About 330 million people inhabit the good ol’ US of A. Seems like a lot. But is it enough? Policy journalist and Vox.com co-founder Matthew Yglesias argues it’s not even close. In his new book, “One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger,” Yglesias argues that if America’s going to remain top dog on the geopolitical block and stay a step ahead of rising giants with 10-figure populations, like China and India, we need to double our numbers … and then some. That means boosting birthrates and welcoming scads of new immigrants. The book is a detailed examination of the policies we’d need to make this happen. Matt and I explore the under-appreciated virtues of population density and specialized clusters, which turns into a sort of digressive case study of the beneficial long-term effects of our old early-oughts wonk-blogger DC poker game. We talk about whether we really ought to care if America remains king of the mountain, how to encourage larger families in a non-creepy way, and much more. We didn’t get to a bunch of stuff I wanted to chat about, but we did cover a lot of ground. I always find talking to Matt fun, stimulating, and oddly relaxing. This conversation is no exception and I hope you enjoy it.
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Readings: One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger by Matthew Yglesias
Will Wilkinson: Hi, Matt. Welcome to Model Citizen.
Matthew Yglesias: Hey, I’m really glad to be here.
Will Wilkinson: Thanks for coming on. I understand from following your Twitter feed that you have recently published a new book.
Matthew Yglesias: I have. It’s called One Billion Americans. It’s about why there should be somewhere between 900 million and 1.1 billion Americans. No, the argument of the book is that the United States should try to grow its population, both through more openness to immigration and more support for families and children, make complimentary changes to housing and transportation policy. I should say, I mean, I guess in the marketing materials, we emphasize the idea that one important benefit here is to improve America’s position in geopolitical competition with China and other powers. But also, I simply think these will be changes for the better on their own terms. That a more populous country will be a richer country and that the steps we need to sort of get there are going to make it a more just country, a more dynamic country, a country that’s more capable of sort of solving problems. But as well as continuing to hold our own and stand for liberal values at a time when …
Earlier this afternoon, I was reading that the Chinese government has decided that their Xinjiang re-education camps have been such a success and they’re going to bring them to Tibet. It’s horrifying. Of course, we’re not going to have a war with China. This is like Bush era stuff where it’s like, well, we’re going to make all the mean dictators become democracies. A, that didn’t work, and, b, it’s obviously not going to work with China. We’re not going to force them to be better. But we can [crosstalk 00:03:57]-
Will Wilkinson: Well, I used to buy into the democratization theory, that when places grow the values of the population changes, there’s a process of liberalization that goes on. Once you hit a certain threshold of wealth, the population starts demanding democracy. I think that justified a lot of our openness to China because we thought, “Aha, we’re tricking them into being like us by giving them a vast market for their exports. We’re going to show them. They’ll turn out to be a democracy.” It hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, they’re just twisting-
Matthew Yglesias: Well, I-
Will Wilkinson: … the NBA’s arm to not say anything bad about China.
Matthew Yglesias: Right. When I was in college, I took a class called globalization and its discontents. It was one of these weird things because Thomas Friedman was one of the professors. It was him and Michael Sandel and Stanley Hoffmann, who’s not as well known.
Will Wilkinson: Did you have to read The Lexus and the Olive Tree for your class?
Matthew Yglesias: Yeah. I really thought actually that Friedman got the better of the argument with these two much more distinguished intellectuals. His view was that, look, China, wasn’t going to be able to just export textiles. They were going to be on the ladder of growth and they were going to want to move up. To do that, they were going to need digital technology. They were going to need computers. They were going to need the internet. That once you got this ungovernable information superhighway into your country, it’s not that liberalization was inevitable, but you would face a hard choice between liberalization and impoverishment. I found that fairly persuasive at the time, and it was completely wrong. I think wronger than the version of the liberalization thesis you outlined. It just turns out to be factually untrue that the internet is this ungovernable space. It’s quite effectively censored.
Little countries have trouble just doing it technically, but China’s big. They’ve got a lot of smart people there. You can comprehensively censor the internet. You can ban Twitter. It’s an incredibly powerful mechanism of surveillance. It’s not impossible to breach the great firewall of China. They actually make it … In some ways they make it porous by design. It’s like if you go visit as a Western business person, if you go frequently, you’ll get a VPN account set up. You can still read The New York Times, you can read Twitter. You don’t need to be annoyed [crosstalk 00:06:26]-
Will Wilkinson: They’re not that interested in controlling you.
Matthew Yglesias: Right.
Will Wilkinson: The visitor. Yeah.
Matthew Yglesias: But if a Chinese person were to set up something like that, well, then they’ve got you. We don’t know … I mean [crosstalk 00:06:38]-
Will Wilkinson: Then all of a sudden your cell phone doesn’t unlock the doors to the train.
Matthew Yglesias: Right. In America, we use the surveillance technology to sell ads, but we can-
Will Wilkinson: We could use it for these constructive social purposes like the Communist Party of China. Our mutual wrongness about the liberalization thesis is a perfect entree to the question that I like to ask everybody at the beginning of the show because we’re cultivating a spirit of intellectual humility. What is the recent thing that you feel like you’ve been wrongest about?
Matthew Yglesias: The recent thing that I have been wrongest about. I’m trying to think.
Will Wilkinson: It doesn’t have to be yesterday, but something that you feel like you were really, really wrong about that you realized you had to change your mind.
Matthew Yglesias: Like a lot of people, I was wrong about a lot of things related to Donald Trump. Not just specifically to him. I mean, I think that I bought into, after the 2012 election, in a sort of a larger way than I should have this narrative of a kind of new Obama electorate that had cast aside the broken ladder of … I don’t know what it was that we thought exactly. Something that I have learned, not just because Trump won the election in 2016, but because I’ve talked to people who worked on the Obama campaign, I’ve talked to people who know political data and the country is just a much more working class, much more traditionalist country than I think a lot of cosmopolitan liberal types wanted to say that it is. Barack Obama and his political team were acutely aware of that fact, but spun the contrary to some extent after the 2012 election. They wanted to use their reelection to get Republicans to do a comprehensive immigration reform. Which incentivized them to tell a certain narrative.
Then the Sandy Hook shooting happened very quickly after Obama’s reelection. Liberal people were really affected by that and wanted to believe that big things were possible. It just turned to be a little bit less true than we really needed it to be. If you want to have a politics, I don’t think you should want to do Donald Trump’s politics or accept everything that he had. But to some extent, it’s like you need to make compromises with the electorate along these lines. A lot of other pieces move coming from that.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. That seems to be a recent turn in your thought, that you need to be realistic about who it is that you’re dealing with. That raises the question that I had about the framing of this book. The pitch that you give is that we need massive population growth to remain competitive globally so that we maintain a kind of international supremacy, stave off the challenges of China and India, and that we’re not going to be able to do it with low or stagnant population growth. I was wondering, is that something that you actually care about, America maintaining a certain kind of hegemonic preeminence? Or is that just something where you think the American electorate pretty uniformly thinks this is a good idea? They like America to be the best and they would like America to stay the best and you’re just going along with that and saying, “Well, if you’re going to will the end, you got to will the means, and here are the means.”
Matthew Yglesias: No. I mean, it is something that … I was really struck by the incident with Daryl Morey and the Hong Kong protestors because I am not a big sinologist or … I don’t know what you call it even. [crosstalk 00:10:38]-
Will Wilkinson: [inaudible 00:10:38].
Matthew Yglesias: People who care a lot about the US, China relationship.
Will Wilkinson: I feel like that’s somebody who deals with your allergies, but …
Matthew Yglesias: But I am a big NBA fan and I follow the league quite closely. I’ve always been happy that LeBron James and the NBA players have been outspoken on social issues domestically. I think that’s good and they’re a sort of empowered fanbase. Like anybody, I saw those protesters in Hong Kong and I sympathized with them and their cause. Daryl Morey was the coach, general manager rather, of the Houston Rockets. Which is a team that has a particularly close relationship with China because Yao Ming used to play for them. He did this tweet and he was like, “Yeah, go protesters.” The league … China came down on the NBA like a ton of bricks. There was incredible backlash from-
Will Wilkinson: They clamored the F up too.
Matthew Yglesias: Yeah. From stakeholders-
Will Wilkinson: It worked.
Matthew Yglesias: … in the league. It really worked. It was very effective and it was alarming.
Will Wilkinson: Do you know what the story is there? It’s still not clear to me. Is there some stipulation in the NBA’s agreement with China that they will have access to their market only as long as they don’t criticize them? That feels like it’s something like that. Or is it just that China sprung that on them? They’re like, “Hey, hey, hey, if you want to keep showing Rockets’ games in the world’s largest media market, you can’t say anything about our camps.”
Matthew Yglesias: I mean, my [crosstalk 00:12:18]-
Will Wilkinson: Or about Hong Kong.
Matthew Yglesias: My understanding comes a little bit more from the Hollywood side than from the NBA side. My understanding of it is that there’s not formal arrangements, you know what I mean? But that means-
Will Wilkinson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Matthew Yglesias: … simply a tacit understanding that it used to be, okay, you might need to censor a movie in a certain way or you wouldn’t be able to show it in China. But then it’s become, unless your studio takes the notes from the Chinese movie censorship all the time, with your big projects at least, you’re just not going to be able to show your movies in China. Is at least how they perceive it in Hollywood. On the one hand, it’s like, okay, NBA players, movies, how big of a deal is it? But what it really illustrates is that this integration democratization thesis that we were talking about wasn’t just wrong. It was in important ways backwards. The economic integration allows China to exert influence over the United States of America because-
Will Wilkinson: They’re importing-
Matthew Yglesias: … American-
Will Wilkinson: … autocracy to the US.
Matthew Yglesias: Right.
Will Wilkinson: Or we are importing their autocracy voluntarily.
Matthew Yglesias: Right. But-
Will Wilkinson: They’re not even doing it to us.
Matthew Yglesias: But it’s actually really bad, I think. We’re only beginning to grapple with it on a political level over the past couple of years. Obviously part of the solution is to address it in specific terms. There could be some kind of legislative dynamics to prevent employers from penalizing employees for something, but it is a numbers game on some level. We see this all the time on regulatory issues. If the United States wants to say, “Look, if you want to sell a dishwasher here, it has to comply with this kind of water standard.” People will do that. Manufacturers will complain about it, but the American market is a really big deal. If The Bahamas-
Will Wilkinson: We take that completely for granted. It’s never part of the deliberative process where we’re like, “Okay, if we impose this new energy efficiency requirement on dishwashers, will anybody build them for us?”
Matthew Yglesias: Right. Exactly.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. We never have that thought because our market is so huge. Every company around the world that exports dishwashers to the United States are just going to do it.
Matthew Yglesias: Right. But smaller countries have to either just ride … They can buy American products or they can buy EU specified products. But it’s like, nobody’s going to tailor-make a dishwasher for The Bahamas.
Will Wilkinson: This is why it matters incidentally why when California decides it’s going to regulate something, its market is so large that people who want to send their exports to California, they’re just going to do whatever California asks for the rest of the American market. California has this kind of de facto power over the entire market. It’s not as strong as the bigger power that we have over dishwashers or whatever, but because it’s a bigger state, it’s the biggest one.
Matthew Yglesias: Right. I think it’s a big deal to the extent that we want to have … We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen in the future, but we want to maximize, I think, our freedom of maneuver around these type of questions. To ensure that if there’s a standard about how businesses think about speech and censorship type issues, that the United States has a good chance of winning a tug of war. There was this incident that I did not notice at the time, but that is very striking. Where some Mercedes ad quoted the Dalai Lama because somehow the Dalai Lama wants you to buy a luxury sedan. The Chinese government freaked out about it. The CEO of Daimler winds up issuing this groveling apology for having given offense to the people of Tibet. You want a situation in which people worry more about losing access to the American market than they do about losing access to the Chinese market.
Depending on how sort of intense these things go, then you got to go with it. It’s not just a conceit or just a political kind of thing. I mean, I think it’s a genuine concern and it speaks to important aspects of what is good about America. I think small countries actually have a lot of virtues. There’s a lot of benefit to being a small country. But America is much too big to be a small country. If we’re going to be a big [crosstalk 00:16:53]-
Will Wilkinson: [inaudible 00:16:53] too big to be a small country.
Matthew Yglesias: If we’re going to be a big country, we should try to secure the actual advantages of being a big country.
Will Wilkinson: Medium, big, no good.
Matthew Yglesias: Well, you see-
Will Wilkinson: [crosstalk 00:17:03]-
Matthew Yglesias: … it’s part of what’s so weird about Brexit. It’s like the UK is going to be this middle fish, and why do they want that?
Will Wilkinson: They love long customs lines. I couldn’t decide just reading your introductory chapter whether I cared or not. Part of me is, what’s wrong with being Sweden. It’s a great place to live. Canada is in many ways a better country than the United States, but they don’t have this kind of heft on the global scene and they don’t seem to need it. They seem to get along well with everybody and everybody likes them. Why care? But on the other hand, I see what you’re saying. Which is that, to a certain extent, all of those countries sort of free ride off of us having a general liberal view of the world and enforcing it globally and that makes it easy for them to get along. We’re kind of doing the dirty work for a lot of those countries. If the United States isn’t doing it, then some other huge country is going to do it. But there’s no other, more or less, liberal, huge country.
Matthew Yglesias: Yeah. I’ve become more of a particularist in my thinking about these kinds of things. There’s antisemites on the internet who like to send me emails-
Will Wilkinson: What?
Matthew Yglesias: … sometimes asking if I will join their petition for open borders for Israel. Now, in part that reflects them overstating my level of personal commitment to The Zionist Project. That being said, it is true that if you took my ideas about immigration policy for the United States and applied them in a straightforward way to Israel, it would destroy The Zionist Project as an enterprise. I think it is perfectly reasonable for Israel … I do not think it is reasonable for Israelis to assert perpetual dominion over land inhabited by Palestinians and then not give them rights. But I think it is perfectly legitimate for Israelis to decide that they want to have a Jewish state.
That the Jewishness of the state is important to them, it’s a core value, they want to base their immigration and other policies around that. Finland is a land for Finns. It’s there in the name. That’s okay. I’m not dogmatically opposed to the idea of little ethno-states, particularly because they’re not menacing. Nobody’s afraid of Finnish supremacists conquering the world or something. They’re neat and cuddly.
Will Wilkinson: It keeps me up at night.
Matthew Yglesias: They keep to themselves. But that’s not America. There has always been a current of ethnic nationalism in American political thought, but it is opposed to the current of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama. Like many of our main leaders, America has a civic nationalist culture that we have always been very imperfect in our adherence to. But every generation talks about the founding documents, talks about these ideals. To reconceptualize the United States as some kind of gigantic Israel is a real mistake. Then by the same time to think of the United States as becoming some kind of oversized Canada I think it’s okay. It’s a plausible idea if people want to argue for it specifically, that America should stop thinking of itself as having a mission in the world. But I don’t see a compelling reason to do that, and certainly we shouldn’t just drift-
Will Wilkinson: Well, I don’t think you should imply that Canada doesn’t see itself as having a mission to spread niceness.
Matthew Yglesias: Yeah. They’ve got something, but it’s different. It’s a common place of American culture that we try to be, to some extent, a shield and sword of liberal values in the world. I don’t think that’s a terrible idea. It’s not the end of the universe if we make a conscious choice to abandon that role. But I also don’t think we should just drift aimlessly into abandoning that role because Donald Trump found it was convenient to get votes in Michigan by whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment. Or if liberals realize that there’s been a lot of racism in American history so now they just want to give up on the project. That to me doesn’t make sense. We’ve actually always known that stuff.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Well, let’s take a step back. Your book is framed in terms of maintaining America’s preeminence or its standing in the world, it’s relative standing. But one of the things that struck me reading the book is the extent to which that was completely unnecessary to be persuasive to me because I mostly agreed with the various elements in any case. It can stand up on its own. You don’t have to buy the aim of keeping America great forever to want there to be a much larger population. For one reason or another, it would be good for us to have a much larger population. You talk about the various avenues to a larger population. That’s mostly just making immigration more permissive, just making immigration more liberal. Having more people come to this country legally and trying to get the people who are already here to have more kids.
We can talk about each of those in turn, but I wanted to get to a few of the things that are kind of at the beginning, which addresses some objections that people might have that just aren’t very good. Like, is the country full?
Matthew Yglesias: It’s not. It’s not full.
Will Wilkinson: It’s not. If you’ve ever been to America it’s pretty clear that it’s … I’ve driven to Canada from Iowa before. I’ve driven to Colorado from Iowa. Man, going across Nebraska and Eastern Colorado is the most boring freaking thing in the world and it’s because it’s just empty. Every time I’m someplace that’s just giant wide open spaces, I’m like, “We need more people.”
Matthew Yglesias: Get some people. Yeah, America is not empty. This is a very sparsely populated country. We have tremendous per capita fresh water reserves. A lot of our cities have lost population. We have a lot of empty land. We have a lot of land that’s owned by the federal government. Some of that is nature preserve. A lot of it is used for logging and ranching. If you want to set aside more land for wilderness preservation, we can do less logging. It’s fine.
Will Wilkinson: [inaudible 00:24:04] factual it is, but the amount of land that the US government holds is larger than many countries.
Matthew Yglesias: It’s a quarter of the land is owned by the federal government.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. It’s like the size of a major European nation. Some of that’s beautiful national park and we don’t want to just put Kowloon Walled City in the middle of Yosemite. But a lot of it’s just there. They just have it. It’s just not being developed because the government’s sitting on it. It’s not doing anything.
Matthew Yglesias: It’s [inaudible 00:24:39]. I mean, there’s reasons.
Will Wilkinson: We don’t need to do anything with it because there’s plenty of space otherwise. They can own a quarter of the land and it’s still just mostly empty.
Matthew Yglesias: I mean, you’re talking about Kansas and Eastern Colorado. I mean, some famously empty places. But what’s really amazing is, you go to Connecticut, which is one of the more densely populated states-
Will Wilkinson: That’s where my wife is from.
Matthew Yglesias: … and it … Yeah. There’s no national park in Connecticut or anything. There’s no federal landholding. You just drive around, there’s parts of Connecticut where there’s lots of people and there’s also just big stretches where it’s just a lot of trees and stuff. It’s-
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Western Connecticut is just beautiful forest and-
Matthew Yglesias: Yeah. It’s fine. Anyway-
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. I mean, and you point out some just regular facts that people might not know. Which is that, if you had a billion Americans, the United States still wouldn’t have the overall population density as Italy or France.
Matthew Yglesias: Yeah. Or Germany. Asian countries are denser than European ones. It’s like America is wide open. We should get more people.
Will Wilkinson: That’s why they have trains.
Matthew Yglesias: Yeah.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. They’ve got enough people. One of the most important kind of theoretical aspects of your book that I want to dwell on for a second has to do with the advantages of population density in particular. Why it is that having lots of people pays off. Because I don’t think it’s obvious to most people that if you just packed a lot more human beings inside the borders of the United States, that, that would not just make us larger, but that, that would make us richer because it would make us more productive. You go through some of the advantages of density, why people cluster. I think that’s good to draw out because I think that’s one of the … It’s a very important set of facts to me. It guides a lot of the work that I do. But in ordinary conversation with people who aren’t complete dorks, these facts are … It’s not that they’re not well known. They’re just not known at all.
Matthew Yglesias: I think it’s counterintuitive. I mean, the vast majority of human history, people are eking out agricultural subsistence. More people means more mouths to feed on the land. It means you can’t eat meat because there’s no grazing land. Everyone’s got to eat gross bread or something like that. Modern economy is not like that. You go to New York, the neighborhood that I grew up in, and there’s a specialty chess store there. It’s great. People love it. If you want to buy some chess shit, that’s the place to go. They do other stuff. They host tournaments. It’s a really good thriving business. It matches people’s skills to customers’ needs really, really, really well. That being said, there’s just not that much demand for a specialty chess store in the universe. But Metro New York has so many people that it can support really weird business niches. That means that people can really specialize on what they are really good at. As a customer, you can really get the thing that you want. That’s one aspect of it.
Another, you think about like, I host a podcast. It’s called The Weeds. It is a deliberately weedsy, dorky look at things. It is commercially successful. We have ads and we make money doing it. But we are proud to attract a tiny fraction of the American listening audience to it. If you scaled it down, if you tried to do a show that’s exactly like The Weeds, but you did it in Swedish, it would be completely economically unviable. Because that smaller share of the Swedish language speaking population is just not enough people to advertise to. That means if you want to do something in Swedish, it has to be incredibly generic. That’s what you-
Will Wilkinson: [inaudible 00:28:46] is not going to pay through the nose to get on your show.
Matthew Yglesias: That’s what you get with scale essentially. Is you could do niches, you could specialize. Adam Smith said the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market. He was thinking about the virtues of trade. Which are very real, but he’s thinking about physical goods. We’re talking about services and the limit of the market is often just the number of people who are within range. Then the other side of it is innovation. In the long-term, we progress by inventing new stuff more or less. I mean, you have more innovation when you have more people just by the numbers. But also clusters of people who have ideas and talk to each other and learn from each other is a very valuable tool for innovating. There’s a lot of great things about rural lifestyles and small towns and stuff like that, but you don’t see cutting edge technology coming out of small towns. It’s just not enough people. There’s not enough going on. There’s nothing wrong with there being places like that. But the state of the art is driven forward by sort of big bustling places.
Will Wilkinson: It’s not even that you need to be a big bustling place, you need to be a big bustling place that’s relatively specialized to really get ahead. Software is heavily concentrated in Silicon Valley. You might think, “Well, why don’t people just save a bunch of money and put their software company in Grand Rapids, Michigan?” Which is a lovely place. It’s because, one, the labor market in Grand Rapids for computer programmers is very poor. You’re just not going to be able to hire the talent you want. They’re going to be less productive there, the same people. I think this is one of the counterintuitive things that people tend not to grasp. Is that the exact same worker, if you put them in a denser labor market, their labor tends to become more efficient. Part of it is just that experience makes you more effective over time. Just you have to learn how to do things and you learn how to do them better.
