Tom MacWright

I read One Billion Americans by Matthew Yglesias on


Matt Yglesias is a larger-than-life character on Twitter and in his founding role at Vox. I’ve rarely read Vox and didn’t follow Matt until a few days ago, but I already have an appreciation for his critics: he intersperses his well-considered arguments with easily-misinterpreted or just plain wrong reckons. I’ve read a few of his articles and they seemed to avoid the landmines that his Twitter persona constantly steps on.

This book falls somewhere in the middle. The big idea is interesting and many of the supporting facts are enlightening. But the writing is also imprecise and unfocused. Some chapters feel unrelated and included just because they conveniently fit under the same sort of pro-growth semi-urbanist umbrella.

But I like that this book exists, and I’m glad I read it. Sure, Yglesias doesn’t have perfect rhetoric or an airtight argument. But this kind of broad policy and cultural proposal feels productive. It’s not unlike the People’s Policy Project, the socialist one-man thinktank led by Matt Bruenig. The PPP’s proposals are also interesting, similarly flawed, but also help illustrate how slogans could eventually become policy and reality.

Yglesias is a centrist to my socialist friends, and far-left to my Democrat friends.

This book endorses the direction of a lot of left policy ideas - increased immigration, better welfare - but chopping off just enough to make socialists mad, saying that not all college should be free, and that immigration policy should be targeted rather than simply open. And then endorses a lot of urbanist ideas - denser cities, better transit - but then dials them back just enough to make urbanists mad, saying that suburbs are okay and cars are not going away.

I can’t help but agree on some of the points: despite believing we need to ban cars, it’s obvious that we can’t actually ban all cars everywhere immediately. Free college is great, but it probably makes sense to define what level of college should be free, and figure out how these state & private colleges become free via federal action.

But Yglesias doesn’t always drill down into the numbers to argue for a more subtle implementation - on the point of climate change, he does a fair bit of handwaving that he then un-hand-waves in a conclusion paragraph that feels tacked-on, saying that climate change is a real problem after all.

It’s an interesting and very quick read, it’s accessible and thought provoking. It’s not as precise as it could be or as focused a polemic as it should be, but it’s worth a read.