THANK GOD FOR MISSISSIPPI

From time to time the federal government or some nationally recognized academic study group will issue rankings on one or another important cultural aspect of American life--education, per capita income, culture, doctors per capita, literacy and so on and so on. When those studies are issued Arkansans run and hide because we know where we'll be ranked--49th. Thence the oft-intoned lament, "Thank God for Mississippi."

When an Arkie says, "Thank God for Mississippi," it's an expression of exasperation, an admission that we have once again despite our best efforts managed to fail utterly. We're not the bottom of the barrel. We're the dust that has settled on the bottom of the barrel. We're almost envious of Mississippi. When you're rock bottom you can at least pretend it's because you don't care about the rankings. When you're next to last it implies that you tried and blew it. Next to last is a spread eagle bellyflop off the ten meter board.

How did this happen and why does it keep happening? Why can't we get our act together and get out of this humiliating rut? I've given this matter a lot of thought and here's what I've come up with:

Eating the Seed Corn: Arkies are really bad about eschewing the long view in favor of the short term gain. Any time we find ourselves in posession of some wonderous thing we're eager to convert it to cash so we can go to town and buy ourselves something shiny. Here are a couple of examples:

Example number one: The Buffalo National River is perennially named the number one scenic river in the country by canoeing magazines. It's the longest stretch of undammed river in North America and floating the thing is an honor and a thrill. If you want to bliss out for an afternoon or a day, go and float the Buffalo. Still, there is constantly a movement favoring a public works project to build yet another dam, generate electricity, create yet another unnatural trout tailwater and yet another deepwater lake.

Example number two: There's a diamond mine at Murfreesboro (Crater of Diamonds State Park) that is open to the public. You can keep what you find. It draws thousands and thousands of tourists every year, yet there's always a group lobbying the state to allow outside interests to mine the thing and pay the state for the mineral rights. It would mean a few local jobs for a short time and a big wad of cash for the state government, but the tourist attraction would then be gone.

The Jethro Effect: There is a tendency among Arkansans to accept inferior workmanship, inferior materials, damaged goods and cheap knock-offs as if they were as good as top-quality. Here's one example: A painter was painting the trim at my parents' house many years back. Mom tells painter to be sure and remove the hardware from the doors before painting them so that paint doesn't get on the hinges and door knobs. The painter agreed. When the job was finished, sure enough there was paint all over the hinges. Not only did the painter not remove the hinges, he didn't mask over them. He didn't even try to paint around them. Jethro just slopped the paint over the hinges, apparently figuring the doors would be closed most of the time anyway. If you find a craftsman who refuses to sell crappy work, pay the premium and stick with him.

There's a big stink locally concerning the collection of sales taxes on mail-order goods. Well, champ, there's a reason so many Arkansans prefer mail order goods. The local merchants will stick you with damaged goods and returned items if you let them. I was in K-mart the other day and I was looking at one of those Philips prepaid cell phones. I opened the box and the phone inside was already activated and the prepaid card had already been used. I used it to make a call to my answering machine. It was for sale at the full price. Many many times I've bought computer components from local shops and gotten them home only to find that they were defective and had previously been installed in computers. I've never ever had to return a computer component purchased by mail.

There is no way to estimate the amount of retail business Arkansas merchants have sent to other states in this way. The people here just learn to be suspicious or to buy from out of state. Eventually we conclude that total strangers are more trustworthy than our very own neighbors and we buy goods shipped from far away. I'd like to keep my money in the local economy, but I just can't afford to. If our merchants had a little more pride those sales taxes on mail-order goods wouldn't be an issue.

The Boss Hogg Effect: In Arkansas, political power comes from bankers and lawyers who have worked themselves into positions such that they stand between you and what you want. If you don't find a way to accommodate Boss Hogg, your paperwork never gets to the top of the pile. Because of this, many national corporations just find it less aggravating to locate their operations elsewhere. B. Hoggs might think of themselves as "facilitators," but they generally repel more business than they attract. Boss Hogg is not an individual or a group, but the spontaneous creation of a traditional opportunistic business practice. They self-generate on an ad hoc basis.

If you want to locate a likely Boss Hogg, go into the biggest church in town on Sunday morning and listen for the guy that sings the loudest.

Brain Drain: This one's pretty straightforward. Our best educated people seek jobs elsewhere because that's where the high-paying, highly skilled jobs at technologically advanced companies are. Why are there so few high-paying, technologically advanced companies here? Because there's no pre-trained labor force. The highly educated and highly skilled Arkansans have moved out of state in search of high paying, highly skilled jobs that already exist elsewhere. Catch-22.

Horse Trading: Deal-making in Arkansas is not really about commerce. It's more like one of those slapping games played by fraternity brothers in which both contestants end up whupped silly. When a buyer in Arkansas visits a seller he's not looking for anything in particular. He's trying to discover what the seller is most eager to sell--what it is that the seller is willing to unload at a loss. Once the buyer finds that out he tries to make the seller take the biggest loss possible. Of course, at the conclusion of the deal, the seller has lost money and the buyer has purchased something he didn't want in the first place.

If you walk into an Arkansan's house and it is filled with merchandise that should never have been manufactured, bend low because you are in the home of a sophisticated businessman.

TMBSDAP: Taking Mister Big Shot Down a Peg--the national sport of Arkansas. Humility is valued so highly in Arkansas that friends and loved ones will snipe at you to keep you from "getting uppity." They think they're doing you a favor. There's nothing you can do about it, so just hunker your ears to your shoulders and put on your thick skin and move ahead.

Here's an example of TMBSDAP: I was in Foreman talking to a senior lady about Tracy Lawrence, who is a country and western singer from Foreman. She told me about how proud the town was about him and how he returned to the town periodically and gave free benefit concerts and never got all uppity.

Then she told me about his marital problems, that he had married a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and she divorced him and sued him for spousal abuse over what was really barely a shove, but that the experience had been enough to bring him down and maybe taught him a lesson in life and that this was somehow a good thing.

If he had never got all uppity and he was always kind and generous and cheerful and humble, why was it a good thing for him to get cut him off at the knees, emotionally speaking? And what lesson could he have learned from that mess other than the rug can be yanked at any minute? Doesn't everybody pretty much learn that at around age fourteen?

So the mighty get toppled if they're arrogant. 'Course they also seem to get toppled if they're not. Every Arkie picks up on that trend whether he's consciously aware of it or not and it makes us reluctant to approach the line that separates "struggling" from "successful."

Colonialism: Partly because of the Boss Hogg effect and partly because of the Jethro effect and partly because of TMBSDAP, and partly because of other discouraging traditions, Arkansans seem to be reluctant to start businesses. They seem to sense that any endeavor begins with one foot in a bucket and two strikes on the scoreboard, and if the problems listed above are valid, Arkies have good reason to feel that way. And so the assumption is that our prosperity can only be obtained by attracting business from out of state and that is a kind of economic colonialism.

Our gambling industry is probably the most extreme example of colonialism. Gambling is illegal in all of Arkansas with two exceptions. There are dispensations written into the law for two specific pieces of property--a dog track in West Memphis and a thoroughbred track in Hot Springs. Both of those facilities have out-of-state ownership. They provide some jobs, but the profits go elsewhere. Because of the locality-specific laws Arkies are forbidden to start competing businesses.

So there. That's my opinion, worth what you paid for it. That's why Arkansas economically resembles a third-world country smack in the middle of the most prosperous nation in history.

RTJ--10/7/98


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