trajectory of growth, we can recapture that lead.
Matt Yglesias: I mean, note that historically we have had very rapid population growth. There’s a reason that there’s 10 times as many Americans as there are Canadians, that’s a deliberate policy choice that our government made over the years to be welcoming to people from around the world, through the Homestead Act so people could have their own farms. We were early in having high schools, early in having universal primary education, and I want to get the United States back to leading in terms of immigration, and leading in terms of education, so that we can have robust families, robust growth, and ultimately national strength
Jeff Schechtman: In terms of finding those areas where we can exercise leadership, is it just a question of size, or is it also a question of creativity? Do we need to not think about big things in a big way and think of the evolution of the country more as a boutique, as opposed to a department store?
Matt Yglesias: I think we need to think about what is America, and what is America all about. We currently have a president who talks a lot about national greatness. He talks about making America great again, but his idea of greatness is so backward-looking, it’s so nostalgic, and frankly it’s racially and ethnically exclusionary a lot of the time. But the foundation of American greatness, in our moments of peril, as Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg, or as George Washington said addressing recent Irish immigrants, has always been by getting closer into touch with our founding values of freedom and equality, and embracing them, and embracing a more diverse, richer vision of America, so that we can incorporate more people, more people can live up to their full national potential.
Matt Yglesias: There was this amazing report from Citibank the other day, and they were trying to look at what is the economic cost of racial discrimination, and it came into the trillions. And then you can ask them the same, what is the economic cost of xenophobia, of the impulse to turn away talented foreigners who could be here working. And that’s also in the trillions. We can, by being our best selves, in an ethical sense, also be our best selves in the sense of prosperity and power.
Jeff Schechtman: How does climate change enter into this equation? How do you account for that in looking at tripling the size of the country?
Matt Yglesias: You know, climate change is a really hard problem. It is too hard of a problem to solve through austerity and thinking of doing less. An economist named JW Mason, he did a great report for the Roosevelt Institute recently, and he was looking at World War II. And so how did we meet that incredible challenge? How do we make all those planes, all those tanks, how did we feed all those troops? And he shows that the domestic economy, the civilian economy, actually grew while that was happening. That what we did was we mobilized more resources, we produced more.
Matt Yglesias: And so he says, “We should be thinking about a Green New Deal,” which a lot of people are talking about. And that means huge investments in clean energy, in electric vehicles, in batteries, in things that let us have great prosperous lives with sustainable roots. It’s not that we’re going to not use electricity, it’s we’re going to make clean electricity.
Jeff Schechtman: As we look at the practical side of this, talk about the notion of where you put a billion people.
Matt Yglesias: You put them all kinds of place, right? You put them in rural communities. Right now most rural counties are losing population. Right now a lot of our cities, Detroit is about half of where it was, St. Louis has lost about 60% of its people, so we can have lots more people there. We can have more people in our suburbs, but we can also have more people in very expensive type places. And you go to Palo Alto, and elsewhere in Silicon Valley, and you have people paying millions of dollars for modest sized single-family homes with little lawns. Some of those things should be redeveloped as mid-sized apartment buildings.
Matt Yglesias: You could easily have far more people gaining housing, gaining access to these big job centers near the Bay area, near Seattle, New York, Boston, Washington D.C., where I live. We’re not out of space. So a billion is a big number, I think you would agree, I think everybody thinks that. But the population density of the United States at 1 billion would be about the density of France, about half the density of Germany, about a third the density of the United Kingdom. So I’ve been to France, it’s really nice. They’ve got countryside there, they’ve got cities there, they’ve got small towns there. They’ve got some beaches, they’ve got vineyards. There’s no geographical problem, people are just going to go different places.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about immigration and whether or not, in this concept, as you see it, we have to be selective with respect to immigration, with regard to skilled versus unskilled immigrants.
Matt Yglesias: You know, I think that we should look at getting more skilled immigrants. What I don’t agree with is an idea of kicking out less skilled workers. There’s no real problem with the immigrants that we have. They’re beneficial to the country on average, but when we talk about having more growth, and growing at a more rapid pace, we should be making it easier for skilled foreign professionals to move here, to practice medicine, to be computer programmers, to whatever else it is, since they will grow our tax base, essentially, and make it easier to afford the things that we need.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about what we hear from millennials and Generation Z not wanting more kids.
Matt Yglesias: Well this is interesting. I’m a millennial myself, an old millennial at 39, and what polls say is that millennials actually want about as many kids as people in the early ’80 wanted, what they say is that they can’t afford as many kids as they would like to have. And that’s primarily because the cost of childcare has gotten so exorbitant. Healthcare and housing, also sort of parts of the puzzle. And so we need to do things to support that. Some of it is regulatory changes, where they talk about there’s some detailed things there, but there’s fundamental economic reasons why the opportunity cost of children has gone up over time. And we sort of need to decide as a society, do we want people to have great families and happy lives with children? Or do we want America to sort of wither away over the long-term. And then say, “Well, it’s fine because we have a lot of streaming video on Netflix.”
Matt Yglesias: I think streaming video on Netflix is great, but there’s more to life than consumer technology. It’s an incredible source of fulfillment to people to have and raise children, even though the burdens of it are also large. And we need to support them with some cash when the kids are young, with preschool when they’re older, with programming for people to do in the summertime, with some kind of solution to the college affordability crisis. I mean, there’s a lot of dimensions to this, but we got to do it.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things we certainly see in China with their large population, and in India as well, is the way in which it depresses wages. Talk about that. And the danger of that, if we were to grow the population that large here,
Matt Yglesias: You know, research just really shows that immigrants do not depress wages. We had a great example of this recently, after hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. That caused a lot of people from the Island to migrate to Orlando. They’re not immigrants technically, I should be clear, but it’s an influx of new people into the city of Orlando. And precisely because Puerto Ricans are US citizens, they’re allowed to come in unlimited numbers, so it’s a really good test.
Matt Yglesias: So then the scholars, they looked at, well, what happened in the Orlando area as a result of all these people coming in? And they showed that wages did go down in the construction industry, and a lot more stuff got built. At the same time wages went up in food service and retail, because there were a lot more customers. On average wages were about even. So native born people were no worse off. They were the same. The people who came from Puerto Rico, they were much better off, and the cost of building new housing went down. So in the long run people benefited.
Matt Yglesias: And that’s exactly what studies of the Mariel boatlift into Cuba have shown, it’s what studies of the end of the Bracero Program have shown, that in the short term, there’s no wage impact of immigrants, and in the long-term, there’s a benefit because you get, it’s called a deeper capital stock. Basically you have more buildings, more machinery, more equipment, things like that. So immigration is really positive economically. And I know a lot of people don’t believe that, but it’s true, and part of why I wrote this book is to convince them. We can see it in pretty great detail in the writing there.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about infrastructure, things like water and power, energy. I mean in California now, as you well know, our most populous state, we have regular blackouts, regular power outages, triple the size, and the problems are three times as bad.
Matt Yglesias: Well. it’s interesting, because you look at California, and the problems that you guys have with your electricity transmission lines, and you could say, “Well, okay, why don’t they just bury all the lines?” Where I live in D.C., the lines are buried, so there’s no need to worry about them falling down in the wind, or something like that. And it’s too expensive to do it, because there’s actually not enough people there. When you have more people, you can support higher grade infrastructure in certain regards.
Matt Yglesias: Then there’s other parts of the country where the roads are crumbling and wasting away, because there aren’t enough people to support them. That being said, we have some big problems with infrastructure, right? The East Side Access tunnel program in New York, and the 2nd Avenue subway there, have come in at such astronomical costs. And one of the things I talk about in the book is why is it that tunnels in the United States cost so much more, multiples of what they pay in France or Sweden or Korea or Spain or Japan, and what can we learn from other countries about how to build more infrastructure? Because I think whether we grow the population or not, we are clearly going to need new infrastructure, particularly for our electricity grid, and we need to find ways to get it done affordably.
Jeff Schechtman: As you envision this, over what timeframe would you see the population growing to these levels?
Matt Yglesias: I’m thinking 80 years. The basic idea is we are in the year 2020 now. If our population grew at the current population growth rate of Canada, then by 2100, we would have a billion people. China’s population is shrinking slowly, they’re projected to hit a billion also at 2100. So the idea is we grow that way, we triple over the next 80 years, we maintain our lead forever, and it’s going to be all good.
Jeff Schechtman: Matt Yglesias, his book is One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger. Matt, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.
Matt Yglesias: Thank you so much.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.

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