You learn how to do things better faster if you’re surrounded by way more people who are better at something than you are. That’s more likely to be the case in a dense labor market. If you want to be an actor, you go to New York because the competition there is going to drive you. If you’re going to get anywhere, you’re going to have to be really good. People just get better at things faster when they’re-
Matthew Yglesias: If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. You can make it anywhere.
Matthew Yglesias: I mean, that’s New York. That’s not Grand Rapids. If you can make it in Grand Rapids, it’s not totally clear what that demonstrates. But the other thing is informal spillovers. You and I used to play [crosstalk 00:31:48]-
Will Wilkinson: I think that’s the main thing.
Matthew Yglesias: Right. Well, we used to play poker together.
Will Wilkinson: That’s right. When we were on 34 Westminster Street.
Matthew Yglesias: Right. A lot of the other people who were in that game, we have all sort of gone on to develop, I would say, somewhat related set of ideas. You could draw lines tracing back to that poker game. People who are involved at Vox or at Niskanen or at The Hamilton Project. There’s an ideological project that we are all more or less directly involved with as sort of different synthesis of classical and modern liberal ideas, I would say.
Will Wilkinson: For people who don’t know Matt and I, which I’m sure there are none because why would you download this podcast? But back in the day, I think we met what, 2004 or so? It’s when you first came to DC from Harvard after you graduated college. We lived in the same neighborhood, the Shaw/U Street area. A lot of … This was kind of in the heyday of blogging, which is something that kind of doesn’t really exist anymore, but it was this big deal. You have a blog and you link to other people’s blogs. Matt Yglesias says something that I think is dumb so I write a blog post about why Matt’s wrong. Then Matt writes a blog post about why I’m wrong about why he’s wrong and yada, yada, yada. All of those people who are already talking to each other in some sense through blogs, once they were physically co-located, ended up just kind of physically getting together a lot.
Those conversations, I think have been important to both of our development. Like my views have become much more like yours and Ezra’s. I think both you and Ezra’s, your views kind of came in the direction of say, me and Julian Sanchez or Tim Lee-
Matthew Yglesias: And Lee.
Will Wilkinson: … whoever else was at our poker games. It’s not just a question of social influence. It’s, you’re confronted with people who are at least as smart as you are saying things that contradict what you think. You have to think hard about how to defend your view and in the face of somebody who’s just as smart as you and just as well-informed. I mean, somewhere there’s some Bloggingheads episodes where I’m having a Bloggingheads with Ezra and I’m just sweating. Because you know Ezra really well, and he’s got a great command of facts. At the time, he would just pepper you with academic citations about single-payer healthcare. It’s just exhausting and frightening to try to bat them all down. Confronting people like that and having to wade through all of that stuff and learn enough to keep up, inevitably changes your views. You inevitably start to converge with that other person.
That’s just what you should expect a rational person is going to give somebody who’s as smart and as well-informed as they are, the benefit of the doubt. They’re at least as likely to be right as you are. If you can understand that, then if somebody is disagreeing with you really stoutly, that’s a good reason to believe that you might need to revise your views.
Matthew Yglesias: What I think is most important in some of that is the complementarity of arguing on the internet in an official capacity with informal interactions. Because debating things in politics, it’s good. I’m not against it. But it’s its own very sort of mannered kind of thing in which to win a debate, particularly in a broadcast medium, it provides incredible rewards to just confidence and to a certain amount of bullshitting. Whereas actual social interactions with people who are interested in many of the same things, but also interested in different things who share some values in common, but who disagree about other important things, you actually learn in that kind of way that you wouldn’t otherwise. Because you just listen to things people say, and you maybe think, “It’s not even that I disagree with what so-and-so is saying. It’s like, I had just never thought about that subject before. It’s not my job now to respond to the critique.”
I picked up a lot of ideas from libertarian type people during those years. I never became a libertarian, but I learned a lot. I came out of certain ideas that I’d had before about kind of, I would say, idealization of democracy and the political process. That I’m by no means against democracy. But there’s a move that people who are very smart and very knowledgeable in a progressive sense, but a little siloed get into. Where you learn that the market doesn’t work and you should fix it with these fixing regulations. Then you look around and you’re like, “Wait a minute. We haven’t actually fixed any of these things.” You start very quickly getting into stories about the Koch brothers and these kinds of [inaudible 00:37:30] because you’re trying to understand. It’s like, well, why doesn’t the system do what it’s supposed to do? You tell what amount to more or less sophisticated versions of conspiracy theories. What libertarians have is a theoretical analysis of why these institutions don’t do “what they’re supposed to do”.
It’s of course true that specific interest groups are involved in corrupting processes and things like that. But once you appreciate that regulatory capture happens for a reason, you become a lot more skeptical of the idea that making a panel of experts decide whether or not it’s safe to do tooth cleanings without the supervision of a dentist, you start to understand why that’s going to go awry. Yeah, I know. I learned a lot. I learned a lot about occupational licensing and I know other people I know there went to work on that in different as communities. A lot of you who I knew back then who were more bought into the libertarian movement per se have moved away from that. I think you start to develop a synthesis that both appreciates some of libertarian thinkers ideas and their critiques of conventional politics. But that also moves away from, I think, a basically bankrupt theory of politics. Like big L libertarianism doesn’t make any sense to me.
Will Wilkinson: What’s interesting is that you do get this kind of convergence and this … We’ve gotten a little bit away from why agglomeration and clustering makes workers more efficient. But it’s relevant. Because we’ve been exchanging ideas for all these years and you can see a kind of convergence in our views and the stuff that we’ve dropped is some of the dumbest stuff. The stuff that we’ve converged on is the stuff that survives this kind of process of headbutting. When you talk about … a lot of progressives are a little romantic about the possibilities of democracy. You can be a little bit overzealous in terms of like, “This thing’s broken. We just have to elect the right person and then they will reform it.” You might have a libertarian come to you like, “That’s naive.” They give you some public choice analysis of why certain vested interests have captured the regulatory process or whatever it is.
It’s a good corrective to an overly romantic view. But the extreme version of it is just completely nihilistic. That government can’t do anything. That bureaucrats won’t ever do anything except maximize the scope of their discretion and the size of their budget and so you shouldn’t expect there to be any effective governance ever. That’s just obviously dumb because there-
Matthew Yglesias: Right. I mean, it defies … Yeah. You look around, it’s like they built these aircraft carriers [crosstalk 00:40:41]-
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Then you’re also-
Matthew Yglesias: … they all-
Will Wilkinson: … I’ve been to Canada.
Matthew Yglesias: Right, yeah.
Will Wilkinson: It exists.
Matthew Yglesias: Also, well, and even here in DC, it’s like dealing with the people whose job it is is to get you a new garbage bin if your garbage bins go missing, is a nightmare. Dealing with the people who run the Fort Totten garbage dump is a pleasure. They’re great. I-
Will Wilkinson: [crosstalk 00:41:05] huge amount of variation.
Matthew Yglesias: … don’t know why it is that one arm of the DC government’s trash sector is so shitty and another one is so amazing. But it’s just obviously true that some public sector institutions are better than others and this kind of hard core, nothing will ever work. It’s clearly false. Anyway, to bring it a little bit back closer to just the basic groundwork of agglomeration, I think it’s like, you see this across industries. If there’s a lot of restaurants in town, if you have a high density of customers and workers and owners, they are learning from each other. Information is disseminated by critics who can tell you about this, that and the other thing, new food trends spread, ideas that don’t work are punished very rapidly and wrung out of the system. Whereas in a place with not that many people it’s like, look, if the restaurant is open, the prices are okay, if the food doesn’t poison you, sometimes people just [crosstalk 00:42:08]-
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. The one restaurant in a small town is usually just meh-
Matthew Yglesias: Right. I mean-
Will Wilkinson: … because they don’t have to be good.
