The fall of 2020 is not an auspicious time to argue that America is not crowded enough. Americans are fleeing dense urban cores for the supposed safety of the suburbs to ride out the pandemic; immigration that had already slowed under the Trump administration has temporarily come to a standstill. At the time of writing, the Trump administration has just proposed even greater restrictions on H-1B visas, while many on the Left support policies that are similarly skeptical of a bigger, denser America.
His basic premise is that the US can sustain many more people than it currently does, with negligible impact on the environment; that this is something we ought to do for reasons that are in our national interest (competition with China); and that in order to achieve this, we need to pursue an agenda of deregulation (upzoning, deregulating childcare), more immigration (both skilled and unskilled), and expanding the welfare state (paid family leave, year-round public schooling, better and more expansive healthcare, free childcare, etc.), while borrowing and raising taxes to pay for it.
The book is largely concerned with domestic policy threads, though he contends that they do not fit together seamlessly unless and until we look at them from a foreign policy perspective, specifically, one of great power competition. America must become richer by becoming larger, he argues, if we are to compete with China:
All the diplomacy and aircraft carriers in the world aren’t going to make a whit of difference if China is just a much bigger and more important country than we are… If sane, humane child and family policy gives us more people; and sane, humane immigration policy also gives us more people; and if declining areas need more people but expensive areas also need more housing, then the solution to the puzzle is that we should do it all and stay number one forever.
How America can “do it all” fills the rest of the book, and while this reader suspects that the civic nationalism implied here is mostly a convenient veneer that suits the current moment, the policies themselves deserve a fair hearing. Rather than attempt a rigorous cost-benefit analysis of any one policy solution, Yglesias instead presents a smorgasbord of policies, each generally aimed at encouraging population growth, in order to spark a general conversation.
To continue growing richer, America needs family-friendly policies like paid parental leave, year-round schooling, and more vacation time. In exploring the “dismal economics of child rearing,” he argues that the cost of having and raising children is too high. This is reflected in polling, in which Americans respond that the chief reason they have fewer children than they ideally would have is because childcare is too expensive. To address this, Yglesias suggests we need to think of public school not just as education but also as childcare, which we need to provide year-round and at earlier ages (one of the arguments in the book that has doubtless gained currency during the pandemic). In addition to alleviating some of the burden on families, year-round schooling would likely improve academic outcomes for many students and close the gap between those who can and cannot afford to send their children to summer school.
Due to America’s largely decentralized public education system, this is something that could be experimented with on a patchwork basis. Where year-round schooling might not work, he proposes municipally run summer camps or “summer enrichment vouchers.” He waves away concerns about how governments might pay for these programs or how they would be administered, blithely asserting that it is simply “not plausible…. to subject families to the ever-growing cost of caring for and educating children.” This may or may not be true, but the theme of proposing costly solutions with little thought as to how to pay for them is a recurring theme in the book.
A simpler solution to reduce the cost of childcare is to pare back burdensome regulations that have become stricter “for no clear reason,” such as requiring providers to have associate degrees and setting arbitrary thresholds for the ratio of children to care providers. These rules make childcare both prohibitively expensive for many parents and less remunerative for providers. Requiring providers to have degrees, as DC does, will “push families either out of the city, out of the formal child care system, or into having fewer kids.” It is refreshing to read this sort of criticism of overregulation from the Left, although one is left to wonder whether the demarcation between formal and informal child care is helpful.
Where parents’ and children’s school schedules conflict, he contends Americans should work less, although he acknowledges that it is unrealistic to expect work schedules to shrink to the current public-school schedule. So there needs to be movement on both ends—work less, and keep kids in school longer throughout the year, all in service of a more family-friendly culture.
In addition to having more time to raise families, working less should result in happier, more satisfied lives:
Work-as-meaning, by contrast, is both something of a privileged niche (essentially available only to those who have a “career” rather than a mere “job”) and is limited even for the advantaged. Economic life, fundamentally, is competitive. Even someone lucky enough to make a living doing something truly enjoyable is always going to be faced with the prospect of someone else who is more successful at the same thing, or someone younger who is threatening to close the gap.
