Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Shutdown And The Wall

At the time of this writing it is day 21 of the government shutdown. On Friday January 11, thousands of Federal workers missed their first full paycheck. Although it is unwise to live your life paycheck to paycheck, fully 80% of Americans do indeed live paycheck to paycheck.  

 And that's not just impoverished people. 10% of people with a salary greater than six figures also say they live that way. Of course a six figure income is not what it was twenty years ago. The reasons for that are not really relevant to this post. The larger point is that many federal workers will face some tough decisions over the next few days. The given reason for the shutdown is that President Trump wants $5.7 Billion for the creation and expansion of a hard border Wall. 

The Democrats, who won back the House, are offering $1.3 Billion for border security, maybe some possible fencing, but definitely no wall. In some ways however the fight isn't really over the creation of a wall. Democrats have voted for walls before. Some border areas already have effective walls. The larger fight is over the symbolism of a wall. Trump's rabid base despises illegal immigration and isn't that crazy about legal immigration. They want to see concrete evidence that Trump is making headway in the battle against both. When Trump looked like he was going to cave conservative enforcer Ann Coulter called him out in a mocking personal way.

Trump responded. Of course Trump is a hypocrite many times over as his businesses have long made profitable use of illegal immigrants. The business class portion of the Republican base, as represented by the Chamber of Commerce and Wall Street Journal, among others, is dedicated to increasing the labor supply via legal or illegal immigration. All else equal, larger labor supply = lower wages = higher profits for business owners. It's that simple. 

The more openly racist/nativist portion of the Republican base doesn't profit from immigrants. They see them as job competitors or cost centers. They point to California as the ur-example of how unfettered immigration can change a state's electorate (and housing market) to the point where Republicans simply can't win. They argue that if the same thing should happen in Texas (and it's getting close), Republicans can kiss goodbye to any chance of winning Presidential elections for the foreseeable future. 

Some Democrats agree with this analysis though obviously they are unsympathetic. The Democrats see immigrants as future voters or as parents of future voters and thus no longer have any real interest in stopping or slowing immigration, illegal or otherwise. You will not find too many prominent Democrats expressing anger or outrage about crimes committed by illegal immigrants. Democrats argue that illegal immigrants are currently more likely to come in via visa overstay and that illegal crossings have declined. So in their view a wall won't work to hinder illegal immigration.

But if you agree with that argument and pivot to say that is why you support E-verify, workplace raids, arrest of employers of illegal immigrants, better visa tracking, and reduction of visa offers, the same people would look at you with horror and start calling you nasty names. Democrats say they are not for open borders. I believe them. But they are against almost any border enforcement, verification of citizenship, or deportation of non-citizens. The grassroots Democratic energy is behind ideas like eliminating ICE or increasing immigration, codifying DACA, and extending free health care or the (local) vote to illegal immigrants. Democrats place a much higher value on compassion towards illegal  immigrants than Republicans do. That their compassion tends to track with their political self-interest in this case is doubtless a coincidence.

Additionally Democrats are still simmering over Senator Mitch McConnell's refusal to bring the Merrick Garland nomination to a vote. McConnell had the power to do this even though it was irregular. Well turnabout is fair play is it not? Trump said many times over and over and over again that Mexico would pay for the wall. 

So why is he trying to get Americans to pay for it? Democrats in Congress have no incentive to help a lying Trump keep a poorly worded dumb campaign promise. If the wall was so important to Trump then he should have made it a higher priority when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and had Democrats running scared.

So what happens next? Both sides will need to feel some pain. The problem is that by taking such a public and inflexible stance Trump has made it very hard to back off of anything without both his supporters and detractors saying that he punked out. Trump has no problem punking out but being seen to do so publicly will drive him up the wall (pun intended). Being tough on illegal immigration is what set Trump apart from every other candidate. Similarly when Democrats say that a wall is immoral they leave no room for agreeing to funding. Right now it seems that the Democrats are hanging together a bit more strongly than the Republicans. 

A wall from California to Texas would take years to build and be bogged down in all sorts of lawsuits over eminent domain and the environment to name just a few issues. Although that is what some restrictionists would like, that is not what is being discussed. We're talking about beginning a little over 200 miles of a barrier in high traffic areas. Ideally, in order to get the government open again, both sides could split the difference and agree to disagree on what to call the barrier. 

Otherwise the shutdown will soon have larger and larger negative (and noticeable) effects on the economy. One off-ramp would be for Trump to declare a national emergency and take money from other federal programs to build the wall. That would almost certainly be tied up in the courts where Trump might lose. But then Trump could also re-open the government and claim that he did so without capitulating to the Democrats. Trump and Republicans are betting that the concept of good government is more important to Democrats than Republicans. If nothing else this shutdown shows how critical the issue of immigration , legal and illegal, is to our concept of who owns this nation. The same issues are popping up all across what we refer to as the West.
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