Matthew Yglesias: Well, a, they don’t have to be good and, b, people need a job, so they’ll go work there. But nobody who’s aspired to run a really good restaurant would go work in the one restaurant in a small town. Because that doesn’t make sense. That’s not a good [crosstalk 00:42:33]-
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. You get a lot of innovation in cooking. But in terms of growth, opening a really cool new ramen restaurant that people love it’s important and it’s a mild input to economic growth. But the things that really matter are the technologies that increase the productivity of labor on some margin. That’s the engine for economic growth over time. The idea is just that you get those innovations faster when you have a lot of people who are working on the same problem. If you ever read a narrative account of the development of the computer industry in Silicon Valley in the ’70s, you can see how social it is. How much it depends on there being this network of college professors at Stanford and Berkeley, researchers and scientists who work at these federal labs that were there to make semiconductors and build weapons to destroy Russians. You just have a certain critical mass of the right kind of people.
They start throwing ideas at each other and they pretty rapidly come up with a bunch of new stuff. That wouldn’t have happened if you’d taken all of the same people and distributed them randomly around the country. You needed there to be this cluster of the right kind of people to make this little magic moment happen. You’re just increasing the odds that those magical moments will happen if you’ve got a bigger population that is more densely packed.
Matthew Yglesias: Yeah. Then it grows and grows and you get sort of backup services. Now you have venture capital firms who are there, and you have deep labor markets and you have lawyers and accountants who specialize in the unique problems of software startups. It’s possible to do all this stuff in Cleveland. It’s like, every step of the way it is harder. It is harder to get the legal advice you need. It’s harder to recruit other partners. It’s harder to get investors. If somebody who’s doing a really good job up and quits for some reason, it’s harder to replace them. It’s tough and big agglomerations are what tends to drive us forward. It’s the reason why … You could write a totally different book from mine that had very similar upshot that was just about agglomeration economics and things like that and it would be different in some respect.
Will Wilkinson: But you need more people. It’s true. Part of what I’m saying, just that if you want continued higher rates of economic growth, you need population growth in part just because you need the laborers to replace each other and the right ratio of workers to retirees whose social security and Medicare benefits that you’re paying. But also because increasing the rate of growth requires increasing the size and density of the places that do the innovation that drives increases in the productivity of labor and capital.
Matthew Yglesias: Precisely the same free-rider sort of issue that we talked about in international relations terms, it occurs here too. New Zealand is very prosperous, very high living standards. They have a lot of I think good public policy in New Zealand.
Outstanding public policy.
Matthew Yglesias: But there’s no world leading companies in New Zealand. New Zealand is not advancing the frontiers of human knowledge. In part, because if you were a person who is born in New Zealand and goes to school in New Zealand and you have those kinds of ambitions, you’re going to leave. You’re going to be trying to do that in London or Silicon Valley or someplace else like that.
Will Wilkinson: Because you’ll make more money in those places. The reason that you’ll make more money is that you will literally be more productive there.
Matthew Yglesias: Right. Exactly. New Zealand benefits from the existence of a global technology infrastructure. When we say New Zealand has good public policy, what we mean is that they don’t get into short-sighted protectionism. They allow all of this innovation that happens around the world to wash over them. That their main exports are primary agricultural commodities, but it’s not some poor, neocolonialist kind of situation there. It’s great because-
Will Wilkinson: I’m sure they’ve got tech and all sorts of things going on, but it’s at a much smaller scale and it’s not driving-
Matthew Yglesias: Well, and it doesn’t drive the world. If New Zealand vanished off the planet tomorrow, we’d get along just fine. If America vanished off the planet tomorrow, it would be a big problem for New Zealand. Where would their internet search come from? What [crosstalk 00:47:36]-
Will Wilkinson: Yandex.
Matthew Yglesias: Sure. It’s like why-
Will Wilkinson: They’d probably become QAnon … All right. I think that’s more than enough ground clearing. The main things for making the population bigger, more kids, more immigrants. More kids, the case for it, for doing something about it, is you frame it in terms of something that I kind of heard about … Well, not … Actually, I’ve written about this quite a bit over the years. I’ve been skeptical about pro-natalist policy for some of the reasons that you mentioned, that it seems kind of patriarchal sometimes. It tends to send the message that women’s job is to have children. It’s definitely true that women pay a significant lifetime labor market penalty for each child that they have. The opportunity cost of having children is very, very high. But as you note, and this is something that I think you got from Lyman Stone, if you ask people how many kids they’d like to have, they’re having fewer than they say they’d like. That seems to justify what’s keeping people from having the number of kids that they say they’d like.
Now, methodologically, I have some issues with the desired fertility questions because I’m not sure that people have the capacity to answer the question or that there’s really an answer to the question. If you asked me how many houses I’d like to own, I’ll think about it and I, well, I’d like a pied-à-terre in New York city, and I’d like a beach house in Malibu. I’d be like-
Matthew Yglesias: [inaudible 00:49:19] want seven.
Will Wilkinson: … “I’d like five houses.” Because I’m thinking about it as if my budget is unconstrained, but it is constrained. Obviously people reveal preferences to have fewer children. We’re actually asking a question about whether the thing that’s constraining them is just the way the world is, or is a feature of the world that is bad and in our power to change. I think your view is the latter.
Matthew Yglesias: Here’s how I would think about it. You can talk about … I hate the word pro-natalism for various reasons. It’s a weird term. I think it creeps people out. But you could about different margins on which you want to try to operate if you were interested in pro-natalism. One idea would be, okay, we need a huge propaganda campaign to convince people and especially women that they want to have large families. If we wanted, if our population growth aspirations are really high, that’s clearly what we would need. It’s just obviously the case that very few people in America want to have four or five children.
Will Wilkinson: You give them mothers with five children medals and hero of the people.
Matthew Yglesias: You would need some kind of religious proselytization kind of thing, because there are people with large families but they tend to have specific religious views. I think the significance of the desired fertility question is that it gives us a measurement of change over time. From the late ’60s through to the early ’80s, desired fertility was going down a lot. Us, just knowing the history of the country, we can see, okay, this is when the baby boom ends. This is when second wave feminism comes in. The lines are pointing in a kind of predicted direction. If you’re a more hardcore social conservative than I am, you may say, “Okay, this was the fall of America. This was the end for us.” What’s interesting. Is that, that desired fertility number, it flattens out after 1980. There’s no revolution of values. Whether you … Maybe it’s just social desirability. I mean, who knows why people give these answers, but people stop changing their answer. But they do keep changing their behavior.
That, I think, at least gives us reason to believe that there are kind of changes on the support side that would create changes in behavior. Then there’s a fair amount of literature now evaluating the impact of different kinds of baby bonus programs, cash payment type things that helps us see what we have. These programs have developed, I think, an excessively negative reputation because the main people who are interested in them are right-wing people. Whose baseline is to be incredibly skeptical of the government spending money on the welfare state. To them, a family support program is only successful if the sort of dollars per baby is really actually quite low. You know what I mean? They want to see incredible leverage. If you’re more like me, comes at this from a conventional, liberal background if you tell me, okay, Sherrod Brown’s child allowance is going to cut child poverty by 40%. You tell me so-and-so’s preschool program is going to do whatever standard deviations, level the playing field.
