A supporter of Donald Trump appeared on MSNBC's "All In" on Thursday night to offer a vision of a bleak, delicious future.
"My culture is a very dominant culture, and it's imposing — and it's causing problems," Marco Gutierrez of Latinos for Trump told Joy Ann Reid. "If you don't do something about it, you're going to have taco trucks on every corner."
That's a serious charge, worthy of being considered seriously. Although easy access to inexpensive Mexican food would be a boon for hungry Americans, what would the inevitable presence of those trucks do to the American economy? How could our country accommodate an explosion of trucks at that scale?
The first question we must answer is how many trucks we're talking about. A corner is dependent on an intersection of street, a place where two roads meet or where one road turns. For the purposes of our thought experiment, we will assume that Gutierrez didn't mean a truck literally on every corner — that would be ridiculous. Instead, let's assume that he meant a truck at every intersection.
There doesn't appear to be an official tally of the number of intersections in the United States, in part thanks to our using this term to describe a lot of possible combinations of streets.
We do have estimates of the number of intersections with stoplights in the country, though. In 2004, the Institute of Transportation Engineers estimated that there are 265,000 "signalized intersections" in the country. But that report also included a rule of thumb suggesting a ratio between the number of intersections with stoplights and the population: For every 1,000 people, one intersection with a stoplight. That doesn't quite hold in New York City, where there are 12,460 intersections with stoplights and a population of only 8.4 million. But it's fairly close, so let's use it. That would peg the current number of intersections with stoplights in America at 322,000.
That's just intersections with stoplights, of course. Estimating how many other intersections there are is even harder. So for the sake of argument, let's assume that there are nine un-signalized intersections for every intersection with a stoplight. The density of stoplights is higher in a city — Manhattan has 2,820 signals but probably about 3,500 intersections — but out in more rural areas, they're rarer. Here's a random swath of rural Kansas: Lots of intersections, few signals.
That would give us about 3.2 million intersections in the United States. And it would mean that, per Gutierrez's vision of the future, we'd suddenly see 3.2 million conveniently located taco trucks. How ubiquitous is that? Well, it's one on every corner. But we can also compare it to Starbucks, which seems pretty ubiquitous in a lot of places. In 2012, there were about 11,000 Starbucks locations in the United States.
It's only now that I realize that the idea of the "taco truck" may be foreign to some people. A taco truck is a large box truck — a food truck — that has a small Mexican restaurant in the back. They are relatively common in California, I can say from experience; I suspect that that holds true for other places in the Southwest, as well. It requires a handful of staff members — or less than that, really.
So what would it mean to have 3.2 million such establishments on our streets? Well, according to this article at something called "FoodBeast," there are already 3 million food trucks in America, so apparently we wouldn't really notice them. Unless that figure is wrong, as this article effectively argues. For example: "According to TruckInfo there are about 15 million trucks on the road in the U.S. This means 1 in 5 trucks on the road are food trucks." Which seems high.
But it's where we're headed, apparently, if Trump loses. That's good news for the economy in one way. If you assume that three people work in each truck, that's 9.6 million new jobs created. The labor force in August was 159.4 million, with 144.6 million employed. Adding 9.6 million taco truck workers would help America reach nearly full employment — and that's just the staffing in the trucks. Think about all of the ancillary job creation: mechanics, gas station workers, Mexican food truck management executives. We'd likely need to increase immigration levels just to meet the demand.
Of course, there would be other repercussions. Many of the taco trucks would struggle to find business, like those posted at remote crossroads in Kansas. Other restaurants would likely suffer as a glut of other options and price wars undercut their offerings. There would be plenty of jobs for those fired from higher-end restaurants, but the resulting drop in wages would be staggering.
That, more than the cultural fearmongering some might see in Gutierrez's dire warning, is the real threat to America. A taco truck on every corner means a dramatic shift in how America views itself, sure, but it also means a new economy built on serving up burritos or developing new, more fuel-efficient box trucks. It means a change to the American way of life that Gutierrez, for one, finds unacceptable.
Update: Using Census Bureau shapefiles (called TIGER) on America's system of roads, a reader (and New York Times programmer) pulled a more specific number: over 21.5 million.
That means 63 million new jobs -- save for those people already employed at taco trucks, as another reader notes. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track "taco truck employees" as a separate data point.) It also means that the scale of everything else increase by a factor of seven: seven times as many mechanics and seven times as much vegetable oil sold for the deep fryers.
As you consider this important political issue, bear that in mind.