“The Wall” is an aspirin

To maintain the frenetic, myopic devotion of his logic-adverse base, Trump continues to invoke his sophomoric, sophistical slogan of “Build the Wall.” To be sure (and factual), no one with any knowledge of the border issue and is an objective thinker believes building a concrete barrier will have any positive impact on our border security. The arguments against the efficacy of a wall are numerous, evidence-based, and well-articulated by others.

I won’t revisit those arguments, but I will note that they include:

  1. Net immigration from Mexico has been decreasing for years
  2. There are more effective tools available to intercept illegal border crossings
  3. Immigrants in the United States are involved in fewer crimes than the overall population
  4. Ladders

Let’s all agree that “Build the Wall” is not a serious solution to border security and Mexico will not be paying for it. Trump has been asking for $5 billion for his erection on the border. Since the wall is a farce, the question is how might we spend that $5 billion to better address the situation?

Treat the disease, not the symptoms

I think we can borrow a concept from medicine by avoiding symptomatic treatments when the cause of the symptoms is known. Why take aspirin to reduce a fever that is caused by a staph infection when the definite treatment is to eliminate the bacteria with an antibiotic? Clearly, the wall is an aspirin.

The underlying cause of any problem with the border is the turmoil and strife south of Mexico. Specifically, the conditions in the countries comprising the “northern triangle of Central America” – Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.[1]

The CIA World Factbook captures the conditions in these countries.

Guatemala:

“Poverty among indigenous groups, which make up more than 40% of the population, averages 79%, with 40% of the indigenous population living in extreme poverty. Nearly one-half of Guatemala’s children under age five are chronically malnourished, one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world.” [2]

Honduras:

“Honduras, the second poorest country in Central America, suffers from extraordinarily unequal distribution of income, as well as high underemployment.

Population estimates for this country explicitly take into account the effects of excess mortality due to AIDS; this can result in lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality, higher death rates, lower population growth rates, and changes in the distribution of population by age and sex than would otherwise be expected.” [3]

El Salvador

“El Salvador is beset by one of the world’s highest homicide rates and pervasive criminal gangs.” [4]

$5,000,000,000 for a wall versus $5,000,000,000 invested in the northern triangle

The premise is that investing our tax dollars to help countries in Central America address the problems that are driving their population north is a sound investment strategy. Don’t build a wall – helping improve the quality of life in the triangle will do more than any wall ever could.

How are we doing with aid to this region? Not very well. In 2017, our total commitment to Honduras was $180,977,214.[5] I’ll spare you the mental math. That’s approximately 3.6% of $5 billion. In the same year, Guatemala was scheduled for $257,347,600, and El Salvador tagged for $118,222,593.

The table below, using data from the US Agency for International Development[6], shows the actual amount disbursed to the three countries in the last 10 years. The key observation is that in the last decade the US has invested only $3.9 billion in the countries that are the source of the vast majority of immigrants.

2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 Total
El Salvador $82.0 $113.0 $191.6 $205.0 $224.5 $93.9 $72.1 $78.1 $91.7 $94.2 $1,246.1
Guatemala $102.8 $112.6 $146.3 $141.1 $125.2 $154.9 $148.0 $150.3 $180.1 $241.4 $1,502.6
Honduras $100.9 $146.2 $137.8 $87.3 $67.6 $112.3 $106.3 $109.4 $154.7 $149.9 $1,172.5
Total $285.8 $371.8 $475.7 $433.4 $417.2 $361.2 $326.4 $337.8 $426.5 $485.5 $3,921.3

Admittedly this is a counterfactual statement, but I would suggest that if we had invested more aggressively in Central America, then the immigration issues along our southern border would more closely resemble the immigration problems we have along our northern border.[7]

We can’t go back and change the investments we didn’t make, and we should be aware that delaying a solution to a problem only make it more expensive to fix. NASA would suggest that fixing an error in the operational phase of a program could cost up to 1500 times as much as identifying and fixing the error in the design phase.[8]

$5 billion spent in 2008 in the triangle would have gone much farther than a similar investment in foreign aid today. But it’s not too late. Investing in making lives better in Central America is a much better strategy than capturing refugees at the border – for all concerned.

Opposition to Foreign aid

No, regardless of what many American believe, aid to foreign countries is a very small part of the US budget, approximately 1%. However, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, “On average, Americans say spending on foreign aid makes up 31 percent of the federal budget.”[9] Forty seven percent (47%) of survey respondents thought we spent more than 20% of the US budget was for aid to foreign countries.

Dollar for dollar spent, I would argue that there is a better return on the investment of our tax dollars in foreign aid than in munitions. But then, very few American corporations get rich with tax dollars spent on foreign aid.

Trumps core supporters are entrenched

Sometimes I succumb to the temptation to attempt to understand what logic drives the opinions of ardent Trump supporters. I mean the ones who know nothing about an issue but support it if Trump tells them to. That number seems to hover around 30%. The thing that has helped me escape from that particular mind game is to recall a few other polls that helps put things in perspective..

  • 33% cannot name any of the three branches of government[10]
  • 52% cannot name a single justice on the supreme court[11]
  • 64% can’t find North Korea on a map[12]
  • 27% believe the US Constitutions permits the president to ignore a Supreme Court ruling if he or she believes it is wrong[13]
  • 26% say the sun orbits earth[14]

Treat the disease, not the symptoms

It seems so simple. But then, Copernicus  probably thought the same thing about the sun.


[1] https://globalnews.ca/news/4620659/us-migrant-caravan-map/

[2] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/gt.html

[3] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ho.html

[4] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/es.html

[5] https://explorer.usaid.gov/cd/GTM?fiscal_year=2017&measure=Disbursements

[6] https://explorer.usaid.gov/data.html

[7] https://www.apnews.com/011c4167bffd410ebfd8e5a3bf5c4781

[8] https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20100036670.pdf

[9] https://www.kff.org/global-health-policy/poll-finding/americans-views-on-the-u-s-role-in-global-health/

[10] https://cdn.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Appendix_2018_Annenberg_civics_survey.pdf

[11] https://static.c-span.org/assets/documents/scotusSurvey/CSPAN%20PSB%202018%20Supreme%20Court%20Survey%20Agenda%20of%20Key%20Findings%20FINAL%208%2027.pdf

[12] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/05/14/upshot/if-americans-can-find-north-korea-on-a-map-theyre-more-likely-to-prefer-diplomacy.html

[13] https://cdn.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Appendix_2018_Annenberg_civics_survey.pdf

[14] https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind14/content/chapter-7/chapter-7.pdf

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