Opinion: Carolina Critic

The Vision Thing With Arms Akimbo

Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, by John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011, 466 pages, $30.

A visionary leader, according to the Visionary Leader website, is “a builder of a new dawn, working with imagination, insight, and boldness.” No one can claim that John Kasarda does not embrace that concept.

In his new book, with journalist Greg Lindsay, Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, that is precisely the way Kasarda describes himself. Kasarda, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor of business and director of the Kenan Institute for Private Enterprise, believes passionately in his concept of the “aerotropolis,” and the new dawn it will bring. Together, Kasarda and Lindsay have written a compelling, but ultimately unconvincing, book promoting a Utopian vision of globalization and explaining how the aerotropolis is key to this vision of the future.

Like Superman, standing arms akimbo, surveying his domain of truth, justice, and the American way, you get a similar image of Kasarda as he jets around the world impregnating local populations with the “aerotropolis” meme. Occasionally, he stops, arms akimbo, to survey his aerotropolis domain as it flowers under the relentless and inevitable expansion of the world economy — global city projects built from scratch that have birthed in Amsterdam, Dubai, South Korea, and China. The meme has impregnated the United States, too, with aerotropolis projects talked about in Memphis, Detroit, Winston-Salem/Greensboro, Atlanta, Denver, and Indianapolis, to name a few, offering cities the promise of plugging into airborne global trade lanes.

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, co-author Lindsay defines the aerotropolis both narrowly and broadly:

“An aerotropolis can be narrowly defined as a city planned around its airport or, more broadly, as a city less connected to its land-bound neighbors than to its peers thousands of miles away. The ideal aerotropolis is an amalgam of made-to-order office parks, convention hotels, cargo complexes, and even factories, which in some cases line the runways. It is a pure node in a global network whose fast-moving packets are people and goods instead of data.”

The metaphor of people as fast-moving packets of data brings to mind the charge that globalization of the economy lacks a human face. But that charge does not concern Kasarda and Lindsay. They are of the school that sees the overwhelming positive effects of a global economy — both economic and moral effects. As economist Jaddish Bhagwati argues:

“Globalization … leads not only to the creation and spread of wealth but to ethical outcomes and to better moral character among its participants.”

And this is the promise of the aerotropolis, in Kasarda and Lindsay’s view. No matter where the aerotropolis arises,whether in countries run by autocratic regimes or in republics and democracies, good things will come.

It is easy to get carried away with this message. Many cities, with large tracts of unused land, will be convinced the global economy cannot exist without their participation. Still, the authors warn that not every area can become a successful aerotropolis. Witness the debacle of the Global TransPark near Kinston. And yet, North Carolina continues to dump millions of tax dollars into a site that neither can succeed nor pay its debt. The romance of helping to create a new world readily compromises rational action.

The real aerotropolis success stories are found in the Far and Middle East. Aerotroplises arise, almost overnight, under autocratic regimes that are not encumbered with local and federal government bureaucratic and financial hurdles often found in democracies; nor are such regimes required to respect property rights. China, for example, has plans to create hundreds of aerotropolises.

Kasarda and Lindsay assert that those who do not embrace the aerotropolis concept will be left behind in the global economy. The real question is whether the aerotropolis is an inevitable component of the relentless pace of globalization, as it spreads wealth and creates positive moral outcomes. The vision thing, with arms akimbo, indeed.