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The Emptiness of Matthew Yglesias’s Biggest Idea

“One Billion Americans” is a loosely-informed mishmash of policy, held together by anxieties about American power.

Matthew Yglesias argues that the United States should triple its population in order to compete with China and India.
Three Lions/Getty Images

What is a book? A novel, a biography, a popular science story—I think I know what these are, even at the far edges of formal experimentation, where categories are tricky. But what does it mean when a columnist or a pundit writes “a book”? Swift reads, even when they number in the many hundreds of pages, volumes like David Brooks’s The Second Mountain or Paul Krugman’s Arguing With Zombies or Thomas Friedman’s “flat world” diptych tend to collect a set of superficially counterintuitive arguments and insights that upon closer inspection almost always resolve themselves into the preexisting, commonsense notions that their intended readership already assumes to be true. Designed for an educated, business-class airport set who have heard of the Aspen Ideas Festival, they gather groups of loosely connected, lecture-circuit insights like guests at a party where everyone seems to be the friend of someone else’s spouse, awkwardly unable to explain why they’re all there together, sweating and drinking under the same tent.

One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger
by Matthew Yglesias
Portfolio, 288 pp., $28.00

Matthew Yglesias’s latest, One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger, is a near-perfect example of the genre—a book-length collection of thoughts and proposals loosely arrayed around the endearingly crackpot idea that there should be one billion Americans by some undefined point in the future. Why one billion? The author is surprisingly hazy on this point, except to note that the aggregate economic output of China’s and India’s billion-plus people will inevitably exceed our own (and China’s may already have). Yglesias does recognize that by any per capita measure, both of these mega-countries remain much, much poorer than the United States. But “India and China are trying to become less poor and seem to be succeeding.” They may, of course, “stumble and fail, in which case we will stay number one,” although we should not deliberately pursue this “hideously immoral” policy aim. “By contrast,” however, “tripling the nation’s population to match the rising Asian powers is something that is in our power to achieve.”

OK. In point of fact, this specific idea disappears for long stretches of the book. One Billion Americans is stuffed full of perfectly serviceable and unobjectionable policy ideas that would, hypothetically, allow for a denser country that permitted more immigration and subsidized a higher birthrate. But it is not by any stretch an organized proposal for how, over a period of years and decades, the USA will triple its head count. The policies and the population exist in a curious parallel, running in the same direction without touching one another. Many of the specific policy proposals are cribbed from other countries where they’ve been successfully implemented or else yoinked from online policy discourse. Congestion pricing in big cities is good urban policy, as European experiments in cities like Oslo and Paris have conclusively shown. Matt Bruenig’s People’s Policy Project “Family Fun Pack” is full of interesting ideas about alleviating the dire economic hardship of raising children in America if you aren’t already rich. A gas tax is a bad way to fund transportation infrastructure.

These sentiments are all unobjectionably true and largely useless, since Yglesias has neither the visionary scope nor the technical expertise to make any of this remotely plausible as a sustained argument, a “case for thinking bigger” if you will, or even as a set of discrete proposals. He has no theory of political power or change, no idea how any of this will come to pass. “There’s no way that all the specific ideas in this book will ever command broad consensus in American society,” he writes on page one. “But,” he says, “I think the big picture idea of the book, that America should try to stay number one, already does.” This is not so much the book’s “big picture idea” as it is its central anxiety. Unlike the titular thesis and the subtitle’s big thoughts, this one does not disappear.

Yglesias is a digitally peripatetic, D.C.-based commentator who has bounced from early notice as a Harvard student blogger through a series of increasingly prominent online gigs for outfits such as Slate and The American Prospect before landing, with his friend and peer Ezra Klein, at Vox. He attracted notice as a young liberal hawk on foreign policy and converted into a kind of enthusiastically untutored business and money columnist, then into a catch-all policy guy. The left regards him as a contrarian and slightly sinister nincompoop, infamous for responding to a disastrous factory collapse in Bangladesh with a column titled, “Different Countries Have Different Safety Standards, and That’s OK.” 

