Michael Meeropol: The Cost Of "Zero Tolerance" At The Border

Jul 6, 2018

When I gave my last radio commentary five weeks ago, I decried the awful policy that was separating children from their parents at the border.   I had no idea that the revulsion I and many others (in fact the majority of Americans) felt would actually cause the Trump Administration to retreat – at least on paper.   Attorney General Sessions actually claimed --- falsely --- that family separation was NEVER the policy of this administration --- despite is promise --- that was video-taped --- that the government was prepared to separate families when they crossed the border.

In the weeks since my last commentary, I have been very much impressed with the presentations of MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle.   She had a 14 year career in international business before becoming a business and finance journalist in 2011.   She has focused her attention on the costs of the government’s policy.

Since that policy – the explicit policy of separating children from their parents at the border -- became the subject of intense scrutiny by the media and debate among our fellow citizens, Ruhle has stood out in making the very strong argument that the cost of separating the kids from their parents, housing the kids and their parents whether separately or together for months and months has been and promises to be prohibitively expensive.

(One estimate is $5 million per month for one 400 bed facility.  See the NBC news report.)

This brings me to a general comment about the extreme right wing in this country and its opinion of so-called wasteful government spending.   Even since Barry Goldwater ran for President in  1964, it has been a mantra for right-wingers – particularly the rank and file citizen who leans right --- that the federal government spends too much money and that it is essential that fiscal conservatives be elected so that federal spending can be reined in.   The general public agrees  – In poll after poll, Americans believe the government spends too much money on wasteful projects.   Some rail against pork barrel spending --- building a center for some kind of research with the name of the local Congressperson on it.   A favorite of the right-wing has always been foreign aid --- though polling data indicates that the public wildly over-estimates how much the US gives out in foreign aid and when asked how much we SHOULD give out, these same folks tell pollsters a number that is HIGHER than what we actually give out.   Of course, a favorite complaint about government is that it gives “welfare” to people who don’t deserve it.  This has often been a useful dead horse to beat over and over again, though when Bill Clinton signed “welfare reform” in the 1990s, the attempt to complain about too much welfare spending lost much of its luster. 

The most recent efforts to control federal spending involved a number of “Ryan budgets” passed by the House during the Obama Administration.  Many of them focused on so-called out-of-control entitlements – Medicare, Medicaid and (for some brave souls) Social Security.   [Remember, Governor Rick Perry called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” when he was running for President in 2016].    

So there are always candidates for how the federal government wastes our money.

The problem with this consensus is that it never applies to the particular spending that politicians and individuals really care about.  The most dramatic example, of course, is the exception that virtually all right-wingers make for spending on national defense.   (Here I leave out the true libertarians who are consistent but few and far between.   Representative Ron Paul was honest in his complaints about too much defense spending  and too much military intervention abroad.  His son, Senator Rand Paul, has mostly muted his support for a more consistent libertarian anti-interventionist foreign policy.). 

Meanwhile, liberal Democrats are no strangers to similar arguments.   In 2012, President Obama stated in his annual economic report that he was committed to fiscal discipline -- reducing the federal budget deficit – BUT he was committed to making important investments in our future such as in infrastructure. 

(In my economics textbook, co-written with Howard Sherman we have a section called “Don’t Cut my Spending” where we have quotes from the Romney for President 2012 campaign supporting spending more money on national defense paired with the Obama Economic Report of the President promising to spend more money on “investments” in our future.   See Principles of Economics, Activist vs. Austerity Policies (second edition coming out soon) pages 314-316.   Both promises by candidate Romney and President Obama to INCREASE spending are preceded by lip-service to “controlling spending” and “reducing deficits.”)

In 1981 when Ronald Reagan took office, federal spending was 21 % of GDP.   In 1989 when he left office, this allegedly strong budget cutter had seen federal spending expand as the economy expanded.   In nominal dollars (uncorrected for inflation) federal spending rose from $746 billion in 1981 to $1,144 billion in 1989.  [see http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/data/budget.php]

As a percentage of GDP this represented a rather underwhelming shrinkage – In 1989 the ratio was 20%.   How did this budget-cutter end up increasing spending so much?  He cut domestic spending but raised national defense spending.

This brings me back to the issue at hand.  Why are Republicans and their right-wing supporters who claim to be concerned about federal budget deficits and out of control federal spending not batting an eye when faced with millions of dollars of projected spending to create massive detention centers on military bases to house detained immigrants together with their children for months and months?   The Obama Administration used a cheaper system.  It was called “case management” and involved assigning a case worker to each asylum seeking family.   Far from the “catch and release” characterization of Trump this involved 90% of the families seeking asylum SHOWING UP for their hearing.   (And it’s obvious they would show up  --- being granted asylum creates a path to citizenship.)   But this cheaper (and more humane) method is not appealing enough to the anti-immigrant sentiment that energizes Trump supporters.  Their goal is actually to punish immigrants – making their lives so miserable that their relatives and friends will not attempt to come here.    Once again – spending that the extreme right wing considers VERY IMPORTANT is given a pass.    Please remember this the next time you hear someone – anyone – rail against wasteful government spending.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author (with Howard Sherman) of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.