National Security & Defense

Build That Wall . . . and Pay for It

Border Patrol agents at the U.S.-Mexico border wall near Jacumba, Calif., November 2016. (Reuters photo: Mike Blake)
By gratuitously insulting Mexico, Trump risks turning a boon into a bust.

Amid American cheers and a gratuitous swipe at our neighbor to the south, President Trump forged ahead this first dizzying week of his administration with the groundwork for his signature campaign promise: The Wall.

The president continues to insist that he will not only build the wall along the southern border, the very notion of which makes Mexicans seethe, but force Mexico to pay for it. The contretemps induced President Enrique Peña Nieto to cancel a planned trip to Washington for talks with his new American counterpart about trade, immigration, and border security. On the upside, though, it was grist for a great Jonah Goldberg column on national honor and the wages of besmirching it.

I’ve been a skeptic about the wall from the start: I do not believe it is plausible as promised, for reasons not just for financial (it would require cooperation from Congress) but topographical. In his Encounter Broadside, The Case Against Trump, our Kevin D. Williamson explained the terrain challenges:

The idea of a point-to-point wall on the border stretching uninterrupted from Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area on the Gulf of Mexico in Texas to Border Field State Park on the Pacific Ocean in California is a logistical impossibility (it would require, among other things, building a wall atop several substantial bodies of water, including the Rio Grande and the 65,000-acre Amistad Reservoir, to say nothing of steep canyons and other obstacles, and expropriating enormous amount[s] of privately owned land along the border).

It was no surprise, then, to find President Trump tempering his extravagant campaign promise. This week’s executive order on border security proclaims the policy of constructing “a physical wall on the southern border” but takes pains to define “wall” as “a contiguous, physical wall or other similarly secure, contiguous, and impassible barrier.” That gives the administration wiggle room to secure by other means (no doubt involving surveillance technology) areas where wall-building is neither practical nor necessary.

We can certainly use the kind of barrier outlined in the executive order. If the president wants to call it a “wall,” great. He can call it “Matilda” for all I care if it improves border security, which it obviously would. Nor, in this regard, am I the least bit concerned about Mexican national honor. When we have a situation in which kids in the southwest get sent home from school for wearing American-flag T-shirts but Cinco de Mayo is observed like a national holiday, I’m more worried about American national honor.

But like Jonah, I also draw the line at making Mexico pay for the wall. If it improves our national security against illegal immigration (not nearly all of which is Mexican) as well as jihadist networks and drug traffickers, then we should pay for it. Why would a superpower make its comparatively poor but amicable neighbor pay for our security while our government, with the nation $20 trillion in the red, diverts taxpayer funds to boondoggles like an oceanographic study that plopped mudskippers on a treadmill to see how long they can exercise?

Extorting Mexico to pay for the wall would be like Michael Corleone squeezing Senator Geary to pay for the gaming license.

Extorting Mexico to pay for the wall would be like Michael Corleone squeezing Senator Geary to pay for the gaming license. And there is not a prayer it will happen.

Again, it is no sure thing that Congress will commit to Trump’s wall — notwithstanding that, as the president rightly argues, Washington committed eleven years ago (in the Secure Fence Act) to build 700 miles of double-layered, “reinforced fencing.” The passive-aggressive bipartisan default on that statutory obligation underscores that it won’t take much for Congress to say “no.” By haughtily insulting Peña Nieto, Trump gives lawmakers the fig leaf they need to claim that inaction on the wall would defuse a budding international crisis.

So is it, literally, a Mexican standoff? Probably not. Thanks to the perspicacity of Ben Shapiro, we can see how things are likely to go.

The Trump administration has been claiming that it will force Mexico to pay for the wall by slapping a 20 percent tariff on imports. As Ben points out, such a tariff would be thin camouflage for the fact that American consumers would be paying for the wall in the form of higher prices. In reality, however, the “tariff” being touted by the White House would not be a tariff at all.

Congressional Republicans have been advocating a “border adjustment tax” as a component of tax reform. Balanced by various forms of tax relief, the idea would be to tack a 20 percent tax on imports — not just Mexican imports but all imports — while American exports would be tax-free.

As Ramesh Ponnuru points out, this proposal is not a tariff – and once we factor in its effects on exchange rates (the expected increase in the value of the dollar), it may not do much to promote American exports or shrink the so-called trade deficit. But, Ben explains, the GOP tax plan looks enough like a tariff that Trump could rhetorically play it off as one.

In the end, then, Trump would get his wall, Mexico would not really pay for it, and the GOP Congress would implement its preferred border-adjustment tax policy (despite Trump’s prior resistance to it as “too complicated”). Everybody wins, right?

I’m not so sure. Ramesh cites various collateral consequences of this scheme that could be economically harmful. Quite apart from the national pride of our allies and trading partners, it could be destabilizing for countries who hold dollar-denominated debt. The security benefits of the wall would likely outweigh these costs. But that’s only if the new administration follows through with internal upgrades in immigration-law enforcement (outlined by Mark Krikorian here).

And . . . only if President Trump bears in mind that, while it is often a problematic friend, Mexico would be a whole lot worse as an embittered enemy.

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