But is this true? He references the work of sociologists Cristobal Young and Chaeyoon Lim, who report that individuals’ “subjective emotional well-being” rises 5 percent on average during the weekend. But subjective emotional well-being is, by definition, hard to objectively quantify and likely changes over different time horizons. It is reasonable to assume that many Americans might be superficially happier with more leisure time. But the view that work can provide meaning only to a privileged few ignores the idea that much of what contributes to our happiness is attributable to earned success, which, interestingly, persists across income levels, according to Arthur Brooks and the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey. Which is to say, a grocery store clerk making $9 an hour may still find meaning from their work and enjoy “earned success” from the value they provide to their customers in the same way that a salaried employee or successful entrepreneur can. A move to a more European-style approach to work-life balance might indeed provide more leisure time that could result in more happiness for some individuals. But it might just as easily reduce opportunities at the margins to achieve earned-success, especially for those in hourly and lower-wage jobs.
Public policy should encourage strong communities. But working long hours is hardly a phenomenon of the twenty-first century. The atrophying of once-strong communities and the social capital they provide isn’t due to an unsustainable work schedule. If anything, a healthier attitude to work that emphasized “work-as-meaning” for all would provide for more meaningful, richer lives that we could share with each other. As Solomon writes, “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty.”
Whereas family-friendly policies such as these may take years to achieve any meaningful difference in population numbers, immigrants arrive at our shores “good to go from day one.” Here, Yglesias prescribes “ruthless pragmatism.” “Merit-based” point systems come in for criticism not so much for the idea that we ought to consider factors that determine an immigrant’s likelihood of future success, but for their unintended consequences. He describes how some Nobel Prize winners and professional athletes would have difficulties achieving enough points under Senator Tom Cotton’s RAISE Act’s proposed calculus—examples which he acknowledges are far-fetched but illustrate his point that proponents of these systems seem to view immigration as a necessary evil to be grudgingly tolerated rather than a necessary good that merely needs proper management.
An interesting policy he explores around immigration is the idea of place-based or “national renewal” visas, which would allow cities or states experiencing population decline to sponsor temporary visas for skilled workers. Visa recipients would be restricted to working in the city or state that sponsored their visa, after which their visas would convert to regular green cards. Such a system could be a boon to communities that are struggling economically, helping them attract businesses who want to take advantage of renewed labor pools.
While seeking to lower the costs of raising families and allowing for greater freedom of movement are reasonable policy goals, Yglesias does not delineate between policies that involve the government merely removing obstacles and government intervening in the form of regulatory requirements or expanded welfare programs. He easily sees the unintended consequences of higher education requirements for childcare providers, but fails to grapple with what the unintended consequences might be of mandatory paid-paternity leave or of raising taxes and borrowing indiscriminately to pay for a dramatically expanded welfare state. He accepts as a decided matter that an expansive welfare state is a matter of practical concern, the limiting principle of which is need rather than propriety or affordability.
Many of the policies he proposes would be extraordinarily expensive, but rather than attempt to quantify the costs in any meaningful way, he asserts that, due to low interest rates, “there’s no particular immediate need to worry about financing details or the budget deficit.” He flirts with the idea of a wealth tax, and gives a nod to Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro’s proposal to raise payroll taxes to finance paid leave. This sort of casual dismissal of reasonable concerns about how to pay for these programs chips away at much of the goodwill he earned in previous chapters.
Yglesias tends to over-simplify: immigration is simply “really good”; our current welfare state is “stingy.” “Stingy” is a favorite slur in the book: the Netherlands is “on the stingy side”; the conservative movement wants to be “stingy with overall spending”; Senators Cotton and Perdue want a “stingy overall cap” on immigration visas. Moreover, policies are often a question of “simply how stingy or kindhearted we would like to be.” This sort of reductionism may appeal to readers of “Vox-splainers,” but it did not appeal to this reviewer.
Conservatives and progressives alike could benefit from grappling with the author’s proposals. Simplistic or not, immigration truly has been a source of strength, on net, for America. Too many on the Right have developed a myopic view on immigration, and too many on the Left are blasé about the costs of unnecessary regulations. But in his quest to provide a nationalist framework for advancing these policies, Yglesias misses the mark. America’s long-term advantage is not primarily the size of its population, but rather the extent to which it secures the individual liberties of its citizens. All else flows from that. America’s place in the world will fluctuate not as a function of the size of its population, but rather in accordance with how it protects the rights of individuals.
While Yglesias focuses on the pragmatic case for immigration and family-friendly policies, I question whether most Americans will be persuaded by this approach. Perhaps a reader might look to the words of the prophet Zachariah, and be reminded of his admonishment to show kindness and mercy to one another; to not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor—without shrewdly calculating how this affects competitiveness with other nations. How a nation could apply such principles is a topic that Christians ought to debate openly and earnestly. But if these principles were at the forefront of our civic life, one wonders whether the need for many of the preceding policies might be obviated or at least diminished.