Trump’s WonderWall is teaching us about what happens when we dump cost-benefit analysis–and it’s not good

We all know the critiques of cost-benefit and EIR analyses. They are pseudo-science; they are political, agencies and politicos manipulate them, etc. As somebody who has done these things for a long time, though, I really still believe in them for their rhetorical value. No, they aren’t science. They don’t have to be. But they are a means of both a) engaging in and b) disciplining the imaginaries we construct around new projects. I’m not saying they provide all the info we need, or that they are the only decision criteria we should use. I am saying that they are a useful means for generating discussion.

We don’t have this with The WonderfulWall. And it’s bad.

I have found lots of conservative media references to ‘an internal report from the Department of Homeland Security’, but I can’t find the report itself. Just reporting on it from Reuters.

I also found a report from a stat prof Liberty Vittert writing for FoxNews where s/he puts the cost at about $25 B using a quick and dirty method. Ok. Vittert want us to know that it’s impossible to understand the consequences of the wall, but then mentions the goodies before concluding “Meh”:

Now, I’ve estimated the cost of the wall to be about $25 billion, but many of the estimates given by other sources include many other factors: how many more or fewer border agents are needed; reduction of “virtual” walls; on-going maintenance; economic costs to border towns; reductions in human trafficking and illegal immigration; reduction in drug trafficking; etc.

There are so many factors that “might increase” or “might decrease” that as a statistician, I can tell you it is empirically impossible to calculate all of the unintended consequences – good or bad – that the wall might cause. Anyone saying otherwise is flat out wrong.

Let’s give a litany of benefits, including the really, really dodgy claim about controlling smuggling, and then throw up our hands and say “who knows?”.

If it’s really the case you are lying if you think you know the future consequences, then why build anything? Why risk anything? We wind up looking towards the future through a glass darkly–the same we are doomed to look at our past–but throwing up your hands like this is frankly irresponsible.

And then they later then gives us an anecdote about going to Ellis Island with her dad and finding her grandma there! How sweet! Who cares? I have no idea what that story is meant to communicate about immigration policy other than the usual conservative assumption that things were so much better back in the day.

Cato estimates the cost more along the lines of about $60B. My quick and dirty calculation with risk factors put it lower, about $40B to $29B. I found a HuffPo report on an MIT study that puts the cost around $40B, but I can’t find the MIT study. AND IT’S DRIVING ME CRAZY. But anyway, a good rule is that when you have experts landing around the some number, it’s ok for going on with it. Cato writes:

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recently sent a letter to Congress where it argued that $5.7 billion would pay for approximately 234 miles of a new physical steel barrier along the border.  That new estimate comes to about $24.4 million per mile.  This new OMB estimate is 41 percent more costly than the approximately $17.3 million per mile construction costs that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimated just a few years ago, 2.7 times as expensive as Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan estimated, and 5 times as expensive as Trump’s lowest estimate

So that’s the $5B number, and it’s per-mile breakdown from OMB, but why the 234 miles? Is that all they want to build?

This is all by way of saying, nobody in the United States would get away with asking for $1 million funding for a rail project without a way, way better cost-benefit analysis for the project. We have some cost analysis–some–but all we have for benefit analysis is a lot of blah blah. Am I missing that report?

And that’s kind of my point. As flawed as EIRs and C-B analyses are, they at least provide a framework for having a deliberation about what future consequences we want and how to deal with the ones we don’t want. Right now, it’s all just unabated conservative fantasyland.

Oh Lookie! The wall (fence) between Egypt and Israel works works works! (What do we mean works? Can we establish that Walls work! That’s why we put walls around prisoners, ya know! Walls make your house stand up! Of course they work! What would your cells be without walls, Huh? Huh? WATER THAT’S WHAT.

THINK OF HOW MUCH MONEY WE’LL SAVE ON BORDER PATROL! Come on. What are the actual costs of operating and maintaining the wall? Israel’s WonderWall I suspect *expanded* labor requirements. Do we know? Nope.

BUT THAT STOPPED ALL THE PEOPLE CROSSING. Um, maybe it stopped them crossing *there at that location* or smuggling *at that location*. But did it decrease human trafficking and smuggling overall? Can we show that terrorism is lower?

But WE’LL MAKE JOBS AT THE SAME TIME. (while controlling Border Patrol costs). And $5 billion is NOTHING, NOTHING compared to what we waste elsewhere. (Amazing. We have to cut Social Security because there is absolutely no money, but there’s just a lot of extra money lying all over for a wall.)

I have yet to see a real analysis of the security benefits here. For people who are claiming there are oodles of precedents, that’s inexcusable.