The center and right used to laud him for taking the occasional potshot at the supposedly radical left for protesting too stridently or complaining about globalization, although they now seem to have largely forgotten he exists. During the recent protests and uprising against police brutality, he glibly proclaimed that “abolish the police” or “defund the police” were mere “three-word slogans” and not “policy” proposals, before thousands of replies informed him that, in fact, police abolition has a long and detailed intellectual history, to which his response was a churlish and late review of Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale’s 2017 volume, The End of Policing. He complained that it did not say what he thought it ought to have said about the scourge of “violent crime.”

This habit of assuming that a popular slogan must be devoid of content because he has not himself done the reading is of a piece with many no-longer-so-young commentators who evince an interest in “policy” primarily as a style of discussion, regardless of intellectual content. (Ezra Klein famously promoted former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan as an example of even-if-you-disagree-with-him fiscal policy seriousness, before sheepishly admitting it was all a content-free con, long after it ceased to matter.) Yglesias is an enthusiastic opinion-haver, but he is no autodidact: He lacks interest in the particularities and provenance of ideas that often obsess the self-taught. Policy is what serious people write about: Matthew Yglesias is a serious person; ergo, Yglesias writes about policy.

But this lack of interest in either real ideas or practical details means that even when Yglesias is sorta right, he is often yawningly, astonishingly wrong. It is this complete, blithe, and seemingly deliberate ignorance that drives so many of his detractors to apoplexy. Two-thirds of the way through One Billion Americans, he finds himself discussing universities. The broad sweep of his argument—that colleges and universities really can be engines of both personal transformation and broad economic good—is, again, unobjectionable. The observation that a small cadre of elite institutions gobbles up disproportionate resources, especially where research is concerned, is perhaps less defensible. The ranks of so-called R1 and R2 research universities include many nonelite and even regional schools, and many of them secure significant research monies and produce much excellent scholarship. But I can let this slide: Compared to the resources of the Ivies, say, their few national peers, and a handful of influential medical schools, there is indeed a yawning gap to everyone else.

And yet. In the process of extolling the idea of flooding “second-tier institutions in struggling places” with billions upon billions in federal funds in order to transform them “into real research powerhouses,” he airily notes that “[c]reating a brand-new university or two in places like Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta, which don’t have many, wouldn’t be a terrible idea either.” I now split my time between Pittsburgh, where I work at a university, and Blacksburg, Virginia, where my husband teaches at one. These are both in Appalachia. There are a lot of colleges here: Pitt. Carnegie Mellon. WVU. Penn State. The University of Virginia. Virginia Tech. Wheeling Jesuit. Radford. UNC. Duke. The University of Tennessee. Allegheny. Washington and Jefferson. Appalachian State. The University of Georgia. Mars Hill. East Tennessee. Hollins. Marshall. Charleston. James Madison. Washington and Lee. Marietta. I don’t know much about the Delta, but there are a number of universities nearby, from Jackson State to Alcorn University’s Vicksburg, Natchez, and Lorman campuses, to several excellent universities in New Orleans, just a few hours to the South.*

This is a venial sin, but it demonstrates Yglesias’s fundamental flaw as a writer and thinker: a complete incuriosity about any of the things he’s writing and thinking about. An engaged writer, a person interested in policy, might look at Appalachia and ask: Why, with an actually pretty impressive density of institutions of higher learning for its population and geography, have the attendant economic benefits been either intensely concentrated or incredibly attenuated? Why do they flow unequally within these communities and outside them? Why can you drive five minutes into the Monongahela Valley southeast of prosperous, college-choked, revitalizing Pittsburgh and find yourself in precisely the bombed-out, despairing, Rust Belt squalor that Yglesias rightly identifies as a critical national crisis elsewhere in this very same book? It isn’t that he doesn’t care: It’s that he doesn’t care to ask.