These all sound like good ideas to me. I’m not climbing some incredible mountain of skepticism about this. Then when it turns out that, okay, this is going to amount to maybe 0.3 or 0.4 more babies per woman, that’s a lot compounding-
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. That’s a lot people.
Matthew Yglesias: … over time. I agree. If you were Viktor Orbán, if you fundamentally hate the welfare state, looking at this huge hundreds of billions of dollar program and then seeing optimistically half a kid, you might be like, “That’s a failure. What I wanted to do was have these [inaudible 00:53:30] super breeders.” Yglesias is a good … No, but I mean, it’s like that’s where so much of the politics of this is coming from. But if you think about it in terms of, okay, I have sort of pro welfare state priors, what is the actual impact on fertility of this stuff? You see it’s modestly positive. We are not experiencing [crosstalk 00:53:56]-
Will Wilkinson: I know you had the number in there. I forgot what the return in terms of increased fertility you’ve got from the child allowance. It was significant.
Matthew Yglesias: Yeah. I mean, it’s about 0.3 children, we think. I mean, there’s a large uncertainty band if you try to evaluate this in a serious statistical way. But it’s not nothing, and-
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Well, over a generation, that is millions of people.
Matthew Yglesias: Right. It compounds significantly over time, which is important. One question then becomes just like, okay, is that a completely illegitimate policy goal for environmental reasons, or just libertarian neutrality reasons? I don’t think that it is. I mean, I think that we have reasons to conceive of our society as an ongoing cooperative enterprise across multiple generations. I think we have reason to give some credence to people’s stated concern that the financial costs of childbearing are preventing them from doing what it is they want to do. But again, I mean, I come at it from a standpoint where I would be disappointed if this didn’t work of course. But I wouldn’t be like, “All right, tear it down.”
Will Wilkinson: Well, I mean-
Matthew Yglesias: Let the kids live in poverty. That’s-
Will Wilkinson: Here at the Niskanen Center we do a lot of work pushing for generous child allowance. We got a small bump in the Republican bill working with Marco Rubio and we’ve worked with Bennet’s office in the work that he’s done. We just think that it’s a good idea. It would be great if poverty among children was much, much, much lower. Easy to justify if you don’t have principled objections to a redistributive welfare state. It’s great return on your money if you’re just saving tons of children from poverty and suffering. Putting them in a position where they can develop their capabilities and become more effective, productive workers and citizens. It’s a great idea. If it turns out that it marginally increases birth rates and population growth is good, as a general matter, bonus.
Matthew Yglesias: Well, I think this is very much a place where Niskanen plays. But I mean, I do think it’s in everybody’s interests to think about different ways of pitching good ideas, different kinds of values that they can speak to. There is a pretty large constituency of members of Congress who would at least claim to be interested in helping people have children and think that that’s important, and people who might not care as much about inner city poverty or whatever else. A lot of how contemporary politics works is, people don’t actually care about getting anything done. They want to sort of retreat to their corners. They’ll come up with an idea that it’s like, well, okay, this is an idea we’re cooking up as Democrats. We’re going to do it in the most Democrat way possible. It’s going to have pretty aggressive means testing. We’re going to juke it as just a child poverty reduction. We’re not going to talk about fertility, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
I prefer to think of a world in which we can think a little bit more expansively about this kind of thing. How can we create a broad overlapping consensus that this is a good idea in which exactly what different people’s primary motive for backing it might vary? It’s not a compromise. It’s not like, “I want four. You want six.” So we settle on five. It’s a reconciliation of different values and concerns to try to find policy ideas that move the ball forward on multiple fronts.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s an attractive framing it is expensive. Just a lot of what your more kids chapters are about, is just how expensive it is to have kids. The opportunity cost of having kids has gone up because they’ve gotten more expensive. Part of it is cost disease affecting childcare. It just gets more and more expensive but it’s not like you get more childcare for your money. You just pay more for it. It doesn’t get better. It’s just more expensive and everything’s getting more expensive. Having kids is getting more expensive. It’s clear that people are going to make choices about whether to have one more kid in light of how well they’re getting by with the one or two kids that they already have. If they’re struggling, they’re probably not going to do it. If they’ve got a little more leeway and they want one, they’re more likely to do it.
I think framing the whole thing as just making it easier for people to have and raise a family is just like, who does that not appeal to? The thing is, it’s not like people who don’t want to have more kids aren’t going to benefit from it because they do.
Matthew Yglesias: Right. Well, I mean, it’s a very normy idea that well, we should help out. We should try to be a little easier here.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Who wouldn’t like this? But that’s the thing, it hasn’t been put together. That’s what’s interesting about your book. Is that you put together child allowance, housing, zoning, land use reform, all of these expenses that make it prohibitive for many people to have even one kid much less two or three, putting them together in a package that is about making sure that our country has more people, because that is part of the robustness and productivity of our society. I think that is appealing, with or without the international competition frame.
Matthew Yglesias: Well, part of what’s interesting about it, is the whole book proceeds from the premise that we should have a goal as a nation. But it’s a challenging goal and there are some complexities to achieving it. But then the bulk of the book is, how would you do it? I didn’t want to write … There’s a lot of books, it’s nine chapters laying out a problem and then one chapter of hasty solutions. I want to just quickly lay out the case for, let’s state number one. But then [crosstalk 01:00:37]-
Will Wilkinson: I really appreciated that.
Matthew Yglesias: But then explore the idea, like, what are the solutions at some length? So little of our politics, actually, so little of our discourse about politics takes that form. It doesn’t start with some kind of high level goal and then we maybe argue about how do you … I mean, this happens all the time in life. You are trying to collaborate with other people on something. It starts with an agreement that you are in fact collaborating on a thing. Then you can disagree. Like, what should we do? Where should we get dinner tonight? But if you’re instead of just yelling at each other where I’m like, “Let’s meet up for drinks.” You’re like, “Fuck you.” There’s not that much you can say about it. That’s not really a disagreement [crosstalk 01:01:24]-
Will Wilkinson: I hate drinks. [crosstalk 01:01:26]-
Right. But that’s so much of our politics. Obviously, there’s a competitive aspect in politics, like, either Donald Trump will be president or Joe Biden will be. But it’s not healthy to think of that as all there is to politics. Is, I win, you lose. It’s like, what are we doing? What are we arguing about? What is the content of it? Everything these days rolls back on some level to just like, who’s a real American? Who counts and who doesn’t? Who’s valued and who isn’t? It’s just incredibly difficult to do anything to make anybody’s life better.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. If that’s the question, politics are going to suck. I think the reason I’ve been giving you just a little bit of resistance about the American global preeminence frame is just precisely that you’re like, it seems like it’s good to have a goal. I think I’m kind of anti-goal. I think I’m too much of a pluralist to be in favor of there being a national goal. But I am definitely in favor of there being big picture policy objectives and big aims that you can justify from a bunch of different point of views that cover a significant majority of the population. We don’t have to agree on whether we want to do this for national greatness or we want to do this just because this is going to maximize GDP. If we can agree that there’s a really compelling reason to do it, whatever our reason is, then we should count that as consensus, even if the ultimate aim is different. If we’re doing what I want, and then you also get what you wanted when we do it, great-
Matthew Yglesias: Yeah. I mean, that’s-
Will Wilkinson: … and vice versa.
Matthew Yglesias: Right. That’s all good.
