On the Road to Kansas City

Notes on a Continuing Project

…Actually what we are working on is not just FTZs, but instead, the logistics boom and the entire phenomenon of “trade corridors,” as a way to understand the economic and infrastructural basis of a society that is increasingly oriented to global free trade. A lot has been said about deindustrialization and offshoring, but very little about the surging growth of the container transport and warehousing industries that underlie the new hyperconsumption model of foreign-made products, big-box stores and Internet retailers. The theory of these new economic flows is “global supply chain management.” If you want to see it concretely in operation, you go to the ports, the train yards and the distribution centers. Since we approach political economy in an artist/activist way, we want to get the on-the-ground experience as well as the theory. Yet it’s not so easy to find people who will really discuss it or facilitate our explorations, because it’s cutting edge. Society has not yet absorbed or naturalized the huge changes set in train by NAFTA and the WTO.

Now, a little about FTZs nonetheless. Economists generally don’t like them because they go against either Keynesian models of the national economy or neoclassical general-equilibrium theories that see no need of any regulation whatsoever. In fact, FTZs have emerged in the States as a mediation between those positions, so they’re a bit monstrous. Here in the US, just as in the case of Free Trade Zones in a myriad of foreign countries, they are vectors of neoliberalization: states of exception to the laws and norms of the (former) democratic polity. Curiously, they do not seem to decline with the continual shrinkage of tariffs. Instead they are repurposed and, if you will, molecularized through the application of compliance-insuring software hooked directly into the Customs and Border Patrol administrative networks, which means you can have a free-trade zone almost anywhere. FTZs are now about inventory registration and tracking rather than fenced-off internal “borders” and uniformed inspectors. The post-9/11 security imperative is expressed as a drive for the computerized control of continuous transborder flows.

Kansas City apparently has the largest square footage of FTZs in the country – a consequence of former tariffs on foreign auto manufacturing. In the KC metro area, FTZs were used for auto assembly, allowing the firms to escape high import taxes on the components. Now those FTZs are being redeployed as part of a really wild bid for the region to become a transnational logistics hub. We became interested in all this because Chicago is already such an intermodal logistics hub (which is something more than a traditional railroad hub). It’s a big growth and employment sector, and an important part of our local reality. In KC we seem to see the same thing emerging in a more carefully planned way, and in a more compressed time-frame. But so far we’ve only seen the pretty pictures that the corporations paint, and not the reality.

The Mid-America Regional Council is at the origin of all this. Actually it’s just a planning board for the metro area. Starting in 1999, in the wake of a federally funded study of I-35′s trade potential, they got the idea that some sophisticated regional planning could produce a growth sector in logistics. They foresaw a new, government-sponsored open-data system that would facilitate the flow of goods across all transport modes (ship, train, truck, plane). It’s an integrated software and communications protocol kit called Trade Data Exchange, and we are still not sure how much it has really been implemented. Anyway, MARC spun off the Kansas City SmartPort organization and they federated the major actors to make this regional project happen.

A guy named Haverty at Kansas City Southern took it all very seriously and risked the company’s capital on the purchase of the Mexican rail line leading from Laredo, Texas, to the container port of Lázaro Cárdenas (recently built, as a total free trade zone of course, by a major Hong Kong firm, Hutchinson Port Holdings). That gave KCS an almost straight shot from the Asia to Kansas City, by way of most of the big auto-producing zones of Mexico. We’re not sure of the timeline or how the various interest groups coordinated with each other, but what emerged was the idea that both Mexican and US customs could be settled in KC (undoubtedly with an implication of FTZs in the process, but that remains a little unclear yet). The idea – as always with supply-chain management – is to create a perfectly frictionless flow of goods through warehouses that are really cross-dock distribution centers. That way they can cut transportation costs and offer speedier service, as part of the hypercompetititon associated with big-box and Internet retailing. We think this is not just expressive of contemporary alienation, but instead, one of its foundations. People, too, can be managed with the tools of logistics.

Interstate 35 also runs up from Laredo to KC, so between trucks and trains, this is basically the famous “NAFTA superhighway,” or more properly, the “North American super corridor” (NASCO), whose map you may have seen. The Republican backlash against governor Rick Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor (which would have been a key part of the whole project) has made it impossible to talk about the NASCO – indeed, some of its explicit forms have been made illegal by federal legislation. But as usual with these large infrastructure plans, the NASCO organization goes on developing the functions of integrated transcontinental commodity flows, without advertising the name or the map anymore. Clearly the Kansas City SmartPort is trying to implement something of the same nature. We need to establish the ties between SmartPort and Nasco, which probably will not be too difficult. Nasco still has big trade shows and planning meetings, it is a continuing mega-project.

Of course the whole KC logistics project project may ultimately flop, since it was conceived in the bubble years on the basis of wild projections about the growth of trade. It is indeed curious that the very means for getting rid of agglomeration effects – namely, just-in-time delivery systems that claim to bring everything everywhere, cheap and whenever the customer wants it – produces new agglomeration effects in the form of logistics parks, whether incipiently in KC, or in a fully developed form in Chicago or out in California’s Inland Empire. In KC there are two big logistics parks under development, one around the new Kansas City Southern intermodal facility, and the other around the new BNSF facility. BNSF’s is done in partnership with a KC company called NorthPoint, about which we know nothing. The Kansas City Southern park is developed with a Chicago outfit called CenterPoint, which seems to have mastered the art of buying up old military bases and installing logistics parks on them. They have done three massive ones on the outskirts of Chicago (Elwood, Joliet and LaRochelle). In KC they bought the old Richard Gebaur Airforce Base and teamed up with a developer called Zimmerman, not only to install the KCS logisitics park, but also to build the new Kansas City Plant for the manufacture of nuclear weapons compenents (it makes 80% of non-nuclear components). These are very obscure and controversial deals, which remind me of Cheney, Rumsfeld and Co. We need to find out more about the Kansas City Plant (though we have read a few things and made contact with some anti-nuke groups). The use of former military bases for the ostensibly civilian development of the military science of logistics has that kind of eerie quality that one comes to associate with US corporate capital…

As for the relation between oil and FTZs – whoah, that’s gonna be a huge subject. I started reading a book called Carbon Democracy which makes some very interesting claims about the use of oil, not just as an energy source, but as a way of placing energy policy in corporate-military hands, safely outside the purview of citizen’s rights in a nationally bounded democracy. To that extent, the location of refineries on FTZs becomes “natural.” Or rather, here again we have a foundational expression of the way that we are alienated by globally organized corporate/state operations. Alas, the transnational capitalist class is all too real. Studying transport and trade corridors brings you face to face with its major operations.

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