What gets lost at the municipal level when “we don’t even try to do anything together anymore”? What kinds of “patriotic projects and pursuits of national greatness” might not sound so bad today? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Matthew Yglesias. This present conversation focuses on Yglesias’ book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger. Yglesias is the co-founder and senior correspondent for Vox. He also hosts the political podcast The Weeds, and contributes regularly to NPR’s All Things Considered. Prior to Vox, Yglesias was a columnist for Slate, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and a writer for The American Prospect and The Atlantic.
ANDY FITCH: So let’s say the US faces the threat of losing its singular status as much bigger than all other rich countries, and much richer than all other big countries. For those Americans embarrassed (especially during a Donald Trump presidency) by any further attempt to reassert our bigness or to stay “number one,” for those who would prefer to discuss pursuing multilateral alliances or emulating domestic achievements of smaller nations like Denmark or Israel or Singapore, could you give a few examples of how our everyday lives long have benefited from our country’s distinctive stature?
MATTHEW YGLESIAS: Sure. One good example comes out of a PEN America report released just a couple weeks ago, documenting how much Chinese censors now influence Hollywood movie production. With the Chinese box office now bigger than the US domestic box office, Chinese censors have a louder voice in those discussions. Or in the book I describe this whole controversy when the Chinese government put incredible pressure on people in the NBA not to say supportive things about Hong Kong protests. So I mean, I don’t like Donald Trump either, but I doubt anybody in the US will find themselves better off with more and more media and cultural organizations operating under Chinese censorship rules.
Similarly, from a basic standpoint of economic prosperity, most of us may not work at giant iconic global companies (though many people do), but we all benefit from the fact that innovations tend to come here first. Companies want to operate in the American marketplace, whether to sell their new electric car, or to stream their video service, or whatever. If you invent or produce something, you want it circulating in America’s big, dominant economy.
And then conversely, if we want to regulate industries, if we want to tell companies “Okay, you have to make more water-efficient dishwashers, and to stop polluting our lakes and rivers,” we again need economic clout. When the US updates its regulations right now, most companies comply. But if Iceland decides on its own “We want to make dishwashers more energy efficient,” manufacturers don’t feel the same pressure. I had a great time in Iceland. I admire their incredible political ideals. But they still have to rely essentially on EU and US regulatory frameworks to drive progress forward in most areas of domestic life.
Then for a slightly more meta angle on this book project, one sentence of seeming background context stood out: “Technocratic thinking is out of style in American politics… but the fact remains that… not everything is about ideology, culture war posturing, or a remorseless struggle for power.” From that perspective, how has it freed up mental space for you to invent a collective technical challenge for us to solve technocratically? How might thinking about the needs of a billion future Americans help push us beyond today’s petty, partisan squabbles?
I cover American politics. I cover all the crazy things Trump says. I consider it important to keep up that sort of daily record. But of course it also just exasperates me. So when I try to step back and regain focus on our bigger, longer-term challenges, something like competition with China comes to mind. So okay, what’s the solution? The solution is more Americans. So then this raises a bunch of follow-up questions. What about the traffic jams? What about the housing? Where would we all fit? For that kind of research and reporting, I need to talk to people who know about housing, to people who know how mass-transit systems work. And then I need to play out some of the hypotheticals. This book has a bit of make-believe, in terms of imagining an American politics in which we don’t just yell at each other, but instead really try to solve big problems. So even if you don’t completely buy every idea I offer in here, hopefully you can appreciate this basic approach of: “Well, what if we had a huge common goal, and what if we focused on how to achieve that goal?”
And if I had to isolate one single animating principle for this whole project, it would stem from a sense of Malthusian zero-sum competition for scarce natural resources extending across humans’ long agricultural history, getting dislodged by explosive industrial gains during the past couple centuries, and then further diminishing as a decisive factor in post-industrial economies fueled by innovation most of all. Could you start to flesh out, for example, how this perspective might help to allay certain environmental concerns — with a swelling US population not just producing more (energy-insatiable) Americans, but providing better solutions to global climate problems?
