Two Guys on Bikes Talk International Development

A couple of weeks ago, on the tail end of a lunchtime group bike ride, I complained to the one guy still headed my way—let’s call him Bob, because I didn’t ask him if I could share our conversation—about the lousy state of the roads in our area. We were heading south on Beach Drive through the northern neck of Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC, crunching through fallen leaves and dodging or bouncing off cracks and holes in the asphalt. Like a coarse file, I said. Before winter even starts, he said.

That got us to wondering why the roads weren’t in better shape, and that got us to lamenting the failure of local, state, and national governments to spend more on infrastructure in the past few years, when borrowing was cheap and the economy was dragging. Bob applauded the Obama administration’s first stimulus package but complained that it mostly just dumped money into the economy, a lot of which ended up “going to China.” That remark about China segued into a short but thoughtful complaint about the federal government’s focus on free trade.

I said I didn’t have a problem with freer trade and was actually glad to see living standards improve so much in some of the poorest parts of the world in the last couple of decades. I know there are some losers, I said, but I’m okay with the American middle class getting a little worse off if it means billions of really poor people in other countries are now much better off. After all, they’re all people, right?

I would call Bob a strong liberal, so his response came as a surprise. “I am not okay with that,” he told me. He didn’t say anything about Americans as such, or clang any other patriotic bells. Instead, he said that people he knows personally were having trouble feeding their kids or getting divorced or otherwise struggling in the past several years. I said something like, “Right, but people who were dying before age five are now doing a little better,” I argued. “Nope, still not okay,” he responded.

What started out as a boilerplate cyclists’ lament on road conditions had turned into a debate of sorts on the ethics of international development. As often happens, we’d found our way to a version of the Trolley Problem. Growth is coming down the track, but it will be distributed unevenly, and some people might even get run over. If you could guide that trolley’s path, how should you choose? Proximity? Familiarity? Nationality? At random? Should we worry most about maximizing overall welfare, or should the people close to us count more? On what grounds?

I won’t try to resolve that debate here, and you already know what I think from the anecdote. Instead, I wanted to share the story because it reminded me of something important in the politics of global development. Equality sounds good in the abstract, but we do not sit comfortably with it in practice. Most of us care more about some people than others, and those feelings shape our politics. We can—and, I think, should—aspire to global fairness, but we can also expect to keep tripping over our own feelings when we walk in that direction.

Leave a comment


  1. I am with your cyclist friend on this one, because the recent “revelation” of growing inequality in America demonstrates that the trade-off – a slight decrease in quality of life for middle-class Americans so the extremely poor can improve – simply is not necessary. Why is it okay for the middle class to watch prices climb while their wages remain stagnant while the obscenely rich get richer? Why do we call that progress?

    • Real wages have declined far more in Britain than in the U.S in recent years and U.S. inflation is way below inflation expectations. Your remark is a classic illustration of the money illusion.

  2. Might have mentioned, it seems to me, how the benefits attributable to trade get distributed within China. Yes, a lot of people have been lifted out of extreme poverty, which is good, but China could have done a lot more in that regard with a more equitable growth strategy.

    Also worth mentioning that the global numbers on chronic malnutrition, water, sanitation, and # of people living below $1.25/day still nothing to crow about. There has been real improvement in the child mortality figures if one compares say 1990 to 2012. Both malnutrition and child mortality I think have clicked up a bit in last couple of years, however.

    • China could have done a lot more in that regard with a more equitable growth strategy.

      -You sure about that? China’s no oil state.

  3. Jonas

     /  December 7, 2014

    Free trade started as a win-win proposition, which garners a lot of support. If it becomes justified as a a win-lose proposition, that’s a different thing altogether. Especially if the losers are the American middle class.

  4. Texas Cowman

     /  December 10, 2014

    It is all due to the same thing. The road degrading is caused by government
    funding no longer being there to fix them. I have heard Federal monies are already gone
    and states, discovering that 1) we are driving less, and 2) our cars are more efficient,
    so we buy fewer gallons of gas(taxed by the gallon) to get there. The funds that were there in the 1970’s for all those fabulous roads are no longer there. I have seen some paved
    roads returned to gravel roads, because the paving cannot be maintained.
    A side note on this subject:

    Let’s face it concerning free trade. It will all come into balance when the American worker
    is making the same relative wage(with transportation and other variables factored in)
    as the Mexican worker or the Chinese worker. What’s to look forward to in that?
    And it does not stop at the high school graduate, but moves right on up the scale
    to the college graduate.
    There is also a gradient in favor of foreign manufacturing.
    This fly-killer gun was taken by its inventor to China. Why?
    1) it was cheaper built in China, and 2) the Chinese were happy to build it.


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