Reflections on One Billion Americans
By Bryan Caplan
Matt Yglesias’ new One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger is a delightful book. But should you take my word for it? Since I’ve published book-length defenses of both natalism and immigration deregulation, I’m obviously going to smile upon a book that reaches the same conclusions, right?
Truth be told, though, I often dislike books whose conclusions I endorse. You can’t just be right; you have to be right for the right reasons. By this demanding standard, One Billion Americans does well, though there is ample room for improvement. Critical observations:
1. Matt relies heavily on the “national greatness” argument for population growth: The U.S. needs more citizens to remain the world’s dominant power. While I grok the appeal of this argument, I am puzzled by Matt’s lack of enthusiasm for other pro-population premises. Most notably: Life is well worth living, and it’s better if more people enjoy this opportunity. And: Welcoming migrants from poor countries enriches humanity by moving talent from places where it produces little to places where it produces much. More generally: The positive externalities of population are much larger than the negative externalities. To be clear: Matt mentions all of these points, yet strangely only national greatness seems to animate him.
2. On further reflection, national greatness is one of the weakest and most dubious arguments for raising U.S. population. Key question: What is the probability that fervently trying to hold China at number two ends up sparking World War III over the next fifty years? Even if the chance is only 5%, why risk it? Furthermore, if you’re eager to maintain American hegemony, advertising your intent is probably counter-productive; the prudent course is to cloak your geopolitical ambitions in universal and humanitarian garb.
3. Matt curiously neglects “brain drain” and related arguments against increasing immigration to the First World. Should we really be trying to increase our national greatness at the expense of the greatness of all the other nations of the world? Or just trying to increase our national greatness at the expense of China and other heinous dictatorships? Or what?
4. Matt favors universal social programs to encourage fertility across-the-board, but only selective deregulation of immigration. He explicitly opposes open borders: “We shouldn’t just recklessly throw the borders open to just anyone who happens to show up…” This may be good politics, but it’s bad public policy. Why? Simply put: Welcoming immigrants is virtually a free lunch, but incentivizing fertility is very pricey. So the wise course is to welcome immigrants of all skill levels, but target fertility incentives to where they’ll do the most good.
5. What fertility incentives do the most good? Matt wants the government to lavishly fund virtually everything that makes having large families easier. He doesn’t seem interested in research on comparative elasticities of different natalist programs. Nor is he interested in demographics; whose fertility should we try hardest to encourage?
6. Given a finite budget for promoting fertility, however, the natural goal is to raise the fertility of people who are most statistically likely to enrich humanity. This in turn requires us to defy Social Desirability Bias and admit that we can probably help the world a lot more by boosting elite fertility – the fertility of the rich, smart, well-educated, creative, and entrepreneurial. I am well-aware that most people who talk this way are frightening misanthropes. But I’m neither; you emphatically need not be a superstar to live a meaningful and productive life. My point, rather, is that encouraging fertility costs money – and you get more bang for your buck by targeting incentives at the would-be parents whose kids will contribute the most to the world. (Caveat: It might cost more money to induce an elite couple to have an extra child, so it’s conceivable that you get more bang per buck by targeting sub-elites).
7. Matt barely discusses my favorite natalist policy: large non-refundable lump-sum tax credits. By my calculations, these are the Holy Grail of tax policy: In the long-run, they more than fund themselves. Key point: You only get the incentive insofar as you pay taxes in the first place.
8. Here’s the worst paragraph in One Billion Americans:
And over the long haul, universal programs probably do more to help the neediest than microtargeted ones do anyway. The old saying about this is that “programs for the poor become poor programs” – programs that are easily subject to political attack – while universal programs garner stronger support. The political science on this is not entirely unambiguous, but there is enough evidence on it to suggest that there ultimately isn’t a real trade-off between helping the poor and helping everyone.
Consider: Making programs universal easily multiplies their cost by a factor of five or ten. Since even means-tested programs are expensive, Matt is talking about spending many trillions of extra dollars. At minimum, you’d expect him to advocate ten million dollars of research to improve the quality of the “not entirely unambiguous” political science on this question. If there’s a moderate chance we can painlessly save trillions of dollars, wouldn’t it be prudent to explore this possibility?
9. Matt’s cavalier support for universal programs is part of a much larger pattern: He favors massively more government spending on virtually everything. Frankly, he’s a parody of a big-spender – even when he freely admits that government has an awful track record for waste. Thus, after explaining that public transportation costs far more to build in the U.S. than in Europe, he still calls for bigger budgets:
The goal is to spend a little more and in exchange get a lot more – but still with plenty of jobs for everyone. In France, they use a twelve-person crew on a tunnel-boring machine (TBM), while America uses twenty-five. We don’t need to fire half the TBM operators; what we should do is hire 50 percent more but insist on building three times as many tunnels.
For Matt, apparently, spending 50% more is spending “a little more”!
10. Matt correctly explains that according to National Academy of Science estimates, the average immigrant to the U.S. is a net fiscal positive. And he toys with the idea of imposing surtaxes on low-skilled immigrants to sweeten the calculation. But if we followed even half of Matt’s spending advice, steep surtaxes would be required to prevent immigrants from becoming big net fiscal negatives.
11. If I were an environmentalist, I would be underwhelmed by Matt’s attempt to assuage my fears:
[W]e can’t just ask people to give up the fruits of prosperity. Nor does it make sense to try to minimize the number of prosperous people. What the world needs, climatewise, is to develop and deploy technologies that will make prosperous lifestyles sustainable. If that can be done, the number of prosperous people is irrelevant.
Any alarmist worth his salt will object, “Let’s hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Even if cheap, green technologies become available, dysfunctional policies could well prevent them from being deployed. So let’s hedge our bets by continuing our efforts to restrain population growth – at least until Matt’s techno-topia arrives.”
12. Lest you get the wrong impression, Matt has excellent discussions of…
a. How absurdly low U.S. population density is, even ignoring Alaska and the Rockies.
b. The evils – and anti-natalist side effects – of helicopter parenting.
c. Deregulating childcare.
d. Mariel boatlift revisionism and anti-revisionism.
e. The JTWBDAAIOACDT argument (my label, not Matt’s).
f. How much of the damage of climate change ultimately stems from immigration restrictions.
g. The theory and practice of moving the federal government to the Midwest.
h. The ins and outs of housing deregulation
i. Peakload pricing.
j. America’s absurdly high infrastructure costs.
13. The only major category of spending that Matt wants to cut is defense. A great choice – but hard to reconcile with his national greatness agenda. If he were really serious about “standing up to China,” you’d expect him to copy-and-paste his position on tunnel-boring machines: Let’s have 50% more military – and do three times as much with it.
Overall, this is the best big-picture progressive policy book I can remember. That said, One Billion Americans’ only stereotypically progressive feature is its commitment to profligacy. Everything else should appeal to rationalists of across the spectrum.