Climate change definitely stands out. And part of my thinking here got shaped by Green New Deal proposals, which exemplify for me this idea that we can’t just cut greenhouse-gas emissions to a sustainable level by shrinking the global population or squeezing the US economy. We’re not going from 8 billion to 1 billion people, or from contemporary Canadian living standards to the living standards in Nepal. So if we want to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, that means deploying solar panels and windmills. That means inventing and improving methods for energy storage. That means converting to electric cars and other sustainable ways of doing things.
Some of this sounds daunting. But if we can do it, then we can support a large, prosperous, thriving population. And if we can’t do it, then we’re completely fucked. Just look at the Americans today trying to live the most ecological life possible. I mean, God bless them. I really appreciate their efforts. But I don’t see them achieving zero-emissions lifestyles. In the book I actually quote Greta Thunberg on this. She pledges to sail across the Atlantic, to give the world this very evocative example. She gets it done. She thanks the people who made it possible. Though then she says something like: “Okay, but we can’t live like this. I’m not saying everybody should ride around on sailboats all the time. I’m trying to dramatize a global problem.” That makes sense to me. We need to hear the message from today’s cutting-edge climate activists not as “We should all go back to sailboats,” but as: “We need sustainable means of international travel.”
So how would the infrastructure build-out for a much larger US population overlap fortuitously with the build-out for a zero-carbon economy — and with the added impetus of a spiking population prompting substantive action sooner rather than later?
Well particularly in the US, we have all these cars. We have all these single-family houses. We have these long roads running between them. And it just doesn’t work. It generates an incredible amount of pollution. So even if we didn’t add any people, we have to factor in replacing these homes with more energy-efficient housing, with different HVAC systems. We need new kinds of power lines. Electric-grid experts tell us that even if we build all the solar panels and windmills and batteries that we can imagine, our current power lines couldn’t handle the interchange. So we’ll need to replace all the power plants anyway. We need to rebuild all the natural-gas distribution anyway. We need much more mass transit and multi-family housing, especially in densely populated cities. And at that point, we might as well build an infrastructure for a much bigger, more inclusive, more dynamic economy.
And if we can keep in mind the comforting vision of a US with one billion people simply having the population density of France, then we also can start to think proactively about producing more Americans — rather than just worrying about crowding out or displacing certain Americans. Here you note that present-day conservative rhetoric picks up on the very real fact of US adults not having their desired number of children, but doesn’t offer any constructive policy pivot to help would-be parents. Progressives, by contrast, might actively call for paid family leave, child allowances, and subsidized daycare, while shying away from more direct claims that we need an overt fertility program. What would it take for conservatives to see pro-family social investments as a commitment to ongoing national greatness? And what would it take for progressives to see such a program as providing “reproductive autonomy in both directions”?
First, I don’t participate enough in conservative conversations on this topic to know what really animates them. But I can’t help noticing today that when conservative politicians want to say things which resonate with voters, they often actually offer ideas that go against classic free-market economics or libertarianism. You see that from Josh Hawley. You see it from Donald Trump. You see it from Tom Cotton. But the actual policymaking in conservative states remains mostly hooked on a “business-friendly” agenda of tax cuts and reduced government spending. So they face a basic intellectual contradiction right now. It would greatly benefit the causes they claim to care about if they could just say: “Yes, we need to do some things collectively.”
And one thing conservatives care about more than anyone else is Americans raising more children. That doesn’t have to mean weird mind control. Americans openly acknowledge today not having as many children as they want to have. They give as one of their biggest reasons that they can’t afford more children. I just want progressives to take that concern seriously — as seriously as they take health care and a million other topics.
More generally, I want our policy conversations to acknowledge that most Americans are working-class people with not incredibly glamorous jobs. Most Americans work to live, rather than living to work. We should try just as hard to help them have rich and viable family lives, as to have a thriving economic life. We shouldn’t impose on everyone the mentality of affluent, highly educated, super-ambitious professionals. Many, many Americans aspire to be a normal person who works primarily to support a family. That’s a very laudable life. So progressives might tell you childcare’s too expensive — but that never seems to become a big point of emphasis when Democrats get down to drafting basic policy priorities.
I’d love to see it elevated a bit in the hierarchy, because it actually touches everybody. When you reach the phase of life when a bunch of people around you have little kids, you see this quite clearly. And then with the COVID pandemic, with school closures, who doesn’t see us having a huge problem here?
Along those lines, you write that our inherited paradigm of K-12 public education still remains invaluable, but also “insanely limited” when it comes to all the gaps in the evening, in summer, or on professional-development days for teachers (often coming at the expense of already skimpy vacation days for working parents). Here could you take up this inadequate educational coverage to speak to a broader reality in which, because our market economy doesn’t magically allocate extra resources to parents, our public-policy measures must deliberately do so: again both to enhance kids’ lives, and to incentivize parenthood in the first place?
Absolutely. And for a bit of history, not that long ago most Americans still lived on farms. American society thought of kids as economic assets. American schools taught basic and essential skills like reading and writing. Our education system was well designed for that, while still allowing these same kids to work in the fields during the most important times of year. But in the modern world, we just have these huge stretches (before kids turn five, or after 3:30 PM, or all during summer) with not much happening.
The book offers some specific policy suggestions. We need the kind of paid parental leave many other societies have. We need more preschool opportunities. We should restructure after-school programs. I could go on. I have my views on all of this. Other people may come to different conclusions on some of the details. But I don’t see how anybody could think it’s best to leave parents of children under five, or parents who work all summer, or parents with weekend obligations, to just fend for themselves. Right now, we basically offer them nothing.
So I welcome all of the current media attention on these topics during the pandemic. But we need those same kinds of stories every summer. Don’t our kids always need something like school in the summertime as well, some kind of camp or something? We have a lot of different possibilities. But we need a basic commitment, and we need to develop a coherent plan. How can we keep all these children safe? How can we keep their parents sane? Unless we want to tell Americans to just skip having children, we need to offer parents something tangible.
Expanded immigration can increase our population even faster, with high-performing working-age adults contributing to public coffers from the start. First though, in what ways do all sides in today’s polarized debates need to rethink immigration not as a favor we should or shouldn’t do for certain deserving or undeserving people — but as a distinct strategic asset of an inclusive credo-based nation (at least in our better moments) like the US?
I’ll start with conservatives. Anti-immigration conservatives have adopted this extremely narrow perspective. They obsess over angel moms and any terrifying thing they can find, so that immigration just seems solely bad. Progressives have a much more humane view, which I appreciate, but which still lends itself to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach. If Donald Trump puts kids in cages, then certain Americans feel the need to embrace these kids and their families. But if Trump can externalize immigration pressures, so that the Guatemalan authorities intercept people before they reach Mexico, then most Americans’ attention seems to move elsewhere.
Again, I admire people on the left passionately opposed to cruelty in all its forms. But that perspective still leaves a lot offstage. It also obscures all of immigration’s incredible benefits for American society. The Lincoln administration passed what it called An Act to Encourage Immigration. They didn’t yet have the concept of human trafficking. But they faced a situation with all of these unscrupulous immigration brokers. And they basically said: “No, we need to address this, not to prevent people from coming, but to encourage them to come. We need them to trust that they’ll get here safely.”
Lincoln basically made the case that part of how the Union would win the Civil War involved inviting more immigrants to come, and offering them homesteads, and opportunities to farm land, and opportunities to work in cities. That was Lincoln’s strategy for American greatness. And once you start thinking about it this way today (while also now drawing on an overwhelming preponderance in the research), you can make what I consider a more politically persuasive case. You can make the argument that the US should not only provide refuge for the world’s most desperate populations, but should likewise offer opportunities to talented and ambitious and hard-working people not desperate enough to try some of these gambits like sneaking across the desert.
So in pursuit of a “ruthless pragmatism” that utilizes immigration as a strategic tool to address acute national needs, what kinds of policies could help to alleviate a dynamic in which immigration undoubtedly benefits American society as a whole, but gets disproportionately concentrated in regions already lacking an adequate housing supply (and with depopulated regions potentially benefitting much more from an influx of new residents)?
For one example, Adam Ozimek, John Lettieri, and Kenan Fikri write about “Heartland Visas.” A number of mid-sized cities (especially Midwestern mayors) have been very interested. Pete Buttigieg talked about this a lot in his presidential campaign. Nan Whaley, Dayton’s mayor, often talks about creating special visas for skilled workers who can move to cities like Toledo or Hartford or Buffalo. They’re not huge or incredibly glamorous cities. They offer average-ish (rather than above-average) wages. They tend to be cold. So as it stands right now, not really through any fault of these cities’ leaders, they have a hard time attracting new residents. But we shouldn’t just let dozens and dozens of smaller Northeastern and Midwestern cities waste away, particularly at a moment with millions and millions of people around the world who would jump at the chance to live in Springfield, Massachusetts. Springfield has such better average living conditions than so many countries.
