Aug. 6th, 2017

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(with abject apologies to Robert Frost)

So it looks like the concept of Trump’s wall between the United States and Mexico isn’t yet dead. But there may be a solution that makes this palatable from both economic and humanitarian perspectives, for Republican values of “economic” and “humanitarian”. At dinner last night, a friend told me about a standup comic (please provide attribution if you know his name) he’d heard joking that it would be cheaper to build the wall from illegal Mexican immigrants. That is, to line up Mexicans to serve as the wall, not to have Mexicans build the wall. Completely implausible anywhere outside a comic’s performance, but then so was a Trump presidency a year ago.

In any event, you can imagine I couldn’t let that statement pass without a challenge. So let’s do some scary math. Apologies in advance to the Americans in the audience, but I’ll be using metric units. Doesn’t matter... just wave your hands and mutter rhubarb rhubarb every time you see a unit you don’t recognize. I’ll get to American dollars soon enough.

First, how many Mexicans would we need? Google tells me that the border between the United States and Mexico is about 3200 km long. Since 1 km = 1000 m = 100 000 cm, we need to cover 3200 km × 100 000 cm = 320 million cm. Let’s assume that a typical moderately large person like me, standing next to another typical moderately large person and linking arms with them, occupies about 75 cm from left ribs to outstretched right arm. (I based this on a quick tape-measurement of my shoulder width, then added a few cm for breathing room and to simplify the numbers.* We want moderately large workers because of the intimidation factor and the “good at grabbing” factor. After all, a wall isn’t much use if it isn’t intimidating or effective.) Dividing the total wall length by 75 cm gives us just under 4.3 million Mexicans. If we make the unrealistic assumption that said Mexicans would only work 8-hour shifts, rather than the more realistic 12 hours, we’d need 3 times that many, or 12.9 million people, to cover a 24-hour day.

* We could instead econonomize by leaving a one-worker gap between adjacent wall workers, on the plausible logic that it would be difficult for anyone to sneak through if the wall workers were trained to grab anyone passing through this narrow gap and paid a bounty for doing so.

Next, what would this cost? More quick Googling suggests that illegal immigrants earn as little as US$1.21 per hour, but that US$7 per hour isn’t unreasonable. Let’s be generous and use the higher number. We are, after all, good-hearted colonial bastards and would-be slaveowners. At that hourly rate, our Mexican wall would cost US$90.3 million daily, or $32.9 billion annually. Since the Great Wall of Trump is estimated to cost a (highly optimistic) minimum of $15 billion (about US$46 for every living American; accounting for the fact that the 1% wouldn’t be paying any of this would increase this amount by less than US$1) and as much as US$25 billion.** Even if we use the higher cost, to allow for inevitable scope creep and the probability that the work will be done by a defense contractor, we clearly can’t rely on this human-centric solution to save money. We can come close, though if we revise our assumption to account for a 12-hour workday for our Mexicans. The wall’s cost would then drop to a more reasonable US$22 billion annually.

** Let’s adopt the broadly accepted economist’s principle of ignoring maintenance and other miscellaneous costs as externalities to avoid unnecessarily complicating our analysis.

We still don’t have an economical solution, but a little of the patented Trumpian labor management magic comes to our rescue: If we assume that these Mexicans will be contract employees of a federal government contractor, we can establish contractor-owned barracks, mess halls, and base exchanges to serve the needs of our workers. Using this traditional American “company town” approach, most of this salary can be recaptured by the American economy—or at least by that one contractor, which is close enough for a Republican—thereby restoring to the U.S. economy some of the estimated US$27.6 billion that Mexican migrants send home annually.

So apparently, not only is it realistic to ask the Mexicans build the wall for Trump: it’s realistic to assume that they’ll pay for it too.

A note for the tone-deaf and sarcasm-blind: In case it wasn’t perfectly clear, this is political satire. Only a monster would actually implement this solution. Oh... wait...


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