The Problem of Scale

James Fallows asks us to exercise our imaginations and ponder the scale of China:

If Americans wanted to imagine what it would take to be “strong” in the way China currently is, [Thomas Barnett] said, all we’d have to do is think of moving the entire population of the Western Hemisphere into our existing borders. Every single Mexican. (Rather than enforcing the southern border, we’d require everyone to cross it, headed north.) Every Haitian, Cuban, and Jamaican. Everyone from Central America. All 190 million from Brazil. And so on. Even the Canadians. China, by the way, is just about the same size as the United States, though a larger share of its land area is desert, mountain, or otherwise nonarable.

If we did that, we’d be up to about a billion people — and then if we also took every single person from Nigeria, and for good measure everyone in hyper-crowded Japan too, we’d finally be up to China’s 1.3 billion size. At that point, like China, we’d have tremendous scale in everything. Rich people. Big businesses. A huge work force. Countless numbers of multi-million population cities. And we would also have a tremendous amount of poverty, plus pressure on resources of every kind, from water to food to living space. Just as China does now. Scale gives China some strengths. But it also creates tremendous challenges, as Americans would recognize if we thought about this prospect for even a minute. Seriously, reflect on this, and consider that it is China’s reality now.

A useful exercise. And obviously we neither should, will, nor can do that. But I do think that what you might call the “national greatness” case for more immigration is underrated. All things considered, America is a pretty tremendous country and stands for good things in the world. Insofar as we tend to fall short in my view, it’s on dimensions of conduct where the PRC does not excel. We’re not talking about losing geopolitical influence to Norway. And, again, without being blind to the real problems with life in the US of A it’s clearly the case that there are worse places to live and lots of people who’d like to come here. So insofar as we can recruit people to our standard — especially people who already possess skills, English-language fluency, or family ties to the country — the case for “bending the curve” of population growth upwards.


Most people don’t realize this, but the United States continues to be a remarkably sparsely populated place. If the country as a whole had the same average population density as New Hampshire (!) it would contain about 522 million people and I don’t think anyone would consider New Hampshire to be an example of dystopian.