So most basically, we could create special-purpose visas alongside our current more open-ended visas. People on the special-purpose visas can come if, for a limited time (say five years), they agree to live in particular places. Lots of American companies would have a strong incentive to set up satellite offices or branch campuses in those places. Some people on these visas will sort of do their time then move on to different parts of the country. But others will put down roots in these communities. They’ll make these cities more diverse, with residents really from around the world. Some will start their own businesses.
Every few years, somebody writes a heartwarming story about how refugees have revitalized one town or another. Lewiston, Maine comes to mind. Often, because of factory closures or something similar, these smaller cities have fallen on hard times. When they get an influx of newcomers who appreciate the opportunity to live and thrive in the United States of America, that really adds to these cities. Everybody benefits when legacy businesses can bring in new customers, and when enterprising newcomers can start up their own businesses — say by opening more interesting restaurants. That all could create big new opportunities for the country if we don’t frame immigration as something scary.
National-renewal visas potentially leading to US citizenship also raised a broader demographic/democratic question: how can we ever expect elected officeholders to actively incentivize a population explosion that would reshape the electorate itself in highly unpredictable ways?
This gets to me not being a complete open-borders guy. Bryan Caplan’s great book Open Borders makes a lot of smart economic arguments. But questions of citizenship raise genuine political concerns, and I consider it fair for various people to see this from different perspectives. The US currently has a foreign-born share of its population lower than in Canada or Australia or Sweden. So we know that democratic societies can tolerate more of this. But the US might need to get a bit more deliberate about who gets visas, like these other countries. Prioritizing people with higher education levels and stronger English-language skills probably makes sense.
The US has consistently benefited by welcoming people from around the world — regardless of whether local elected officials see this as in their best interests. Foreigners, or just domestic migration, or just shifting neighborhood dynamics all mean that the electorate inevitably changes, right? So again I sense we’d be better off establishing some bigger national goals, and figuring out how to overcome these more localized kinds of opposition.
Specifically in terms of national-renewal visas, though, the plan (by design) would have individual cities opt in. Many cities would likely decline. But some would opt in if they could, so why not let them try this? Part of a ruthlessly pragmatic immigration approach does mean accepting that politics will continue to constrain immigration possibilities. But then we also should find all the politically feasible ways to encourage immigration whenever we can.
Turning now to rural communities, I do sense a rhetorically tricky argument here. I appreciate again your basic point that “Natural resources just aren’t that big a deal in the modern economy.” But I imagine many rural audiences hearing this as: “You just aren’t that big a deal in this modern economy.” So no doubt, our aging, shrinking rural communities need to see population decline (rather than diversified population growth) as the true danger. But how to make that case as persuasively as possible? And what immediate policy measures might best help to first bring rural communities out of a defensive crouch when it comes to anticipating new population growth?
Well I actually think of patriotism as a valuable force on this. All of our “united” states are intertwined, right? I might live in D.C. I might have a very different lifestyle from people in rural America. We may not become best friends, because we care about such different things. But I really need food and natural resources that come from these rural areas. By the same token, rural America can prosper only by having an urban America to sell to. And scientific innovation can benefit all of us.
Then from a slightly different perspective, I don’t think we talk nearly enough about the ongoing depopulation of rural America. We all should recognize a big problem here. So many of our small towns have so much to offer, but only if they can maintain a steady enough population to support local businesses. If not, then very few people might ever want to live there again. Or if you can’t get decent cellphone or broadband service, how will we ever build a 5G network out there, and how will your business ever stay afloat?
You can overcome inherent cost issues in low-density places if you can confidently predict that the population will keep growing and make your investments worthwhile. But when we have huge numbers of rural counties with shrinking populations, it gets much harder to keep investing and updating and adopting the most modern technologies.