Will Wilkinson: Immigration, this is the most controversial part. It’s the most frustrating part to me. You want there to be a much higher rate of immigration. I do too. This is another one of the Niskanen Center’s biggest issues. We spend a lot of time on immigration policy. We spend a lot of time on refugee policy. The rate of refugee resettlement has been cut to basically nothing, which I think is just straightforwardly vicious. But what is the case other than just more people are good? What about the question that you get from antisemites about, are you open borders for Israel? The case that I think ultimately resistance to more immigration is coming from on the right is the great replacement worry. That the people that are likely to settle here don’t share the culture of the base of the Republican Party. Importantly, the base of the Republican Party sees its culture as definitively and exclusively American. Importing a bunch of people with different cultures just means the end of America. Is that something you take seriously at all?
Matthew Yglesias: I mean, you can’t not take it seriously on some level because it’s such a powerful force in politics. This is though part of the reason why I think national greatness, et cetera, are important themes here. Because it’s a challenge to people to think seriously about America, and what really is American culture and what is authentic to America. I think that there is a real argument that the immigrant experience is integral to Americanness, and that openness to it is integral to Americanness. It is … Refugee resettlement is great. It’s important to resettle refugees. All kinds of societies benefit in part from refugees much more than they realize. America, I wouldn’t say is unique, but is unusual in having the idea of being a refuge for the persecuted as really close to our core national identity. If you want to tell a pat story about the founding of the country, particularly if you want to tell an appealing sounding story about the founding of the country, you have to say that about religious persecution and blabbity, blah, blah. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of people killing indigenous people to steal their land.
Which and also did happen. I mean, I want to be clear. But it’s like, we want to tell, everybody, normal people at least, want to tell appealing stories about themselves, but they also want those stories to have some kind of grounding of reality.
Will Wilkinson: So it’s important to have something to be proud of. This is actually really … I think I get really upset about the refugee issue because when I was a kid, we had Vietnamese refugees who lived in our basement in Marshalltown, Iowa for about a year. That was a really formative experience for me. We did it out of a Christian sense of obligation to people who are struggling, who don’t have a home. We have an obligation to give them one. It broadened my horizon so much as an eight year old to just live with people from a completely different culture that could barely even speak English and just have them introduce their culture, their cuisine, all that to me. I wouldn’t have gotten that otherwise in Marshalltown, Iowa. But also to see just how quickly they succeeded in becoming economically independent and just pillars of the community. That has affected how I’ve seen immigration for the rest of my life.
Matthew Yglesias: People should take more seriously the reality that lots of people from around the world would like to come here. I think that that ought to temper some of the left’s critiques of America. Which is not to say that America is perfect if other people want to come here, but it’s that all the other countries are also imperfect. At the end of the day, given the sort of constrained optimization set, a lot of people, a very diverse group of people would like to come to the United States of America. There are some very real opportunities and very real strengths here if you judge this country against other actual countries that exist, other places that people can go. A really formative experience in my thinking for this was when I was a high school exchange student. I was in France and there was a kind of bad incident on the street near the host family. I was describing to my host father what happened and he said, “Well, was he French?” I said, “Yeah. I mean, I guess. I mean, he was speaking French.” He said, “Yeah, but was he really French?”
I was like, “What?” Then it was like, he means saying, is he white? Of course there is sentiment in American culture that only white people can be real Americans and there’s a rhetoric of that. At the same time, you would not see a, particularly not an educated cosmopolitan person in a big city just straightforwardly say that a non white person is not a real American. That is prejudice and bigotry in America, but it’s not part of our national narrative about the country. That’s a strength of this country. It’s something that we should be proud of. It speaks well of us that people want to come here and that they can succeed here. But also it’s only something to be proud of if we embrace it. If we go all build the wall about it, but you can’t … One thing you should be able to say as an American is like, “Look at all these people who fled Cuba and now they’re in Miami and it’s fucking great. That is better than communism.”
Donald Trump knows to say that about Miami and Cuba, but then it’s like, he’s such an illogical person that it’s like, well, now there’s no turn. It’s like, well, Mexico is not sending their best. But they weren’t sending their best from Cuba either. It just is what it is. It’s just America is a good place. By accepting and welcoming people from elsewhere and helping them, they add their talents to ours, more vibrant country, and we provide humanitarian relief to people who are in need, but at no cost to ourselves. We redeem the founding values of the country, which are … There’s lofty aspirations that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with equal rights. It’s a hard goal to strive for, honestly. But we come closer to being ourselves when that happens.
Will Wilkinson: Well, one of the reasons I think that we’re so polarized in this issue, and it’s interesting, it has to do with benefits for agglomeration. The paper that I wrote last year, The Density Divide, I go through all the reasons why the non-white population is almost entirely concentrated in cities. The fact that almost our entire immigrant population, with some exceptions, is concentrated in our biggest cities because that’s where the biggest opportunities are. But also that’s where enclaves of people with the same culture and ethnicity are. White people in less dense parts of the United States tend not to encounter anyone who’s not like them. Now that’s changed quite a bit. My hometown, Marshalltown, Iowa, is now about 30% Mexican. I mean, it’s a huge change since I was a kid. It gets to one of the ideas that you have in the book, which is that you can help prevent depopulation death spirals in smaller towns and in deindustrializing towns by filling them with immigrants. A lot of the towns in Iowa have gone through exactly that depopulation death spiral.
Marshalltown has the same population now that it did when I was in high school, except now it’s 30% Mexican. That means a lot of white people left and it’s actually poor now than it was because the average level of education is lower. But the town still exists. It still has an economy. It didn’t … A bunch of similar sized towns have just gone from 28,000 to nothing and they are bummed out. People overdosing on Oxy, nobody’s got a job, everybody’s on social security disability. That’s bad news. Marshalltown was clearly saved by this huge influx of Mexican workers. They’re all from the same province of Mexico because it’s chain migration. These Mexican workers who came to work at the meat packing plant.
Matthew Yglesias: Right. I mean, and you see something very similar in a town I’m familiar with, Lewiston, Maine, which got a big group of Somali refugees. There’s obviously significant social tensions around that. Maine is the least diverse state in America by some margin I believe. To have a bunch of black people from East Africa show up, it’s been quite the change and sometimes quite disruptive. But if you compare Lewiston to other mill towns, there’s stuff going on in Lewiston. There are people living there and the people who live there pay taxes. Like the library, it’s open every day. Other places, shrinking is really hard. It puts a lot of strain on a community because you have pensions and you have roads and sewers and you have home equity that starts to vanish. There’s a million different problems. Immigrants have revitalized a number of communities in America. We haven’t been doing that really as a deliberate strategy.
I talk about the idea of special city sponsored visas [inaudible 01:13:43], maybe trying to get a higher skill mix. Because we to some extent have negative selection of Mexican immigrants to the United States. Or we did before we really militarized the border because it was not that difficult to sneak into the country and work here. But you couldn’t do skilled work if you were undocumented, so only the least skilled. The hardest working, the most-
Will Wilkinson: Well, and there’s a lot less interest in migration for comfortable middle-class and upper-class Mexicans. You’re going to get the most movement as a matter of economic logic. This is kind of what a lot of Borjas’s work is about, the negative selection stuff. Is that the workers from a nearby contiguous country who will get the biggest bump from the baseline of their wages in Mexico or wherever, are the people who are most likely to come. It turns out that that’s going to be relatively less educated workers.
