To Argue for a Wall

The president and the Republicans in the Senate have not made the argument for the wall. It’s a curiosity that they would bother to keep the government shut down without doing so.

I oppose the wall. I think it’s a stupid idea. Fencing in strategic locations along the border already exists. If there we need more limited fencing, that’s something that can be done. Indiscriminate fencing, whether concrete, steel, or pyrite, is pointless.

But if you want to argue for it anyway, there’s a basic formula for the argument that hasn’t been aired. Probably because the numbers (see e.g., Brookings: Vanda Felbab-Brown: August 2017: “The Wall: The real costs of a barrier between the United States and Mexico” and CATO: Alex Nowrasteh: 24 April 2017: “The Border Wall Cannot Pay for Itself”) don’t work, but possibly because the administration doesn’t care to make any reasoned argument (about anything, really).

  1. You start with the cost of the wall.
  2. Next, you add up the savings the wall will provide.
  3. You point at the two numbers, and say that the first is smaller.

In other words, you show that it is cost effective.

Again, I’m not going to get into the numbers too much here, but in a more detailed form:

The Cost of the Wall

Materials costs, including concrete, steel, paving materials assuming there’s a road to be added for patrol and maintenance. There will also be land preparation requirements, including fill and excavation.

Then labor costs, including upkeep. The cost of buying the land, including legal fees. There will be the cost to border communities that may see their property values diminished (Trump made a big deal out of wind turbines being put up near one of his golf courses in Scotland for just this reason) and other economic disruptions.

There are other cultural factors, but there’s also the environmental costs (which the administration doesn’t care about anyway).

The $5.6 billion is an appropriation figure, not the true cost of a wall. That number hasn’t been reported, partially because it’s impossible to know exactly. But looking back on other large-scale constructions, building a wall would likely cost more than even the sticker price, due to delays, budget overruns, etc.

The sticker price by DHS from February 2017 was $21.6 billion, which attempts to account for legal costs, but there is no definitive plan at for the wall, so estimating the cost is all the harder. Indeed, as recently as this week, Trump himself claims it will be steel instead of concrete.

How can anybody have a serious discussion about a wall that’s still just a campaign slogan and not even a serious plan?

The Savings of the Wall

Assuming you do have an idea of the various costs to various interests, now you need to know how much you will save.

First, what could you save? The annual budget of CBP and ICE? $17 billion and $9 billion, which includes some activities that would still be necessary. You also have to balance that savings with maintenance and (and!) with increased enforcement in places or ways that people would begin to enter where they might previously have used the unwalled border.

There is at least some loss of tax revenue and economic growth that would have been accrued by the labors of crossers. So cut the savings there, too (it’s widely believed that the economic benefits from undocumented work exceeds its costs, but falls short of the benefits of making such labor official, documented, and lawful).


The administration doesn’t care about reasoned arguments. It’s a shame, and good leadership is always a matter of taking the facts and finding the best way forward. Trump, his administration, and the congressional Republicans don’t bother with any of that. Some wonkish sites like Brookings and CATO did back in early 2017, but we’re having a shutdown in 2019 because the president has tied himself to the mainmast of a ship called The Wall. Mitch McConnell is now lashing himself to it, too.

But none of them, apparently, care that it’s a foolish idea.