A Lincoln Day bridge for the GOP
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Lincoln Day celebrations are occasions in the Republican Party for looking backward and forward. We can best honor the 16th president with conservative approaches to helping Americans better participate in the economy. Lincoln wanted government to build bridges for mass flourishing. The alternative, then as now, is to build walls of protection. This battle between bridges and walls will be an important struggle in Republican economic policy.

As the Civil War raged, Lincoln endorsed policies aimed at helping people of modest means to advance in the changing economy. He championed the Morrill Act’s land-grant colleges, the Homestead Act’s encouragement of mobility, and the transcontinental railroad’s opening of opportunity — to say nothing of Emancipation. That agenda offers strong guidance for today’s GOP, when the dislocations of technological change and globalization are behind much of the current unrest.

Land-grant colleges offer particularly significant guidance. Those colleges explicitly taught the mechanical as well as agricultural arts, to help young people prepare for the industrializing economy. They also broadened access to higher education for students who didn’t come from families of wealth.

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In a number of states, however, these colleges were controversial. Interest groups worked to turn them into a wall protecting the past, rather than a bridge to the future. After the depression of the 1870s, with falling crop prices, farmers in Vermont and elsewhere tried to get their legislatures to focus instruction on agriculture and stop encouraging people to work in factories. Congress compromised by separately funding agricultural extension services in rural counties, often staffed by faculty from the land-grant colleges.

Those bridge-like institutions thus smoothed America’s passage to an industrial capitalist economy and advanced science and technology. Instead of an agricultural wall against structural change, the colleges prospered through imparting useful knowledge, supporting established as well as new communities.

Today, with trade and technological change continuing as dynamic forces, we need bridges to boost skills over individuals’ working lives. This preparation is all the more important as the pandemic effectively reallocates jobs across sectors.

Community colleges are the best vehicle for this investment. Enrolling more than 7 million students annually, community colleges offer associate degree programs as well as work with local employers on certificate programs for training. Federal and state job training programs supplement this activity, though these often lack ties to the needs of those employers.

Despite their much needed role, community colleges have seen their support from state governments wither. Many elected officials have called for demand-side relief — “free tuition.” But free tuition means little if your institution lacks the services to support your education toward completion. Building on the Morrill Land Grants, Amy Ganz, Austan Goolsbee, Melissa Kearney, and I recently proposed a supply-side program of federal grants to strengthen community colleges — contingent on improved degree completion rates and labor market outcomes. We set a block grant goal of raising community college completion rates (or transfer to four-year colleges) to 60 percent — the current graduation rate for students seeking bachelor’s degrees. We aim to increase the share of Americans aged 25-64 with post-secondary credentials from 47 percent to 65 percent, the level projected to meet the economy’s skill needs by 2030. This block grant, costing about $20 billion per year, would allow flexibility in matching with local firms’ needs for employment skills.

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Federal support for applied research can also build bridges for individuals and communities, by keeping the American economy at the forefront of the dynamic world economy. And support for applied research and its dissemination can bolster local economies and skill development. We can locate centers for applied research around the country, bolstering local economies as well as partnering with local businesses for job preparation and knowledge transfer. Such initiatives give workers practical skills to thrive despite structural change, and thereby generate local buy-in.

Some will say that the federal government has tried these measures in the past with little success. Yet worker retraining and other programs were chronically underfunded as well as caught up in bureaucratic limitations. A block grant approach, in true Republican style, would unleash local energies to build a bridge to the future.

Many Republicans are looking for a path beyond the walls of populists. Lincoln’s focus on bridge-building offers just such a path, as long as policymakers carry these measures out with full commitment. Federal assistance to bridges can once again foster prosperity for many Americans, while allowing flexibility across the nation. That assistance offers a rich alternative for “building back better.”

Mr. Hubbard, a professor of economics and finance at Columbia University, was Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush.