Recipe and review of One Billion Americans

You’ve been baking and enjoying some delicious national greatness for a while (about 75 years, give or take). But something’s gone wrong, and your old recipe just isn’t working the way it used to. It’s at times like this that you need some input from the neoliberal cookbook.

One Billion Americans: the recipe

You will need several ingredients:

  • A country – measuring just a smidge under 3.8 million square miles and with a population of 330 million
  • Childcare and family policies — we don’t really know whether these work but best to throw it in anyway
  • An immigrant mixture — sourced from all over the world, naturally
  • A housing policy — the YIMBY brand is best
  • Transport policy — you’ve made do with local ideas for too long. Time to look abroad for inspiration.

I know, I know, these ingredients are expensive! But if you want to win big, then you have to spend big. And the recipe will pay for itself when it comes to the results.

  1. First, let’s put the country into our mixing bowl. This is the best country out there, but you need something spectacular if you want to taste national greatness again.
  2. Next, let’s add a large dollop of childcare and family policies. Check the packaging — there should be things in there like baby boxes for every newborn, universal daycare, and paid parental leave. Mix thoroughly so it spreads throughout the country, not just among less well-off people (everyone needs to be incentivised to have children).
  3. Now pour in the immigrants. There are some in there already, obviously, but you need way more and the only way to do that sustainably is legally. You might also want to consider novel ways to add those immigrants — ever heard of Heartland Visas?
  4. Continue to mix your dough, adding your YIMBY-brand housing policy to make sure that there are some decent-sized clusters of people — they produce a lot of value. You also need to add in your transport policy if you want those clusters to develop and work properly.
  5. Now pour your policy mixture into a tin, and put it into the oven to let it bake. This will take a bit of time (likely decades), but if you’ve got the mixture right then you should begin to see the dough rise and expand to a much more impressive level.
  6. Once it’s done, you can take your bigger, better, billion-sized country out of the oven. Now relax and enjoy an enormous slice of national greatness. Who knew you could bake something so rich? And have so much of it at once?

Ok, ridiculous baking analogy aside, Matt Yglesias makes the fun and provocative case that you didn’t realise you wanted. An America of one billion people would be unquestionably the world’s superpower, and would deliver a lot of freedom and prosperity to its residents — not to mention the other countries which would trade with it.

Pro-natalism is underrated in our current political discourse, perhaps understandably. But when people are having fewer kids than they say they want, and report that one of the biggest factors deterring them is the cost, it’s a no-brainer for a rich country to subsidise having kids more. Leopold Aschenbrenner has blogged about his own ideas here.

One of the best things about the book is how the different policy components Yglesias suggests would reinforce each other. More housing means more room for people in America’s most productive cities, and will also push down the cost of extra kids, and will make the country richer and so better able to afford generous subsidies to parents. Better transport policy will make it easier to have denser cities (and more pleasant lives), to the same effect.

I’m wary of the spending required to get this agenda off the ground, especially universal subsidies to parents. But my own pro-natalism is strong enough that I’m willing to consider it, especially in an era of low interest rates. And I am of course open to his alcohol tax idea, which he suggests could raise $100 billion over 10 years.

I don’t think we can say for sure whether this policy package will work, though. I particularly favour the housing, immigration and transport arguments he makes, and I reckon they’d be good for America. But if, as Alex Tabarrok and Eric Helland suggest, prices in sectors like education will increase as long as productivity in those sectors doesn’t increase, have we really solved underlying problems like college tuition costs? You’re just throwing more money at the problem and driving prices up. Perhaps that increase in demand will spur productivity increases? I wonder whether I’ve misunderstood something here, so perhaps a reader can enlighten me.

Yglesias thinks increased incomes and reduced cost of living will make it easier to have kids, but the decline in fertility has mostly gone hand-in-hand with increased wealth, as Ross Douthat has noted. Douthat’s Decadent Society asks a question that is mostly absent from One Billion Americans: what if wealth has deadened us to faith, family, or whatever it was that kept us fecund and forward-looking? Yglesias talks about the goal of human flourishing in the context of the American constitution — is that a strong enough motivation on its own? He seems to know it’s not: ‘The structure of family life is, fundamentally, at least as much a question of norms and culture as it is of material conditions’.

This tension was also on display in Yglesias’s appearance on Conversations with Tyler, in which he says:

Look, if you told me, for mysterious reasons, church attendance is going to start going back up again over the next 30, 40 years, I would consider that to be a very optimistic forecast for America. I think good secondary things would follow from that. I think community institutions are important, and in a practical sense, religious ones are what seems to really work for people.”

Read the whole section. Tyler Cowen boosts religion regularly in his written and spoken output, but Yglesias clearly hasn’t figured out how to do that in a natural way yet. (Maybe this is Tyler’s superpower — he can do that sort of thing genuinely, and then not feel embarrassed about it.)

If it’s culture that matters as much (or even most) for birthrates – and I suspect it matters for welcoming immigrants, too – then you can’t only use policies to inculcate that. Yglesias talks about the importance of choice in the book to allay people’s fears: you don’t have to live in an apartment with no yard/garden, you don’t have to have more kids, it’s just that some people want those things. But you’ll need a change in culture if you want a critical mass of people to want those things.

It’s really refreshing to read something that’s unashamedly grand and ambitious in its outlook. Try finding a book like this in the UK. But this can only be a plank of the overall agenda for America to compete globally — we need memes too.


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2 comments

  1. This is hardly enlightenment, but I think you’re talking past the really profound point of Baumol’s theory (and Tabarrok and Helland’s work on it), which is that it is impossible for all prices to fall. A price represents an opportunity cost, and so rising college tuitions are just a sign that everything else is being produced more and more efficiently. That effect is orthogonal to the level of demand.

    In other words, rising college tuitions are a problem only as much as we make it a problem. It sucks that tickets to a live string quartet performance keep getting more expensive. The crazy thing is that we’ve made the college (the labor-intensive version of education) the ticket into the middle-class, whereas we wouldn’t say that unless you attend live performances you’re not allowed to call yourself educated on classical music.

    If traditional four-year residential colleges are genuinely providing something societally useful that can only be provided in that way, we should be happy to spend the money, just as a wealthy society should be happy to spend more and more on healthcare if in exchange we’re getting longer and healthier lives. (Remember, prices have to rise somewhere.)

    If, however, traditional college is just a consumption good, we should do something like what the Biden plan does and make community colleges (and other sources of vocational training) free, provide some other way of fulfilling the signaling function that college provides, encourage innovation and productivity gains, and fight the kind of credential inflation that makes a college degree the equivalent of exclusionary occupational licensing.

    1. Ah thank you, that’s very helpful! I can see how it applies to other kinds of costs related to having kids too – if they’re good for society, then you have to bite the bullet and spend to make it easier to have them (under the book’s framework at least).

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