Presidential candidates make bold and outrageous claims and promises. The more shocking the soundbite, the better. Bush promised to cut taxes. He even asked us to read his lips, and then he raised taxes. Clinton promised a Universal Healthcare System called Promise, and, hmm, didn’t deliver. That is just how the system works – or doesn’t – depending on how you look at it.
Donald Trump has made an art form out of headline-grabbing pledges. During his campaign to become the Republican candidate Donald Trump has promised he will:
Ban Muslims from entering the United States
Carpet bomb oil fields controlled by ISIS, take the oil and gift the profits to veterans
Order the murder of the families of terrorists, and
“Be the greatest jobs president that God ever created.”
However, the campaign promise that most captivated the imagination of the electorate, was the promise with which Trump launched his presidential candidacy speech:
“I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”
On February 23rd, 2016, during his victory speech in Nevada, Trump doubled down on his promise, and added:
“They [the Mexicans] will be thrilled to be paying for the wall.”
Forget the geo-political and technical difficulties involved in building a 2,000-mile long wall across four states, and forcing another sovereign nation to pay for it. This is a financial blog, so we are more interested in the question: How much would something like that cost to build?
How Much Would Trump’s Mexican Border Wall Cost?
The quick answer is billions of dollars. Nobody knows exactly how much, but we can guesstimate. Here are a few educated guesses that have been posed so far:
Answer 1: $8 Billion. “The wall is probably $8 billion, which is a tiny fraction of the money that we lose with Mexico.”
Based on what? That was Trump’s estimate of what the total cost of the wall might be, in a recent interview with Tamron Hall (MSNBC). He would know. After all, as Trump himself said during an interview on CNN’s State of the Union: “I’d build it. I’d build it very nicely. I’m very good at building things.”
Answer 2: $15 billion to $25 billion, plus $750 million a year in maintenance costs.
Based on what? Well, we have already built part of it. There is nothing new about the idea of creating a barrier to keep Mexican immigrants out of the United States. We have already built 670 miles of fencing along the Mexican border.
How much did the fencing project cost? $2.4 billion, approximately $3.5 million per mile of fence. That is roughly a third of the U.S.-Mexico border, but, remember, it is a fence, not a wall, and it was built along the easiest to reach areas. Construction in more isolated areas would be much costlier. One area near San Diego would cost up to $16 million per mile, according to an estimate by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
The Bush administration passed the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which ordered the construction of 700 miles of double-layered fencing along the border. As you can see from the picture above, not all sections of the fence are built to the highest construction standards.
However, Trump is not promising a budget fence. He has more impressive specifications in mind. It will be a state-of-the-art wall, “35 to 40 feet high,” “a real wall,” that “actually looks good.” The cost for that kind of structure would probably exceed $25 billion.
Answer 3: $10 billion.
Based on what? The $10 billion estimate is based on a CNN report that consulted with a panel of architects and civil engineers. This guesstimate allows for a 20-foot wall made of prefabricated concrete slabs supported by reinforced steel columns. The wall would be similar to the barriers you can see along many highways. This price tag only includes the construction of the wall, not the building of the roads and other infrastructure required to transport the prefabricated slabs, steel, and workers to isolated areas. It’s also not quite as grand as the wall envisioned by Trump.
Trump’s Mexican Border Wall vs. The World
So how would Trump’s Mexican border wall compare to the other great immigration control walls in history? Let’s compare:
The Great Wall of China
Donald Trump has compared his wall to the Great Wall of China on several occasions. In his words: “I’ve climbed the Great Wall a few times. It is, I can confirm, totally big and beautiful… The Great Wall of China, built 2,000 years ago, is 13,000 miles, folks, and they didn’t have Caterpillar tractors! They didn’t have cranes; they didn’t have excavation equipment. We have all of the materials. We can do that so beautifully.”
There is no doubt the Great Wall of China is awe-inspiring and one of the most famous landmarks in the world. However, it is probably not the kind of wall you want to use as a model when selling your immigration control project. It took thousands of years to build, it’s not a contiguous wall, its construction bankrupted several Chinese dynasties and it did nothing to keep the Mongol hordes from invading China. There is also the small detail concerning the 400,000 workers that, according to a commonly accepted estimate, died building the wall.
As Arthur Waldron says in his book: “The Great Wall of China: From History To Myth,” it is only recently that the Great Wall of China has been viewed positively as a symbol of Chinese greatness. Previously it was a symbol of waste, bad policy, cruelty, and futility.
The Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall was “just” 96 miles long, but it still cost $25 million to build. That was back in 1961 when the average income was $5,315, a gallon of gas cost 27 cents and the average cost of a new house was $12.5k. In today’s dollars, the Berlin Wall cost $200 million, which is only $2.1 million per mile. A bargain.
Israel’s West Bank Wall
Another beloved wall is Israel’s West Bank Wall. The infamous West Bank Barrier stretches over 400 miles. Most of the barrier (around 90%) is a multi-layered fence system. In urban settings, the Israeli government built a 26-foot high concrete wall to provide additional protection from snipers. The project is still under construction, but so far it has cost $2.6 billion to build and $260 million a year to maintain.
Roman Emperor Hadrian ordered the building of Hadrian’s Wall in 122 A.D. to “separate Romans from Barbarians” as part of his effort to consolidate Rome’s borders in Britain. The wall runs for 73 miles and when it was first built, was 13 to 15 feet high. Hadrian’s Wall provides a ray of hope for Trump. The Berlin Wall wasn’t called Khrushchev Wall, even though he ordered its construction. The West Bank Wall is not called the Moshe Katsav Wall. But thanks to Hadrian’s Wall, Trump can dream: