Matthew Yglesias recently released a provocative and widely-discussed new book, One Billion Americans. In it, he posits that the United States’ preeminence in world affairs is a force for good and that demographic trends endanger its status as the number one power. Yglesias argues that a combination of pro-immigration and pro-family policies to grow the population can ensure the United States remains the global hegemon. 

In making his case, Yglesias weaves a patchwork of seemingly unrelated policy ideas into a coherent whole; he explores how poor housing policy in many American cities dampens the benefits from immigration, how tax policies aimed at reducing child poverty at home should be thought of as part of geopolitical strategy, and how immigration policy is an important lever in lowering health care costs. 

The result is well worth reading. Policy wonks will find much to think about in Yglesias’s prescriptions, and advocates will find promising new arguments. The case that his proposals would go a long way in solving economic, social, and geopolitical problems is largely persuasive. Still, the book’s proposed solutions to political problems could benefit from more exploration. 

Immigration and national greatness

On immigration, Yglesias urges that immigration decisions shouldn’t be seen as tradeoffs between putting America first and altruism. He ably reviews the evidence for immigration’s benefit not only to immigrants themselves but also to native-born Americans, refuting arguments that immigrants reduce native-born wages and are a drain on the welfare system. Simultaneously, he does not glibly dismiss the challenges of massively expanding the population, like some advocates of open borders. Housing affordability, traffic congestion, and climate change are serious concerns, but manageable ones.

Yglesias is well aware that, however strong the evidence for the benefits of immigration on paper, voters will only support an expansion if those benefits become tangible, or at least readily visible, to them.

To that end, Yglesias floats some exciting ideas. Adopting a points-based system would raise the average skill level of immigrants. Letting more international students stay after their course of study, as he suggests, would help boost innovation and promote economic growth. His “National Renewal Visa” is a spin on place-based visas, which could help struggling regions reverse demographic decline. He also recommends a new visa for health care professionals, which would alleviate (to a large degree planned) physician shortages and reduce health care costs—especially in rural regions. 

In these proposals, the common thread is the promise to make immigration more appealing to Americans who might be skeptical about it. We should be “trying out some ideas and seeing what sticks,” he writes. This makes good sense as we consider how to design a politically sustainable immigration expansion. But thinking about pragmatically balancing the economic and political effects of policies reveals an underlying tension between the book’s two major proposals.

The tension between pro-family policies and expanding immigration

I’ve focused on immigration policy so far, but there’s another class of policies Yglesias recommends to expand the U.S. population: support for families. The great, mostly undiscussed tension in One Billion Americans is that there’s a political tradeoff between these two kinds of policies. The idea comes from the literature on the phenomenon of “welfare chauvinism,” which points to a tradeoff between ethnic heterogeneity and the generosity of welfare policies. Since ethnic homogeneity increases national solidarity and solidarity increases support for redistribution, support for immigration and support for redistribution appear to be in a tug of war. 

It isn’t much of an issue for pro-migration libertarians who are happy saying “cut social support” or for ethnocentric nationalists who are happy saying “choke off immigration.” Still, it has long proved a tricky dilemma to navigate for the left. Bernie Sanders notably came down on one side of the dilemma in his opposition to the 2007 immigration bill, fearing that it undermined working-class solidarity within the United States. The big tent of liberal nationalism to which Yglesias belongs also has its share of writers who have come down on the dilemma’s restrictionist horn. 

What’s particularly agonizing about this political tradeoff is that it’s largely separate from immigrants’  actual cost to the welfare system. Concerns about the actual fiscal costs of immigrants are largely overblown. Even if they may be relevant at much higher immigration levels, they’re potentially manageable with careful policy design. Yglesias anticipates this and grants that it’s “reasonable to make changes aimed at improving the fiscal deal for the country … The general idea of selecting for younger, better-educated immigrants with well-paying job offers makes sense.” But even if immigrants are in fact a net fiscal boon, political support for immigration is nevertheless negatively correlated with redistribution. 

Yglesias, on the other hand, by every indication, believes the dilemma can be overcome. He mentions the possibility of charging immigrants higher payroll taxes to sustain support for immigration, and he does briefly discuss welfare chauvinism at two points in the book. The implication from his discussion is that while diversity and immigration may threaten means-tested policies, they are not in serious tension with the universal programs that he is proposing. 

Yglesias points to research showing that whites’ ethnocentrism is associated with lower support for means-tested programs but greater support for Social Security and Medicare. While such programs are, in fact, universal, so are programs like education, roads, sewers, and trash pickup, which other research suggests see diminished support with higher ethnic fragmentation. What makes Social Security and Medicare robust to ethnic diversity doesn’t seem to be their universality. Rather, it’s that they are contributory benefits. 

An essential component of the One Billion Americans agenda, therefore, should be that the expansions to the welfare state that Yglesias proposes be what my colleague Sam Hammond has termed “migration-robust.” Yglesias’s openness to immigrant-specific payroll taxes is a start in that direction. When possible, structuring new benefits as contributory programs would also help. For instance, parental leave lends itself to a contributory structure, with minimum periods of taxpaying and employment. However, it should be carefully designed to not strongly disadvantage young parents or encourage young couples to delay having children. 

Other new benefits that can’t be structured as contribution programs should be pursued with greater caution. Here, William Niskanen’s call to “build a wall around the welfare state, not around the country” is worth heeding. For instance, advocates for one billion Americans could explicitly call to restrict eligibility in new programs to citizens. 

In addition to making sure expansions to welfare are migration-robust, migration programs can be made welfare-robust. The economist Martin Ruhs, for instance, has described a tradeoff immigrant-receiving countries face between their openness to migrants and the rights they afford to migrants. One billion Americans may sound like one billion American citizens, but guest workers serve many of the goals of population growth as well as immigrants. Having a large fraction of migrants as temporary workers may mean that it will take longer before we reach one billion American citizens, but it also means, in the face of Ruhs’s point, that we are more likely to reach the goal at all. 

While such measures may appear to be harsh on migrants, they are likely to be in the best interests of those interested in migrating by buttressing support for immigration and keeping the door open. Migration-robustness and welfare-robustness should be part of the “ruthless pragmatism” for which Yglesias advocates as part of the one billion Americans agenda. One Billion Americans is a thought-provoking book, with many excellent policy ideas and a clear case for American population growth. Its policy analysis is filled with lucid economic explanations, largely free of jargon, making the book as accessible as it is persuasive (economists do themselves no favors by giving exciting concepts names like “agglomeration effects” or “total factor productivity” or “network goods” or the “Baumol effect”). The result is an inspiring and ambitious policy agenda that would make the United States and the world a better place. I hope the book sparks new thinking about how its recommendations can be made politically feasible.

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