Theories of History: Joe Max Higgins and the Golden Triangle of Mississippi

"When Eurocopter came here, people started walking upright a little bit." Why has this part of Mississippi pulled ahead of some others?
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Joe Max Higgins, near the site of what will be an enormous Yokohama Tire plant in eastern Mississippi (Photos by Deborah Fallows)

The man you see above is Joe Max Higgins Jr, who is now in his mid-50s. He grew up in Arkansas as the son of a sheriff, and since the mid-2000s he has worked on economic-development programs for the part of Mississippi known as the "Golden Triangle." You'll see more about him and his colleagues here in coming days, and he will be part of a Marketplace radio segment next week. In this first installment I'd like to explain why I'm concentrating on him, and the larger trends he illustrates.

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Through most of my life as a writer and as a person, the big issue for me has been "the American question." That is: Is the country making it? How do its realities compare with its ambitions? Where has it set the balance between the creative chaos that is its secret, and just chaos? On the long arc of renewal and dissolution, where does it stand now? Most of my books have directly or indirectly addressed this theme.

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This is a subset of the question that anyone naturally considers when living or traveling around the world. Which is: why do societies thrive, or fail? What constitutes a sense of progress, or decline? And how much can people know about what's happening to—and because of—them while it's underway?

The list of questions could go on, but my real point is to highlight the impossibility of finding "answers." Rather, as the years have gone on I've become warier of every explanation. No theory really fits; there are counter-examples to everything; it's just too tempting to think that whatever factor is on your mind, or you're able to study, is the one that matters.

The Great Man/Woman theory of events (Lincoln and FDR to the good, Hitler to the bad); the institutionalist emphasis (post-war Japan's recovery to the good, institutional U.S. racism to the bad); environmental constraints or destruction (Jared Diamond about the past, who knows about the future); the tyranny or blessing of geography (China vs. the US);  blunder or happenstance—these and other factors are usually all part of the story, and rarely the whole thing.

Let's bring this back to earth. To avoid paralysis, you have to choose something to concentrate on, while remembering that inevitably more is going on. You do your best, which is how we came across Joe Max Higgins.

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Here is the question about this part of Mississippi: Why is industry coming back

The map above, via Esri, shows median household income by state. The bluer the state, the richer; the tan ones are poorer. Mississippi is dead last of the 50 states, with a median household income of a little over $37,000 per year, versus just over $50,000 for the country as a whole and $64,000 for Connecticut. Update: These are screen shots of the interactive maps. I'll put up an interactive version as soon as I can work out the proper log-in permissions.

At right is a closer look at the state itself. In two areas—around Jackson, in the center of the state, and in the Memphis suburbs to the north—the median income is above the national median. All the rest are below. The lightest areas on the map are the poorest parts of the state, in the Delta. For instance, the median household income of Rosedale, Mississippi, on the river, is listed as $14,000. The three colored dots in east-central Mississippi represent the three cities of the so-called Golden Triangle: Columbus, in red; West Point, in blue; and Starkville, in green.

The three cities have different stories and situations. Starkville is home of the leading research university in the area, Mississippi State, and has the greater stability and higher-end amenities that come with being a university town. West Point is the smallest of the three and, in recent years, the hardest hit by economic change. In 2007, Sara Lee closed a nearly century-old meat processing plant that had employed more than 1,000 workers, fully a tenth of the town's population. Since then its unemployment rate has been near 20 percent. Columbus was historically the richest of the three, but one also hit by the one-after-another collapse of low-wage manufacturing jobs that had come there through the mid-20th century. It has relied very heavily on the nearby Columbus Air Force Base, which Mississippi's powerful  Congressional delegation has defended through wave after wave of base-closing measures.

The whole area is poor. 

Downtown West Point.

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If you look away from the factories that have closed in the vicinity, and the downtown storefronts that are vacant, what you also notice are huge new factories opening up, as previously mentioned here. What you see below is a 1970s-era "Golden Triangle" airport built at a centerpoint of the three cities, and with Delta connections to Atlanta. Just beyond it is a sprawling, modern steel mill owned by the Russian Severstal company, whose scale is barely imaginable from this picture. Nearby are large factories making truck engines, helicopters, drones and other advanced devices, at wages equal to several multiples of the local household income. Not far away, Yokohama Tires of Japan is building a major new plant. 

Golden Triangle airport in the foreground, new factories behind them.

In all, the Golden Triangle region has brought in some $6 billion in capital investment over the past decade, creating some 6,000 new jobs, in a concentrated, poor region where this influx has made an enormous difference.

One of Columbus's shuttered factories, for the American Trouser company.

So here's the question we'll try to wrestle with. Why so much? Why here? And to what effect?

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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