Can You Drown Government in an Empty Bathtub?

Mississippi has long been America’s poorest state, with real gross domestic product per person only about 60 percent of the national average. The United States, however, is a rich country, so Mississippi doesn’t look that bad by international standards. Specifically, it’s roughly on a par with southern European countries: a bit poorer than Spain, a bit richer than Portugal.

It’s also worth noting that because Mississippi is part of the United States, it gets huge de facto aid from richer states: It benefits enormously from federal programs like Medicare and Social Security, while its low income means that it pays relatively little in federal taxes. Estimates from the Rockefeller Institute suggest that in 2019 Mississippi received net federal transfers of almost $24 billion, roughly 20 percent of the state’s G.D.P. — far more than the aid that, say, Portugal receives from the European Union.

Yet the citizens of Portugal and Spain have things that not all citizens of Mississippi have, things like universal health care — and running water.

On Monday the water supply to Jackson, the state’s capital and largest city, collapsed. Much of the city has no running water at all; nowhere in the city is the water safe to drink. And it’s not clear when service will be restored.

The immediate cause of the crisis was torrential rains that overwhelmed the city’s largest water treatment plant. But the weather event, while severe, wasn’t a Katrina-level shock; it was a disaster only because the city’s water system was already failing, the result of years of neglect.

This neglect, in turn, was essentially a political decision. Mississippi as a whole, despite relatively low income by U.S. standards, surely has the resources to provide safe drinking water to all its residents. However, Jackson — a largely Black inner-city core whose economy has been hollowed out by white flight — does not. And the state refused to help, even as the coming water crisis became ever more predictable.

But never fear: Back in April, Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, announced that he was making “an investment in Mississippians” — by “an investment” he meant a tax cut rather than spending on, say, education or infrastructure.

The political scientist Brendan Nyhan likes to point to examples of democratic erosion and ask, “What would you say if you saw it in another country?” Well, what would we say about a place that won’t even ensure that its capital has a reliable water supply?

To put all this in perspective, you need to know about two trends, one economic, one political.

On the economics: Mississippi has, as I said, long been America’s poorest state. In fact, in the early 20th century the Deep South was, in effect, a developing nation embedded in the world’s most advanced economy. In the decades after World War II, however, Mississippi and other Southern states achieved rapid income growth, narrowing although not closing the gap with the rest of the country.

Then the relative progress stalled. In fact, by some measures, Mississippi began to fall behind again; for example, life expectancy in the United States as a whole rose about seven years between 1980 and 2015 but increased only three years in Mississippi.

We have a pretty good idea of what happened after 1980. The most likely story is that as America increasingly became a knowledge-based economy, high-value economic activities — and skilled workers — gravitated toward metropolitan areas with good amenities and highly educated work forces. Places like Mississippi, which had relatively few college-educated workers in 1980 and fell further behind over time, found themselves on the losing end of this change.

There are no easy answers to the problem of left-behind regions. But one thing is for sure: Imagining that tax cuts will bring prosperity to a poorly educated state that can’t even provide its capital with running water is just delusional.

Which brings us to the political trends that lie behind these delusions.

Since Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party has been dominated by anti-government ideology. As the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist famously put it, the goal was to shrink government to the point that you could “drown it in the bathtub.” When Donald Trump ran for president, it briefly seemed as if the G.O.P. might make a break with that ideology, accepting the social safety net while focusing on ethnic and racial hostility.

Instead, however, Republicans, believing that they can win elections by riling up the base with social issues like attacks on wokeness, have doubled down on right-wing economics. Congressional candidates are once again talking about repealing Obamacare and privatizing Social Security.

And Republican-run states have gone beyond cutting social programs to eviscerating public services Americans have taken for granted for many generations, services like public education — and drinkable water.

Will this bring a political backlash? I have no idea. But I do wonder: Can you drown the government in a bathtub if you can’t even fill the bathtub?

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