How quickly we forget. Just days ago, on Memorial Day—a day of gratitude, respect, and celebration—the words of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address were read at ceremonies across the nation. The phrase from that speech that always sticks with me is the challenge President Lincoln set forth for us: “[R]esolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” He implored us not to shy away from the sacrifices we too have an obligation to shoulder in order to advance the “unfinished work” that remained—not merely winning the Civil War and ending slavery, but the continued creation of a nation with opportunity for all.
The question confronting the United States today is whether the notion of sacrifice—-personal and collective—still has enough traction in our society to enable us to overcome the range of problems we face. For as much as we might honor the men and women in our armed forces for whom sacrifice is all too real, we know that in almost every matter of importance, Americans have become masters of “sacrifice avoidance.” Every problem is turned into a positive-sum game—spending more, rather than making hard choices; shifting burdens to future generations whose voices can’t be heard; pushing the obligations off to another day or on to another group.
The problems—from energy to educational achievement to financial reform to environmental degradation—that could be resolved with just a modicum of shared sacrifice are remarkable. Surely, as we enter a period of negative-sum decision-making, not positive-sum giveaways, we must understand—as President Lincoln beseeched us—that shared sacrifice, the shared shouldering of burdens, is the key to resolving our critical problems.
Just think about it. After reading the Gettysburg Address, does it seem onerous to ask for slightly higher marginal tax rates for the top 5 percent, those who benefited so remarkably from the excesses of the boom years, in order to fund the necessary investment in social infrastructure?
After reading the Gettysburg Address, does the idea of a carbon tax to finally move us away from an oil and old-energy dependence that is fouling not only the Gulf of Mexico but our entire climate, foreign policy, and economy seem so outrageous? Given the accomplishments of our global competitors, surely it makes sense to consider longer school days and school years. Don’t the concerns voiced by those who would have to sacrifice somewhat—whether teachers, parents, or students—to accommodate this national imperative seem somewhat less compelling after reading the Gettysburg Address?
After reading the Gettysburg Address, don’t the bleating self-important concerns of investment bankers whose multimillion-dollar bonuses might be jeopardized by a somewhat more rigorous regulatory structure seem downright offensive?
Yet our dedication to the sacrifices needed to complete the unfinished business that President Lincoln referred to is absent. The voice we need to hear right now is President Obama’s—evoking the language of his great predecessors, from Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt—inspiring in all of us a greater sense of national purpose.