Is the U.S. full? Wrong question
“Our country is full,” President Trump said in regard to the immigration debate. Is this true? That depends. Some parts seem full, and some parts are definitely not. What the United States does need is a smart conversation on population.
Nearly every point made in this “America, full or not?” discussion bears at least one questionable assumption. Here goes:
— Low population density means we have lots of room to grow. That’s a meaningless measure, ignoring the way we live. Population density may be 301 people per square mile in France and only 93 per square mile in the U.S. However, a far larger proportion of our landmass is barely habitable desert and frozen tundra.
— Cities cannot be full — they can just keep building higher and higher. Many living in cities frozen with congestion would disagree. (Odd how Americans are increasingly leaving those wide-open spaces and crowding into cities.)
You have densely packed South Florida. As building cranes hover over nearly every horizon, the region is facing an existential threat from climate change. Scientists predict water levels could rise by 2 feet in the next 40 years. That would imperil water supplies and more than $14 billion in real estate. Vast areas where Floridians now live would be underwater. Meanwhile, South Florida expects to add 3 million more people by 2025.
The subways and streets of New York City are already insanely congested, yet demographers predict nearly half a million more New Yorkers by 2040. San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles are also coping with rapid growth that many residents see impairing their quality of life.
All these cities see home prices going through the roof because so many are moving there. Rather than admit that their population is reaching a breaking point, some argue that leveling old neighborhoods for forests of residential towers will solve the housing “shortage.” But then, the place loses its character, the very thing that attracted people in the first place. And the struggle to move folks from their home to work gets harder. After all, the miles of road and track are pretty much a fixed number.
— A falling U.S. population would be a big problem. How so? Certainly, a collapsing birthrate speaks of lost hope in the future, but that’s not us. But then you hear worries centered on softening real estate values as demand diminishes. Lower prices may be bad for sellers and builders, but they’re great for buyers — especially those squeezed out of the market by high prices.
Rust Belt cities that have seen sharp losses of population may now have more to offer. Their urban infrastructure is already built and largely paid for. And their well-built housing is going for cheap. That is a competitive advantage.
— A shrinking workforce is bad. How so? Not if robots are coming for jobs. Fewer workers would be needed. They can be trained for work the robots can’t do and paid a lot more.
Fifty years ago, Richard Nixon warned Congress that if the U.S. population were to continue growing at its current rate, the nation’s “capacity to educate youth, to provide privacy and living space, to maintain the processes of open, democratic government … may be grievously strained.”
The U.S. population then was only 200 million. Today it’s nearly 330 million.
Nixon advocated a national population policy. A good population policy would consider how many immigrants we need, given our low birthrate, and what sort of skills they should have.
In the meantime, note this: For all the hollering about national head count, the U.S. population is still growing, though slowly. Let’s turn the alarm bells off and talk calmly.