Civil War 2.0? Why Splitting Up Would Be a $100 Trillion Mistake

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Not our president? Protesters in December of 2020 mourning, and hoping to overturn, the defeat of then-President Donald Trump to now-President Joe Biden. Tasos Katopodis/Getty

There's a lot of chatter these days, sometimes wistful, about Civil War 2.0. Recently, Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican, said Texas could take its oil, NASA and go its own way. In January, professor Barbara Walter warned of the possibility of another war between the states in her book, How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them. A few years back, a The Week editor Bonnie Kristian, said, "We should chop America into seven different countries. Seriously."

And in 2020, right-wing provocateur Candace Owens tweeted, "I wonder if we're past the point of reconciliation with the Left. Maybe we'd all be happier letting them pick a few states they can turn into their own country w/ no guns, no police, no statues, no genders, no flags, no men and no electricity."

Tempting, Candace, yes. But it's a bad idea for a lot of reasons. One big one that's often ignored: Economically, splitting up would be a $100 trillion mistake.

Look, we get it. Everyone is exasperated. Both sides fantasize about simply going our separate ways, creating two countries of like-minded people and living happily ever after. If "happily ever after" means living in countries with lousy economies and a mountain of debt, then okay.

If splitting led to a civil war, it would cost millions of lives and trillions of dollars. Estimating the fully loaded costs of war is tricky business, but safe to say modern wars are expensive. According to the Watson Institute at Brown University, U.S. wars post-9/11 have cost $8 trillion in military spending alone. But the bigger (and trickier) part is what wars do to the economy. It's estimated the Yugoslavian Civil War in 1991 reduced GDP by 20 percent a year with industrial production down by 50 percent, along with 20 percent unemployment.

Even in the improbable case that a split would happen peacefully, there would be additional one-time costs of dismembering infrastructure, including splitting up power, communication and transportation grids. That would cost billions, at least.

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Breaking up would be very hard to do. Enjoynz/Getty

Either way, there'd be huge ongoing costs due to economic inefficiency. We've personally worked in 50 different countries around the world. And we can say without hesitation that the U.S. is the greatest economic engine on the planet. There are many components that contribute to that standing, but much of it comes down to scale. Dividing up America would destroy those economies of scale. Everything would be more expensive and harder to get. Companies would need to duplicate manufacturing and distribution facilities. Supply chains, already strained, would be longer and more complex. Jobs would be fewer—and it would be more difficult to relocate to take advantages of opportunities. Risk would increase. During the big ice storm of 2021, millions of Texas residents grappling with power outages learned first-hand the risks associated with relying on a system not fully integrated into the national grid.

People on both sides might believe taxes would be lower if the country were split up—say, blue states not having to send money to "moocher states" or red states not contributing to welfare. It's more likely that tax burdens would increase. Many of the biggest-ticket federal budget items like Social Security and Medicare aren't going away. Also, scale applies to government, just as it does to business. On a per citizen basis, it's more costly to run two governments than one. Defense spending, which for the U.S. is around $800 billion a year, might well explode. After the split, each side would be sharing a 2,000-mile acrimonious border with a nuclear neighbor—think Russia-Ukraine.

But it could be much worse. What if the U.S. broke up not into two countries, but a dozen or a hundred? That's more likely than two. In 1860, the division was regional. Today the red-blue split is mostly rural-urban. That doesn't lend itself easily to division. We built a computer model that included voting and Census data for every county in the U.S. We then tested different ways to split up the country into geographically cohesive red or blue countries. No matter how we gerrymandered the map, we couldn't do it.

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Ted Cruz (R-TX) in Cancun: Would he take his Texas oil and go home? MEGA/GC/Getty

Consider Senator Cruz's example: Texas. There are 254 counties in Texas. Of those, 232 went for former President Trump in 2020. Nonetheless over five million Texans voted for President Biden, almost half the electorate. Two thirds of those voters live in or around five big metro areas, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Paso. Those five cities also contain half of Texas' population and three-fourths of its economic output. What would happen to the blue voters in those cities after a Civil War? Take it or leave it? Better red than dead?

Or would the cities exist as blue islands in a sea of red—modern day Berlins? And before red voters say "damn straight," they should realize it's not just a blue problem. What about red voters who live in blue states? According to Washington Post correspondent Philip Bump, who covers the numbers behind politics, more Trump voters live in blue states than red ones. Mass relocations or walled cities? (Unfortunately we have a lot of experience lately with building walls, and they seem to run about $20 million per mile. More billions.)

In short, even if Americans are not compelled by our shared history and culture to stay together and work it out, we should be swayed by the realization that splitting up would burden our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren with crippling debt and sub-scale economies.

It would be an expensive, and unmanageable, divorce.

Sam Hill is a former C-suite executive and writer, whose work has appeared in Fortune, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal. Hank Gilman is a senior contributing editor at Newsweek. Giacomo Eisler of Indiana University and Luz Dunn of Databayou also contributed to this essay.