Want to Build Back Better? Look to Abraham Lincoln

A cyclist rides along a street near the Tobin Memorial Bridge, background top, Wednesday, March 31, 2021, in Chelsea, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

For those U.S. senators (notably in West Virginia) who are opposed to the “Build Back Better” plan now on life support, they need to take a page from history. They can consult what Abraham Lincoln did at the height of the Civil War. 

Granted, most of us know the 16th president for the Gettysburg Address, Emancipation Proclamation and his inaugural addresses. But as president during a time of chaos and unprecedented bloodshed, he signed the Morrill Act, Pacific Railway Acts and National Banking Act. Each promoted creation of a national infrastructure in a way that had never been done before — or since. 

By promoting a national education infrastructure in the Morrill Act, Lincoln created the world’s greatest research networks through land-grant colleges. The rail bills financed the Transcontinental Railroad. The National Banking Act created the greenback — a national debt note backed by Congress — and national banking regulation through the Comptroller of the Currency.  

Lincoln was also perhaps one of the first Keynesian presidents long before the famous 20th Century economist John Maynard Keynes advocated in the 1930s that government pump money into the economy through public works projects. Lincoln’s Whig-Republican passion for “internal” improvements started in the 1830s, when he first ran for Illinois General Assemblyman. He supported building canals, a national bank and what became the country’s longest railroad in his day — the Illinois Central.  

Not surprisingly, Lincoln’s vision has managed to become even more relevant as we tackle infrastructure, healthcare, climate change and human rights. In researching my book “Lincolnomics,” I rediscovered the 16th president in a powerful new light: He was our foremost architect of economic development through physical and intellectual improvements from transportation to medical research. Among other things, Lincoln was an unbridled infrastructure champion. 

The idea of Lincolnomics — investing in a broad suite of physical and social infrastructure improvements — has elevated relevance as Congress and President Biden lean into a bold program on national infrastructure and climate change. Lincoln not only gave us a framework for a more just and equitable society, he literally told us how we could go about building it. 

Where would we start? The basics are roads, bridges, railroads, tunnels and water systems, which were included in the smaller, infrastructure package passed in the fall of 2021.  

Of course, today a broad infrastructure program needs to be focused in tandem on equity and the environment. Benefits need to be evenly distributed between affluent and underserved communities. We need to avoid the sins of the past where railroads and highways displaced Native Americans and minority neighborhoods, and the worst-polluting infrastructure ended up in working class or poor communities. Build Back Better addresses long-standing issues with environmental justice. The law would clean up brownfields, reduce pollution and create “green” jobs in underserved communities. 

Again, we can look to the past, although Lincoln’s 19th-century legacy is not unblemished. The “Manifest Destiny” of moving settlers West and giving land away to homesteaders and railroads resulted in the appropriation of Native American lands and thousands of deaths. There’s no denying that economic expansion largely helped white settlers and robber barons. Equity was not on the minds of mostly white men then charting this horrific course. Today we can do so much better.  

More importantly, Lincoln’s longest and most comprehensive speeches were devoted to the culture of invention, internal improvements and research and development. He advocated for ways to connect the country with railroads at a time when once you hit the Mississippi River you were pretty much on your own to get to the Pacific. Even more remarkable is that he signed into law a raft of ways to build connections and finance them. His economic vision helped countless Americans emerge from poverty and give them access to continental and global markets.  

Recent efforts to launch a broader infrastructure program, however, have fallen flat. One of the stumbling blocks is how to pay for trillions in needed social and ecological infrastructure upgrades in the time of COVID, climate change and a ballooning federal debt. 

In Lincoln’s time, a combination of the first (flat) federal income tax, issuance of debt (greenbacks) and land grants financed a host of improvements. Today, a mix of public-private partnerships, tax credits, progressive corporate/personal income tax rates and a carbon tax can prove to be a winning combination.  

Much work needs to be done. This time, however, a comprehensive infrastructure plan can address issues such as living wages, environmental justice and broad-based economic progress in every community with “malice toward none.” That’s what Lincoln truly sought. It hasn’t lost its power and purpose.  

John F. Wasik is the author of “Lincolnomics,” his 19th book. He’s an award-winning contributor to The New York Times, Forbes.com and Real Clear Investigations who has spoken across North America. He’s also a county and forest preserve commissioner in Lake County, Illinois. https://www.johnfwasik.com/