One of this week’s 286,000 leaks from the executive branch of the government was a document from the Department of Homeland Security putting a price tag on a wall on the border with Mexico.
You remember the wall! President Trump, then-candidate Trump, talked about the wall a lot on the campaign trail. His concerns about immigration from Mexico and Central America were among the first articulated in the speech announcing the candidacy, but his advocacy for a wall predates that by a wide margin. Here’s a tweet from before his candidacy on the subject.
Oops. Wrong tweet. Meant this one.
The Wall™ is synonymous with Trump by now. He even got into high-profile fights over it, as when he was criticized last February by Pope Francis. “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis said. “No leader, especially a religious leader, has the right to question another man’s religion or faith,” Trump responded, clearly angry that the pope hadn’t read his tweet from 2013.
But we never really knew what it would cost. Trump said it would cost about $8 billion, when prompted on the campaign trail. Our fact-checkers were skeptical, figuring, after consulting with experts, that it could near $25 billion if built to the specifications set by Trump. At least, the low-end of those specifications. Over the course of the campaign, Trump’s wall varied in height from 30 to 55 feet.
In October 2015, it was at 50 feet, for example, made up of giant slabs of concrete.
That’s a lot of wall and a lot of concrete. One assessment of the wall estimated that its construction alone would increase demand for concrete in the United States by 1 percent in 2018 and 2019.
Anyway. The Department of Homeland Security, as mentioned, has an estimate, reported by Reuters: $21.6 billion, with a three-and-a-half-year construction period.
Let’s talk about that number. $21.6 billion is a lot of money by normal-American standards, though not necessarily by American-government standards. Spread out among all people in the United States, it comes to $67.73 each. Or, spread out among all of those who paid federal income taxes in 2015 — about 137.3 million people — it’s $157.31 each. As a function of total government spending in fiscal year 2017, it’s about one-half of 1 percent, though, of course, it would be spread over several years.
If we compare the price estimate to estimated spending in the 2017 fiscal year, though, we get a sense of how pricey the wall is. Per the Office of Management and Budget, it’s more than will be spent this year on:
- Atomic energy defense activities, $21.3 billion
- Community and regional development, $21.1 billion
- Farm income stabilization, $20.4 billion
- Space flight, research, and supporting activities, $18.6 billion
- Federal litigative and judicial activities, $17.4 billion
- Veterans education, training, and rehabilitation, $15.1 billion
- International security assistance, $14.9 billion
- Conservation and land management, $14.6 billion
- Conduct of foreign affairs, $13.5 billion
- General science and basic research, $12.9 billion
- Water transportation, $10.5 billion
- Disaster relief and insurance, $9.4 billion
- Pollution control and abatement, $8.8 billion
- Military construction, $8.3 billion
- Federal correctional activities, $7.4 billion
- Agricultural research and services, $5.8 billion
- Criminal justice assistance, $5.6 billion
- Future disaster costs, $5.5 billion
- Consumer and occupational health and safety, $4.8 billion
- Legislative functions, $4.3 billion
- Recreational resources, $4.1 billion
- Energy conservation, $1.7 billion
- Veterans housing, $0.7 billion
The good news, of course, is that the United States isn’t going to pay for it.
That’s right, Mexico will pay for it! How that will happen isn’t entirely clear, but Trump says it will pay for it, eventually, “100 percent.”
That $21.6 billion is a bigger chunk of Mexico’s budget, making up about 1.9 percent of its total economic production in 2015. Trump’s team has suggested that one mechanism for forcing Mexico to pay for the wall is by increasing tariffs on Mexican products sold in the United States. Those increased costs would be borne by American consumers, mind you, but this would, I guess, get Mexico to pay out of pocket to protect its industries? It’s not totally clear.
We looked at this a few weeks ago. If we increase tariffs on products from Mexico, Americans would need to buy 36 billion Mexican avocados to pay off the wall. Inspired by Matt McDaniel’s calculations from that analysis, we can report that this is enough avocados to build a wall solely out of avocados that stretches the length of the U.S.-Mexico border and reaches 242 feet into the air (assuming a 4-inch by 2.5-inch avocado). At 1,163 avocados high and 30.9 million avocados long, it would be porous — given that avocados aren’t perfectly square — and it would rot pretty quickly, but: still.
The Reuters report revealing the anticipated cost of the wall notes that there are still some question marks. How do you build over mountains? As we’ve noted before, the border overlaps with some rough terrain in parts (zoom in on the map below) — and it runs through areas that generally preferred presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to Trump, making the process of eminent domain a bit trickier.
But elections have consequences, and perhaps the most predictable consequence of 2016’s election was that Trump would work toward building that wall.
Incidentally, it wasn’t Isaac Newton who said that thing about bridges and walls. It was Joseph Fort Newton, a Baptist minister who was also a noted Freemason and author. That’s probably more fitting. If anyone knows about both building things and the intricacies of the government, I’d offer that it’s a Freemason.