Matthew Yglesias: Right. But we also just prohibit it. It’s like, you could be a Mexican trained doctor and you just can’t practice medicine in the United States. There’s no test you can take that demonstrates that you’re competent to go do it. I was really struck when Vox was new and I was trying to hire a Canadian journalist. I had never thought that hard about visa type stuff. I always figured it’s like, well, people scream about illegals and maybe Mexicans taking our jobs. I never heard anybody upset that Canadians were taking our journalism jobs. I figured it would be easy. It was not easy to [crosstalk 01:15:25]-
Will Wilkinson: No, it is-
Matthew Yglesias: … for a Canadian journalist. Yeah, we could do it in the end, but given that there is no … I’d never have heard anybody expressing concern about this, so why does the legal regime make it so difficult? The political regime right now is, okay, if you wanted to make it easier for Canadian journalists to get green cards to come here, they would have to squeeze out family unification visas for Filipinos. That’s Congress think though. But there’s no reason that if more skilled professionals from around the world came here we would have to have fewer people who are related to existing immigrants in the United States. There’s no-
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, you don’t have to replace the family unification focused system with a skill-based point system. You can just add a skill-based point system. You can have a bunch of different reasons why you’ll qualify for a visa. You’ve got the right relationship to somebody here. You won the diversity lottery. The diversity lottery by the way effectively acts as a skill based selection mechanism. Even though most people think it really-
Matthew Yglesias: Yeah. I mean you-
Will Wilkinson: … just amounts to some random guy in Lagos having Ed McMahon show up at his door with a visa. Because the only people who know how to apply for it are really well-educated people.
Matthew Yglesias: Right. The point is, there’s complementarities across all kinds of people. But the complementarities are really strong across those kinds of dynamics. If you have people coming in and doing agricultural labor, and then you also have other people coming in and they’re computer programmers, there’s no crowding out or competition between those two groups of people. The more skilled professionals we have, the more demand there is for people who clean houses, for people who work in hotels because they then want to go on vacations to things. I think there’s a chapter somewhere called just more is more, which is basically the case there. Look, you could sketch out some scenario where something has gone too far. There is, if nothing else, a political circuit breaker to how many Somali refugees are going to go into any given town in [crosstalk 01:17:43]-
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. The places have thresholds of how much change they can tolerate how fast. You don’t want to exceed those thresholds, but there’s no reason not to push up against them.
Matthew Yglesias: Well, and it suggests that if we took the immigrant base we have and we added more skilled professionals, then we could also add more refugees. Then the population itself is larger. Those people, the people who were immigrants, become the parents of native born Americans and the country is bigger. Its capacity to absorb more people without it being “too much change” accelerates. There’s a very limited amount of immigration. Canada, on a per person basis, has more immigrants than we do. But obviously they have many fewer immigrants than we do. It’s not because they’re out of space, they have more space than we do. But it’s like, the social constraint on immigration to Canada is much tighter than the constraint on immigration to the United States because of the limited existing stock of Canadians. It’s like, the more you grow, the more you can do in that regard, as long as you don’t totally screw up your politics.
Will Wilkinson: I’ve just got one more thing I’d like to ask you before we wrap it up. This is a book that ranges widely across a bunch of different fields. You talk about childcare economics and foreign policy and methodological debates in immigration between Carden, Borjas and Michael Clemens, about literature on housing that we didn’t get to. I think partly because we both just agree we got to build more houses. How do you know who to trust when you’re doing this kind of research? I think it’s super important that we have generalists who synthesize. But the hard part about it is when you’re not a specialist in any of these fields, which you aren’t, I’m not, but you want to have well-informed views and your job is to communicate ideas about all of these areas to the public. How do you know who to trust when we have these disputes between Borjas and David Card? How do you know who’s right? How much do you need to know about these specialized methods? How did you pick this stuff up?
Matthew Yglesias: This is a loopy book based around an extreme idea. People read the title and it’s like, “What? Do you really mean that?” If you try to look at the specifics that I have here, I really tried to steer the argument toward areas where I think there is a quite clear consensus. I mean, I talk about the dispute between Borjas and Card and other researchers there. But what I try to elevate in the end is actually what they agree about because there’s a very politicized debate there. But it’s actually about something incredibly narrow because people want to conscript Borjas’s economic research into a xenophobic view toward immigrants that is motivated by something entirely outside economics. But there are a lot of topics that I have covered in my life where I have an opinion as to who is right about the influence of capital gains taxes on economic growth. I tend to think that the more left-wing economists have the better of that argument and the more right-wing economists is worse, but that’s not in this book. Because on some level, I’m really not sure.
I know a lot about it. I think I have a reasonably informed opinion, but I would not bet much of anything on my view of that. Everything that’s in this book or ideas that I’d covered a long time, that I’ve written about for a long time, but it didn’t come together as a book until I sort of had a brainstorm about lumping these things together into a big thing. Because they felt a little disparate to me. But they’re disparate things that I felt very sure about. I’ll give you another example on housing. I’m for more housing, you’re for more housing, a lot of people are for more housing. This often gets discussed in terms of its impact on prices. I believe that allowing for more houses to be built through pretty basic supply and demand effects will make housing more affordable in a price sense. That being said, part of the 1 billion Americans frame is that I think indisputably, if you triple the population, you’re going to need more homes. This way it becomes an argument about quantity.
Will Wilkinson: Indisputably.
Matthew Yglesias: I have actually never seen somebody dispute that if we built more houses, we would have more houses. It’s in part in my effort to row the boat a little bit away from the bleeding edge expert dispute into the realm of consensus, because there’s a lot … If you can agree that actually immigrants on net are beneficial to natives, economically speaking, which Borjas’s research does say, that seems like a pretty good reason to have more immigrants.
Will Wilkinson: It does.
Matthew Yglesias: To me. I think he’s too pessimistic. But it’s like, if even the pessimist is there, if allowing more housing will let more people live somewhere, if agglomeration is good, I mean, these are not controversial propositions in their respective literatures. If you can build a sort of interesting set of ideas out of it, I think that’s very powerful and very worthwhile. We’re both, especially me, old time bloggers say a lot of stuff on the internet. I’ve written up a lot of studies. I’ve tweeted a lot of links to a lot of abstracts. It’s good to be reading, but I do hope that people appreciate that that’s all in the spirit of, I am a curious person who likes to learn about the world and likes to read things and likes to talk to people. Obviously you should not read one paper of empirical social science and be like, “Aha, this …”
Will Wilkinson: That guy is [crosstalk 01:23:42]-
Matthew Yglesias: … guy has solved it.” That’s not good. Don’t do that. You don’t want to say, “Okay, this is all worthless.” Because unless people read the papers and disseminate the ones that they think are interesting, you never build a literature. You can’t trust anything on that level.
Will Wilkinson: At face value, it does seem really disparate, but all of these things together make sense as a program to increase the population. I’m wholeheartedly behind the project of increasing the population. I don’t know if we needed a billion more people or 2 billion more people, and I don’t know if we need to be the world’s biggest superpower forever, but I think it’s just indisputably true that we’d be better off if we were bigger. We’d be richer. It would be a humanitarian triumph to allow more people from less wealthy countries to become wealthy by moving here and making us richer by getting richer. It’s just stuff that really makes sense, and I think you’ve brought it together in a really intriguing and stimulating package. Thanks so much for coming on to talk about it.
Matthew Yglesias: Thank you.
Will Wilkinson: Model Citizen is brought to you by the Niskanen Center. To learn more about the Niskanen Center, visit niskanencenter.org. That’s N-I-S-K-A-N-E-N center.org. To support this podcast or any of our programs, go to niskanencenter.org/donate.