When questioning Donald Trump proposed border wall, critics tend toward metaphors: we should be “building bridges, not walls.”
I’d like to suggest that if they want to make headway with voters, they look below the poetry of that phrase and focus instead on the prose. That is, we should be building actual bridges – structures with suspension cables and pavement – rather than walls.
Trump’s wall would be a massive undertaking. But it would not be, as many critics imagine, unaffordable or un-doable. Estimates put the cost around $25 billion. That’s not a huge amount relative to the federal government’s $4 trillion budget, though a structural engineer writing in the National Memo estimates that it would require three times more concrete than the Hoover dam.
What people who oppose the wall really find objectionable is its symbolism – it would be a dramatic statement that the nation wants to focus its precious resources on keeping out Mexicans. That’s both offensive and ineffective since 40% of illegal immigrants are people who came in legally and overstayed their visa. That’s true enough. But there are more prosaic arguments against Trump’s idea, which critics seldom make.
The first is that compared to other public works projects, a wall is insanely wasteful and unproductive. Policy wonks (and wise politicians) support infrastructure spending not just because it provides short-term jobs, but because it often can help with long term economic growth. A light-rail system that makes commuting easier will lift the value of the property for blocks or miles around each station. Wider tunnels along Amtrak’s eastern corridor would allow actual high-speed rail transit from Boston to DC and boost jobs and wealth in every metro area along its route. By contrast, Trump’s wall is literally designed to cut off travel and commerce.
The second practical argument against the wall is that it is politically unfair. It would be the single biggest public works project in decades, yet almost all of the jobs created would be in four states: Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California. What about the other 46 states, whose roads and bridges are falling into disrepair? Yes, among the states being screwed are — to pick an entirely random collection — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, and Colorado.
Hillary Clinton has been widely criticized for giving speeches that lack the lofty rhetoric of Barack Obama at his best. But the issue of the wall could actually play to her more matter-of-fact, transactional style of politicking. Next time she’s at a town hall in Ohio she should promise that under her administration that money for the Texas Wall should instead go to Ohio for railroad tracks, parks, dams and, yes, bridges. Actual bridges.