Michael Grossman:The Mississippi Factor

Be honest: if you were offered a 30 percent raise in your current pay and a move up the corporate ladder in exchange for moving to Mississippi: would you do it?

For most people, the answer would be a resounding “NO!” and the reasons are all too familiar. Mississippi has a public relations problem the size of a fast food waistline with extra corn syrup—and no one wants to be associated with it. If you live somewhere suffering from low education standards, high poverty and illiteracy rates, or a chronically obese population, the first unstated question is always, “Are we at least ahead of Mississippi?”

So what do you do if you ARE Mississippi, and you’re trying to do the right thing, finally ratifying the 13th Amendment (outlawing slavery) the other day? Do you really want to remind anyone of your state’s hateful past, or do you take credit for righting an historic wrong—148 years late? Talk about a Hobson’s Choice.

Changing the trajectory of the question slightly, would you want to live in a nation that’s 148 years late in coming to grips with it’s electrons? How about a nation with its own fast food waistline for fossil fuels? Every time I hear the President tout how America is drilling record amounts domestically, I remind myself that Pennsylvania’s first oil gusher ushered in the era of oil and gas in the same year as the Emancipation Proclamation, ahem, 150 years ago. It’s official now: even the long arc of civil rights in Mississippi has moved faster than our sobriety from fossil fuels.

When it comes to progress and technology, there are only two choices: lead or be led. There has never been a successful reclamation of a simpler past on a large scale because society moves in only one direction: forward.

Yesterday, China announced it was making the 21st Century’s first large leap for mankind: the enacting of a carbon tax to penalize pollution and incentivize cleaner and smarter ways of doing business. Good for them. For the last couple of decades, the U.S. and China have been trading off the title of The Mississippi of Carbon, but it appears at first blush that only one of us has the gumption to leave the bayou behind.

Are we really willing to ignore our own national legacy, full well knowing that future generations will find this willful ignorance as abhorrent as the post-Civil War path taken by Jim Crow? Think of it this way, if we would have waited to act for the last 148 years ala the Magnolia State, we’d have missed out on the telephone, airplanes and the Internet (to name a few)—just to say we protected our heritage of “Drill, baby! Drill!”

Cutting your nose off to spite your face might make for good electoral politics in certain quarters, but it makes for a lousy strategy for a shrinking planet. We can choose to seize the moment and be the Harvard of Innovation, or we could simply be content to have American children 150 years from now refer to us as the Mississippi Generation as they do the heavy lifting from our legacy of disdain while the rest of the world guffaws at their backwards ways and forefathers.

The good news is we still can choose, but eventually, like Mississippi, those perceptions get set in stone, and no one wants to live in the neighborhood when it’s always at the bottom of the list.

Source:  Michael Grossmand, FiftyPlusOne, February 20, 2013.