Wednesday, January 30, 2019

And the walls came tumbling down


The title of this post is adapted from a children’s song about the battle to capture the city of Jericho during the invasion of the promised land by the Israelites under Joshua’s leaderships. According to the story recorded in the sixth chapter of Joshua, priests, at the Lord’s command, blew their trumpets after the people had circumambulated the city and then its wall collapsed.

Whatever else one may garner from that story, the story poignantly reminds us in the twenty-first century that for three thousand plus years, people have known that walls cannot guarantee their security.

Nevertheless, President Trump continues to push aggressively for building a wall on the southern U.S. border, a wall that will, in his words, “stretch from sea to shining sea.” Trump used “Build the wall!” as a highly effective campaign slogan, repeatedly promising to force Mexico to pay for the wall.

Trump, inadvertently, was correct. Mexico is paying for the wall. That is, Mexico is footing the bill for hosting several thousand putative asylum seekers from Latin America who have converged on the border hoping to obtain asylum in the U.S. Contrary to prior practices, these asylum seekers are now refused entry into the U.S.; they register with U.S. border authorities and then await adjudication of their claim to asylum in Mexico. Concurrently, the number of asylum seekers at the border who claim to have fled their country of origin in fearing for their lives grows almost daily.

Trump, however, repeatedly errs in his comments about the need for the wall. The preponderance of illegal drugs passes through secure ports of entry, not through unprotected parts of the border. Very few of the asylum seekers at the border are violent criminals or members of gangs. No crisis exists at the border. Indeed, the numbers of illegal immigrants crossing into the U.S. is dropping.

Facts matter. What might have happened had the priests blown their trumpets before the people circumambulated Jericho the stipulated number of times? Rational people, sharing common values, may differ about proposed policy ukases. Nonetheless, agreement about facts provides the essential foundation for the civil discourse without which democracy becomes impossible. Constructively ending the debate about how to secure the southern border of the U.S. will require Congress ignoring the President’s incendiary bombast and instead focusing on actual facts and widely shared values.

Trump shutting down the government (he has repeatedly accepted ownership of the shutdown) in an attempt to coerce Congress into funding a border wall was not only ineffectual but also immoral.

First, the shutdown de facto punished the government employees who were not paid on time, many of whom had to work in dangerous jobs, and the contractors who lost business. Inflicting harm on a third party to achieve one’s goals is always immoral.

Second, the shutdown punished the people who benefit from the services that the shutdown interrupted. This includes most citizens. Again, inflicting harm on a third party to achieve one’s goals is always immoral.

Third, the shutdown reflected Trump’s anti-government sentiments. He demeans those who pay taxes, what the economist John Kenneth Galbraith famously called “the price of civilization.” Essential government functions include not only national defense and enforcement of the laws, but also ensuring that food is safe to eat, medicines are safe to use, reliable weather forecasts are provided, a safety net to ensure the survival of the most vulnerable, etc.

Probably no one would argue that every dollar the government spends is well spent. Yet examples of government waste are almost always in the six or seven figures, i.e., less than ten million dollars. Even if government waste totals one billion dollars annually, that is less than one tenth of one percent of all federal spending. That’s a pretty good testimony to the fiscal stewardship of government employees, especially when one recognizes that a substantial portion of the waste is attributable to Congressional mandates, i.e., pet projects of individual members of Congress. Additionally, some government “waste” is in the eye of the beholder, i.e., citizens rightly differ on what is or is not worthwhile.

The best hope for positive outcomes from the recent government shutdown are (1) current efforts in Congress to enact legislation designed to avoid future shutdowns and (2) the start of bipartisan conversations about border security policy and funding that is not mired in sloganeering and “alternative facts.”

If those positive outcomes materialize, we can rejoice that some walls have actually come tumbling down!

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