So we face some pretty tough decisions on this. We see urban-rural divides intensifying in almost every democratic country — with people further sorting themselves based on various differences in education and available resources and cultural values. But I still sense, more pragmatically, that we have very linked fates. Some of that gets obscured by divisive and cynical and opportunistic political leaders. But some of it gets lost through this kind of post-Cold War conceptual drift, with it often feeling like we don’t even try to do anything together anymore. That’s where certain patriotic projects and pursuits of national greatness don’t sound so bad to me. We do need to ask ourselves how to help all American communities flourish. We all should want both flourishing cities and rural regions, rather than just reasserting our own preferences and identities.
For one particular pragmatic suggestion, I very much appreciate your call to decentralize federal agencies. So how could relocating an appropriate agency (without constant need for person-to-person exchanges across the federal bureaucracy) strategically serve to: make the US government a buck, boost local D.C. tax revenues while reducing housing scarcity, raise living standards for this agency’s employees while stabilizing its operating budget, reinvigorate a sense of distributed American self-governance, and reinvest in an under-utilized American city, all at once?
I’ll think about something like the National Institutes of Health. This very important government agency employs many scientists and doctors, here in suburban Maryland — one of the most affluent and expensive parts of the country. But this particular government agency doesn’t (or hopefully doesn’t) have much to do with day-to-day politics. You actually don’t want NIH personnel constantly scurrying over to the White House, to request or to receive memos from the President.
So how about if we moved the National Institutes of Health to Cleveland? Cleveland, traditionally a big American city, has pro sports teams, and at least used to have a major international airport hub. It has a good theater scene. It has some great museums. And of course it has the Cleveland Clinic, right? That means it also has a big, well-regarded health infrastructure. But houses in the Cleveland metro area are cheap. Manufacturing jobs have really eroded over the years. Cleveland has suffered from the kinds of oblivious American trade policies that let so many producers and distributors slip away from Ohio so rapidly without really any national plan to do anything about it.
But we still can develop smarter ways to address these dislocations. For one example, we can move certain federal-government jobs to communities with low costs of living, with under-utilized public and private infrastructure, with high-quality but increasingly isolated cultural institutions. To me that sounds both more equitable and more efficient.
Similarly, since straightforward business logic makes it unlikely that any private industry will just happen to help out the nation by relocating someplace that could use the investment, how might US government help to incentivize, facilitate, and make viable this kind of move for a whole clustered industry ecosystem?
Part of this could just mean providing technical assistance for city governments that tend to not have huge in-house teams. Another big part would involve convening meetings between companies in the same industry — under federal auspices, so nobody has to worry about running afoul of antitrust rules, or about establishing an illegally coordinated cartel. A third important part would be for Congress to ban the current practice whereby states and cities bid against each other by offering tax breaks to companies considering where to relocate. These tax breaks themselves aren’t necessarily bad. But they should get used effectively to promote a broader national goal of decentralizing certain high-wage industries out of our most expensive metro areas.
Some smaller policy fixes would help, too. But my biggest point is simply that the federal government can and should participate in these kinds of public decisions. Congress and the executive branch didn’t need to be such helpless bystanders to the Amazon HQ2 saga. Amazon has a lot of interests before the federal government. So the government can say to Amazon: “Hey, you know, it would help America for this opportunity to go to a community that really needs it.”
Then for today’s thriving (and often cramped) American cities, housing scarcity perhaps most concretely showcases how technocratic policy solutions encounter friction when taken up by real-world political bodies — sometimes bodies “not even close to…representative of the community whose interests are supposedly at issue.” So what broadest case might you present to urban policymakers on the less obvious opportunity costs connected to maintaining current regulatory and administrative roadblocks on housing? And how might such cities push beyond a dynamic in which infinitudes of microdecisions lead up to glaringly problematic macroconsequences?
Well at the very least, everybody now acknowledges we have a real problem. You don’t hear many people in New York or greater Boston or D.C. or Seattle saying: “Oh, the housing status quo works just great. Let’s keep it like this forever.” Instead you get the question of: “Well, what can we do about this?” And I think the answer quite clearly comes down to the fact that if you want to make certain US cities more affordable, you need to increase the supply of dwellings. You can debate the right balance between market-rate development and subsidized development. But you still face the same basic numbers game. Unless we build more places for people to live, we’ll have this scarcity.