Housing is another example. Yglesias is an enthusiastic proponent of Yimbyism (“Yes In My Back Yard”), a technocratic school of thought that says the housing crisis is primarily one of scarcity, not price, and that if we (who? developers?) could build more apartments and condos, housing prices would fall. The hypothesis is easily falsified by a city like Pittsburgh, my own, where apartment and condo units are going up by the hundreds—and so are average monthly rents. His argument largely hinges on an end to exclusionary single-family zoning, although he again puts forward no real idea of how this is to be accomplished given the piecemeal, municipal nature of zoning regulation in America. Of the other economic forces and financial interests that make single-family subdivisions so attractive to private developers, he has little to say. The phrases “public housing” and “social housing” scarcely appear in the book.* 

Yowlers abound. His comments on the Soviet Union and World War II are, to borrow a phrase from the eccentric Christian socialist critic and writer David Bentley Hart, “tantalizing intimations of a fairly large ignorance.” “When America faced down Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union,” he declares early on, as if this happened simultaneously, “we were the big dogs. We had more people, more wealth, and more industrial capacity.” Shortly after, however, he offers, “The Soviet Union … consistently maintained a population that was larger than America’s.” “America alone,” he declares, “had enough economic mass to take down [the Axis powers],” as if it wasn’t the productive capacity of the Soviets and something like 25 million Soviet deaths that really beat the Nazis. (He also appears to believe that Japan did not industrialize until the 1970s, which would have shocked our boys in the Pacific Theater.) 

Yglesias’s understanding of the cost structure of American health care—“even if our health-care system is substantially overhauled in ways that are designed to take those [uniquely high] costs off the backs of patients, they will simply recur again as costs to the taxpayer”—is that of a politician on the take, or a journalist whose bread is buttered by industry ad revenue. America’s uniquely inflated drug prices, insane medical billing and administrative costs, extraordinary doctors’ salaries, and uniquely profitable health insurance companies are not immune to reform or intervention for any reason other than political choice and influence. Our health indicators and life expectancy lag the rest of the “developed” world, so it is not as if we are paying for quality or “innovation.” We simply have a surplus of graft and middlemen. 

On the environment the book is particularly bad. Yglesias appears to believe that climate change is almost exclusively a coastal phenomenon; he praises the U.S. as an agricultural powerhouse without acknowledging that rising global temperatures and the attendant changes in climate could—and already do—wreak havoc on the American heartland in relentless cycles of deluge-fueled river flooding and desertifying drought. In a footnote, he writes that “Argentina, famously, was one of the richest countries in the world at the beginning of World War I, only to stumble into a seemingly endless series of policy errors that have ended with it left in the dust.” Most of this happened not after WWI, and not in a “stumble,” but after the U.S. initiated Operation Condor to destroy South American democracy and ignite decades of torture, murder, and terror. The U.S. small truck market, the complexities of the U.S. visa system, and the interpretation of economic statistics from “Purchasing Power Parity” to worker productivity all fall within the ambit of Yglesias’s ability to hit the backboard but never make a layup. 

To what end? Yglesias is worried that if we do not act to shore up our population and enact some cafeteria-tray selection of his favored liberal-ish “policies,” the billion-strong Chinese and the billion-strong Indians will soon eat our lunch. His defense of domestic policies as a series of non-zero-sum trade-offs ends at the water’s edge; against the rising, populous Chinese powerhouse there can be no defense but more people, more widgets, more money, and winning.  

American power is rivaled by the growing power of the People’s Republic of China, a country that’s aggressively using its commercial clout to try to silence critics abroad, conducting egregious human rights abuses against its Uighur minority, and cracking down on freedoms in Hong Kong.

Hey, no fair! Using commercial clout to silence critics abroad is our racket.

The book is pervaded by this sense that America’s relative decline is in fact an absolute decline, that to win by a smaller margin is to lose, and that to exist in some future state of relative parity with a few other big countries would effectively represent the undoing of America itself, a disquiet that is shockingly congruent with the anxieties and disquietudes of Donald Trump’s own brand of nationalism. Yglesias considers himself a liberal and would recoil from the comparison, but this lack of introspection is just a symptom of the book’s disinterest in thinking through its own premises. 

Yet for all its inherent jingoism, One Billion Americans is not an altogether despairing vision. I am not immune to the utopian attractions of welcomed immigrants from all over the world repopulating Detroit and Cleveland, Bangladeshi and Nigerian doctors working side by side in American hospitals without having to incur a hundred grand in debt at a U.S. medical school, cheap college, universal childcare, cheaper rent. This is the future that liberals want. But if this is how they think, they’re not going to get there.

* This article originally confused the Mississippi Delta and Mississippi River Delta regionsIt also incorrectly stated that the phrase “public housing” does not appear in the book.