Thoughts on the President’s Wall Speech: I

Part One:
Prolegomena to a Future Wall

The Bipartisan Goal
I take it for granted that people are sensible and responsible¹. In disagreements, I presume that like charity will be granted me by my opponents. This is a general good idea in matters of debate.

Another general good idea in matters of debate — and political debate especially — is to begin with common ground. As to that common ground: in relation to America’s current border debate, I put forward the claim that Democrats and Republicans (and all other interested parties who are sensible and responsible) share a commitment to two ideas. Together I will call these the Bipartisan Goal. The first idea is this:

    (1)That we Americans want to reduce or eliminate the number of incidents involving non-Americans with criminal intentions entering our borders without permission.

I think attempts to characterize Democrats as uncommitted to this goal must be baseless calumny or jokes.

By definition, no sensible, responsible, and interested person wants to see people with criminal intentions crossing our shared borders. Any person who wishes to encourage such crossing I would call not-sensible and irresponsible. If they have no care one way or the other I would call them, at the least, disinterested, at the most irresponsible and lacking good sense.

The second part of the Bipartisan Goal lays a constriction on the idea set forth in (1). It is the following:

    (2)That we want to accomplish the task set forth in (1) in such a way that it encourages or creates as little stigma towards non-Americans who are in this country with permission, or towards non-Americans who are in this country without permission but have no criminal intentions.

Despite attempts to characterize the policies of Republicans as purposeful efforts to create and encourage such stigma, I’m willing to assume that the creation of a stigma against non-Americans is not a goal in itself for these politicians but an unfortunate byproduct of the practical pursuit of goal (1). I believe that responsible and sensible Republicans want their policies to create as little of such stigma as possible, while some perhaps hold that there may be no solutions to immigration problems that do not create some minimal amount of stigma.

Anyone who does not want to keep such stigma to a minimum I would characterize as neither responsible nor sensible. Anyone who desires to increase such stigma, or to exploit it for gain, I would characterize using less polite terms.

Satisfying the Bipartisan Goal
Building a wall — what I will call the Wall Plan — may be a means to accomplishing the Bipartisan Goal. Discovering whether it is or isn’t is the goal of the debate itself².  I stand on the fence (in a matter of speaking) about the question. To put it plainly, if the Wall Plan can (1) reduce the number of incidents of non-Americans with criminal intentions crossing the border we share with Mexico, and (2) if it can do so in a way that does as little as possible to encourage stigmatization of those who, without criminal intentions, have either already crossed or desire to cross the border, then I think it ought to be considered as a serious candidate among other proposed means of achieving the Bipartisan Goal.

Satisfying these two conditions though, doesn’t mean the Wall Plan is the best of all plans. There may be other plans which accomplish the Bipartisan Goal in a way that is more cost-effective, ethical, or responsible. As I don’t know what, if any, specific alternative solutions have been offered I won’t enter into comparisons here. Even if I were to compare plans, it would still be necessary to perform an independent assessment of each alternative. Thus what I want to do now would be on the agenda regardless, and can in that case, be considered as first step to any future comparison.

The Three Questions
A successful pitch for the Wall Plan ought satisfactorily to answer (at least) the three following questions:

  1.  Will the wall reduce the number of non-Americans with criminal intention crossing the border?
  2. Will it be cost effective?
  3. Can the wall be built in a way that is non-disruptive to local ecosystems?

The answer to each of these questions involves a series of subordinate question, the sorts of which I will now attempt to adumbrate.

The First Question
To answer the first question we need to ask and answer questions like the following: how many Americans who cross the border with criminal intent cross at unsecured areas of the border, as opposed to secured checkpoints, ocean crossings, registered or unregistered private flights, or commercial flights?

If for instance, it turns out the bulk of these unwanted crossings result from, say, small boats, then we might be better off focusing effort on shoring up our coasts. We don’t want to be in the same position as people in a sinking boat spending all their time and resources plugging a hole only to discover, as they’re ready to start bailing and the boat is near tipping, that there were other bigger holes, attention to which might have meant a more likely escape from their predicament.

We ought also to ask if similar efforts elsewhere have succeeded or failed, and, if they have failed, what we might do differently to achieve better results.

The Second Question
The second question suggests subordinate questions like the following: will the expected diminution in crossings with criminal intention justify the cost? What, in general numbers, is the expected financial loss or gain?

The second question can only — if we desire a certain degree of certainty — be answered after we have an answer to the first question and its subordinates. After we ascertain the number of crossings which can be traced to non-secured areas of the border, we have to ask: what is the actual cost of those crossings to the American people? That is, we need an answer that doesn’t blur figures indistinguishably, so that we know that the cost from say, commercial flight crossings, isn’t being included.

When we have that answer we can ask: what is the initial investment that the American people will make? Will this result from the de-funding of institutions Americans depend upon or enjoy? And as for a return, what is the mechanism by which the American people will be refunded? Will this refund largely take the shape of social good? e.g. safer streets? Or will businesses see increased revenue, higher wages, larger tax returns, etc? And of course, applicable to all these questions is the further question: how?

Only after these questions have some answer can we start to seek an answer to the question: does the return justify the expense?

The Third Question
I hope the first two questions are obvious ones. The third seems to me less obvious, at least inasmuch as I’ve heard very little talk on the subject. If we’re going to build the wall, we should insist that it be done in a way that is environmentally responsible and ecologically ethical.

Specific questions pertaining to specific locales need to be answered. For instance, will animal grazing grounds be cut in half? Will the reduction of habitats force species into populated areas? Will streams and rivers be equipped with submerged fences, disrupting fish migrations which may be food sources for other species? Will portions of the wall need to be kept open during certain season to facilitate wildlife movements? What will be the added cost of environmentally responsible construction and maintenance techniques? What will be the costs if we don’t take such measures? These environmental questions are not trivial questions, despite the fact that they’ve gone relatively unasked.

Furthermore, such costs should be considered in answering the second question.

Other Questions
It’s possible that there are other important questions as well. For example, will the demand for steel deplete our supply and create challenges for other industries that depend on it? That I don’t deal with all specific practical or ethical issues here isn’t to deny their existence or detract from their possible importance.

Peripheral Issues
Apart from these question specific to the Wall Plan, there are incidental issues which may become intertwined with the Bipartisan Goal. That is to say, there are other issues related to immigration that, because of the shared topic, enter into the debate, though they do so without having any direct bearing upon the Bipartisan Goal. For instance: do non-Americans with non-criminal intent put a strain on our job market? Or, our healthcare system? These are important questions to ask, but even if the answer is yes, the construction of a very large wall seems a solution out of scale with these specific problems. It may perhaps be a happy benefit of the Wall Plan that, with it, we solve these problems as well. Nevertheless these possibilities don’t function as independent arguments in favor of the Wall Plan as a solution to the Bipartisan Goal.

That these peripheral argument don’t “kick in” until the more pressing arguments have been settled is due to the fact that they function the same way the offer of a free sundae with the purchase of an expensive meal functions. In the sundae case, we would be wise to ask if it were more sensible to purchase a less expensive meal and pay full price for the sundae, or perhaps forgo the meal entirely and simply purchase the sundae at full price. The point is that the offer of the sundae alone does not function as an independent argument in favor of the meal. Likewise the desire, for instance, to cut healthcare costs doesn’t function as an argument for building the wall³ .

As a sensible and responsible person, I am committed to the Bipartisan Goal. I admit that in relation to the Wall Plan I was somewhat disinterested: I desire the best solution for my country and its neighbors, but at the same time, the effort and time necessary to develop an informed opinion on the subject — that is, to answer the preceding questions — would be largely wasted time, as I have no political clout, and the issue of building or not building the wall seems to have moved firmly out of the range of public decision and is now the contest of elected officials, who though certainly willing to listen to the voice of the people, are capable of mishearing. And mine is but one small voice crying in a large and noisy country.

In other words, I had better things to do with my time and could expect a more profitable return from doing them.

The President’s Speech
When I heard news that President Trump would be addressing the nation, I considered it good news. It would save me the trouble of seeking out the answers to the above questions: I could hear it from the man himself. I was eager to hear how he would make a case for the Wall Plan and what sort of answers he would give to the three questions and their associates.

Like I said, I’m neither for a wall nor am I against it. My assent or dissent is conditional upon the answer to the preceding questions.
I was always ready and willing to be persuaded one way or the other by sensible and responsible arguments. When President Trump addressed the nation I was ready and willing to lend the President my ear and my open mind. I donned my figurative MAGA hat and proceeded to give the president my undivided attention.

I was largely disappointed.

A fuller account of President Trump’s speech is postponed until Part Two.

¹  That is, until I can no longer.
²  This is a general good idea for characterizing debate: discovery, that is, rather than the taking for granted of something’s being the case, or not, and proceeding to do one’s utmost to persuade the other to also take it for granted. In the end you may have succeeded only in making them as much a dupe as yourself. Debate has always as its end discovery, not mastery.
³  Though it may of course have some bearing on the financial question. Incidentally, the sundae comparison doesn’t seem to me, upon second thought, to be perfectly analogous, but the lesson is the same either way: beware of intermingled arguments.

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