But your question also asks where precisely this scarcity comes from. Most basically, it comes from the fact that building more housing in and near Seattle will bring broad benefits to King County and to the region, but also very, very localized costs. It might mean a lot more traffic on your block. It might mean construction noise throughout your house. I’ve had an apartment building going up across the street for over a year now. And yes, this has been super annoying [Laughter]. Even as the most pro-housing person in the universe, I still don’t like hearing a big construction project across the street. But so does everybody say no to construction on their block? Or does everyone agree to making their city more livable? Right now, those kinds of decisions get made very locally. It shouldn’t surprise us that, as a result, most city residents (especially property owners) express their individual interests. They demand less noise and less traffic on their block, rather than housing fairness or regional prosperity.
When you manage to push these decisions up to the state level, then you can get big reforms — say in Oregon and Washington, or some smaller but significant reforms in California on accessory dwellings. East Coast state legislatures haven’t much taken up this topic yet, but they should. State economies definitely get harmed by the housing limitations in our coastal cities. When we address things at the micro level, we also send the message that those decisions don’t matter so much. So sure, let local residents decide: “Should the city plant an elm tree or an oak tree on our block?” Residents should get the tree they want. But if every localized decision blocks housing, that will have dire consequences for the larger community, so we need to weigh in as a larger community.
Again, transportation topics could easily get their own full interview. But how about if we keep it to S-Bahns?
You should see how much of that my editor made me cut [Laughter]. Apparently, not everyone shares my passion for discussing S-Bahns or congestion pricing. But for S-Bahns: continental Europe has been very good at repurposing its legacy mainline railroads, and updating these as mass-transit infrastructure. American tourists might know the RER in Paris, or the S-Bahn in Berlin. Munich’s MVV probably offers the most applicable model for the United States. These cities have sometimes built an additional tunnel to connect a couple key stations. Often, they’ve electrified tracks so that fast start-and-stop trains can run on them. And they’ve integrated fares, so that you pay the same price (based on the distance you travel) whether you take trains, or busses, or transfer between them — without the need for a human ticket-collector to sort it all out.
In America, by contrast, our biggest cities often have commuter-rail lines, typically with diesel trains. The trains stop in the city center, then need to turn back around (rather than running through on a loop). They still have conductors on board, rather than transit-style fares. That means high operating costs. That means expensive trains running less frequently than in Europe. That means, instead of residential/commercial hubs clustered around stations, parking lots for commuter-rail riders.
But many mid-sized American cities could basically get new transit options from existing infrastructure, for a much lower cost than building things brand new. And if you ask current residents in big US cities like New York, Philadelphia, D.C., or Boston about adding millions of new residents, they’ll respond: “How could all these people fit on the subway? Our metro system’s already too crowded. What about all of the traffic jams?” So finding relatively low-cost ways to make commuter-rail tracks more efficient would be extremely helpful.
So to close, how about offering your most general case that, while accommodating one billion Americans might sound “impossible and absurd, there’s actually nothing hard about it”?
Well part of that comes from thinking about the national resources we expend right now to stop foreigners from moving here, and how much of our city politics focuses on preventing people from building new homes. Or I’ll think of how little we do to deploy known, proven technologies and policies (whether around S-Bahns or congestion pricing, or providing preschool, or a child allowance). So by “easy” I meant a lot of this doesn’t require us reaching a new conceptual plane. It’s not like: “Let’s colonize Mars.” I mean, maybe we should try to colonize Mars, though we’d have a lot to figure out. But how do you build efficient housing? That’s a solved problem. How do you run effective preschools? That’s a solved problem. How do you charge people more if they drive into the city right as the traffic picks up? That’s a solved problem. We already know the solutions to all of those questions. We just need to ask ourselves: “Why not try some of these proven solutions”?
That quickly takes us to questions like: “Do we really want to slip behind? Do we really want to drop from number one to number two”? I’ve personally never heard a US politician say: “Sure, let’s do that.” I sense a broadly shared view that we should maintain our lead in global economic competition and global power. I agree with that view. So I think we need to seriously ask ourselves: “What will this take?” Again, I think one basic answer will be: “Many more people.” And related answers will be: “More support for families with young kids. More openness to immigration. More home-building. More transportation infrastructure.” So let’s do all of that.
Portrait of Matthew Yglesias courtesy of Moshe Zusman.