This week marks the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Lincoln, one of our most revered presidents, was born in rural Kentucky and raised in Illinois. He is often held up as an example of how individual effort determines a person’s course in life.
While many people in his time might have viewed the education that he embraced as a waste of time, Lincoln spent every possible minute reading books. There are stories of how he would walk for hours to borrow or return a book. Lincoln worked constantly. His law partner, William H. Herndon, noted in “Life of Lincoln” that “his ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.” Sustained individual effort, always working, is a far cry from where we are today.
In his New York Times op-ed column “Failure to Rise,” Paul Krugman writes “America just isn’t rising to the greatest economic challenge in 70 years.” Krugman’s point is that “$800 billion, while it sounds like a lot of money, isn’t nearly enough.” Krugman wants more government intervention. He calls for more, more, more, from Washington, and concludes with a warning, “There’s still time to turn this around. But Mr. Obama has to be stronger looking forward. Otherwise, the verdict on this crisis might be that no, we can’t.”
His approach put responsibility for the economy into the lap of the government. From his perspective, it appears as if the government has total control, and what it does will, in the end, determine what happens. If we believed this, all individual effort would stop, we would no longer try to improve ourselves and our nation would suffer from what Dr. Martin Seligman, the Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, calls “learned helplessness.”
In his New York Times op-ed column “The Worst-Case Scenario,” David Brooks takes the opposite tack and lays out how the government’s response to the current situation might be viewed years from now: “Far from easing uncertainty, the exploding deficits led to more fear. The U.S. could not afford to respond to new emergencies, like hurricanes or foreign crises. Other nations sensed American overextension. Foreign debt-holders grew nervous. Interest rates rose. Congress indulged its worst instincts, erecting trade barriers, propping up doomed companies. Scholars began to talk about the American Disease, akin to the British Disease of the 1970s.”