26 January 2017
Wall of words
The U.S. -Mexico summit scheduled for next week has been cancelled, the countries' presidents instead agreeing to disagree, for now, on whether Mexico should contribute to the cost of the wall planned by the new U.S. administration for the countries' shared border. Recent days' developments have many Americans wringing their hands and rolling their eyes, but for the President of the United States, no doubt, it's all part of the negotiation. Whether he can win while negotiating with statesmen rather than businessmen remains to be seen. There's a certain "you want it, you pay for it" logic to the Mexican position, while Trump's options are either raw intimidation or an attempt to prove that Mexico has a responsibility to contribute some or (as he apparently prefers) all the costs of construction. The question now isn't whether a wall will or even ought to be built; like it or not, the late presidential election has settled the question, so long as the President is understood to have sufficient power through executive orders to command it, until another raises the question of tearing the wall down. The question is whether Mexico can be made to pay, whether an obligation can be proved or not. Or at least I thought that was the question, until I read a few minutes ago that the President's press secretary had announced a plan to fund the wall by imposing a 20% tariff on imports from Mexico. That sounds suspiciously like Trump has decided that the American consumer should pay for the wall. Of course, the American consumer could simply decide not to buy Mexican, but then how does the wall get built in the event of continued Mexican obdurance? Well, how does Trump propose to upgrade his country's infrastructure while cutting taxes? It had already been suggested that the U.S. would borrow money to build the wall pending an agreement with Mexico. If having the wall is the priority, paying for it becomes a question for another time. Such a conclusion may disappoint those deficit hawks for whom President Obama's deficits were an argument for Trump, but they have only themselves to blame by electing a Republican who'll most likely perpetuate the Republican preference. as practiced by Reagan and George W. Bush, for borrowing over taxation, i.e. taking the easy way out of the situation. But who knows? Maybe Trump's real idea is to float these proposals in order to inflame public opinion against Mexico as the cause of consumers or taxpayers' pain. But what public opinion can do about Mexico, or what the President can do, remains unclear. For now, the Mexicans understandably take an "Or else what?" stance, but to the extent that they regard the wall itself, regardless of who pays for it, as an affront, they have less cause for complaint, if only because a sovereign nation can do whatever its rulers please with its side of a border. Would Trump complain if the Mexicans built a wall? Of course not; that would save his country money! Meanwhile, Americans can question the propriety of building a wall or the motives for building it, but you can't really question the right to build it. And at this moment in history the argument that a border wall is somehow morally wrong is most likely a losing one.