In Other Words

The Maghreb in Black and White

Jeune Afrique l'Intelligent,
Nos. 2266, 2270, 2273–76, June-August 2004, Paris

During its colonial rule, France enlisted West Africans to fight on its behalf in regiments called the Tirailleurs Sénégalais. One of the battlefields was the Maghreb, the Arabic word for the region comprising Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. The French did not create racial enmity in the region -- Moroccan dynasties brought sub-Saharan Africans north as soldiers and slaves centuries earlier -- but they exploited and exacerbated it for their own ends. Today, as fresh waves of migrants make their way to the region, old patterns of mistrust are reemerging.

Thousands of sub-Saharan Africans fleeing poverty and political strife have arrived in the Maghreb in recent years. This influx has garnered much attention in local media, but what receives less attention is Maghrebi hostility toward the new arrivals and the patterns of discrimination toward dark-skinned Maghrebis upon which it builds. Last summer, the Paris-based magazine Jeune Afrique l'Intelligent launched a five-part series titled "Are Maghrebis Racist?" to provoke debate about this taboo subject. The magazine itself is no stranger to controversy. It was founded in Tunisia in 1960 and associated with the nationalist and pan-African projects of that period. The magazine once critiqued Moroccan regimes, but it is now criticized by independent Maghrebi media for being too close to the state.

Maghrebi racism is highly controversial because it contradicts national ideologies of tolerance, as well as constitutional and religious doctrines of equality. The testimonials that make up the bulk of the series focus on this hypocrisy. Staff writer Cherif Ouazani describes the contrast of Algeria's official attempts to reach out to its African brethren with the reality of a society that treats sub-Saharan migrants as second-class citizens. For example, Algeria offers more scholarships to foreign Africans than any other African nation, but sub-Saharan migrants in the Algerian cities of Algiers, Constantine, and Tamanrasset are accused by local residents of bringing the plagues of modernity with them. Other essays relay similar tales of government inclusion and social exclusion in Tunisia, Morocco, and Libya.

The final installment by staff writer Samy Ghorbal calls for immigrants and minorities to resist becoming silent or resigned, echoing the magazine's aim of giving voice to the disenfranchised. Yet this aim, though noble, in practice produces little more than a series of anecdotes, rather than a probing and nuanced discussion of the role race plays in the region. Such a discussion would be particularly relevant in the Maghreb, with its shades of African, European, and Arab ethnicity altered by centuries of history.

Similarly, Ghorbal's hope that black Maghrebis might enjoy economic and social equality with "whites" -- by which he evidently means the Arab majority -- reflects the magazine's indebtedness to pan-Africanism, but he reduces the issue to a simple polarity between black and white. This misrepresentation is reflected in the magazine's passing references to the plight of the indigenous Berber people, a target of discrimination across the Maghreb for decades. Had Ghorbal considered it, the Berbers' experience would have exposed his argument as facile: The French allied with the Berbers on the basis of their "whiteness," yet Berbers still struggle for rights in the postcolonial era. Although Morocco has finally permitted the teaching of the Berber language in some schools, the country's parliament is debating a bill that would restrict the formation of ethnic political parties, ostensibly to prevent Berber representation.

Jeune Afrique l'Intelligent's treatment of Maghrebi racism is a missed opportunity. As globalization facilitates the flow of people across borders, from south to north and from rural areas to urban, many regions are forced to reconcile old concepts of race and identity with new realities. The Maghreb, however, is unique in its complexity -- a reality the magazine fails to explore.

In Other Words

Sobering Economics

Applied Economics,
Vol. 36, No. 14, August 2004, Abingdon

Occasionally, economists employ a shtick that makes the dismal science seem a little less dismal. When American economists use The Wizard of Oz to talk about money, for example, they employ familiar images to convey complex economic ideas, reminding us that economics, after all, deals with human behavior.

A particularly novel recent example is an article by Ryan Donnar and Keith Jakee in the journal Applied Economics. Economists at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Donnar and Jakee use competition in the Australian beer market to highlight their simple yet innovative methodology for measuring people's willingness to pay for perks. The methodology's value lies not only in the fact that it doesn't require fancy statistics and convoluted math but in its potential benefit to the study of industrial organization.

Since the 1980s, two breweries, Carlton and United Beverages (CUB) and Lion Nathan, have become the dominant suppliers of beer in Australia, with a combined market share of more than 90 percent. Even with such heavy industry concentration, competition is intense. Wine and premixed cocktail drinks, such as Bacardi Breezers, have become an easier sell as heavy drinking loses its social appeal.

CUB and Lion Nathan attempted to expand their respective market shares in 2000 by striking deals with pubs that agreed to promote a brewer's products in exchange for cash and renovations. Agreements that limit a retailer's choice of suppliers, or "vertical restraints," are outlawed as anticompetitive in many countries -- including Australia. However, by promising "extensive" rather than "exclusive" placement of a particular beer, both parties stayed within the bounds of the law.

For economists -- and many beer drinkers, for that matter -- this strategy violates common sense. Conventional economic wisdom holds that consumers are driven by choice. However, Donnar and Jakee conclude that consumers are, in fact, better off with fewer choices. They calculate the value of the beautified pubs to customers at $68.5 million, noting that patrons enjoyed this benefit without paying more for their beer. Hence, having fewer nut brown, cherry-flavored stouts with a raspberry twist was more than offset by new, buttery, leather chairs.

The global importance of Australian alcohol consumption notwithstanding, Donnar and Jakee's real contribution is their mechanism for estimating a demand curve that relies on easily obtainable information, rather than complicated data sets and high-powered econometrics. They rely on three readily available variables: the price of beer, the amount of beer consumed, and the sensitivity of beer consumption to price changes. The money that people spend to drink beer in a pub instead of at home is referred to as the expenditure on pubs. All data are available in either business publications or through conversations with experts, in this case a contractor specializing in pub renovations.

The methodology's simplicity makes it easy to apply to other industries. Take the U.S. airline industry. One could deduce whether consumers are willing to pay extra for that handy phone in the seat in front of them, or whether the airline should pick up the tab for movies on the individual screens. Using an economic approach instead of customer surveys has the advantage of measuring how much people are actually willing to pay for extras, rather than how much they say they would be willing to pay. By looking at airlines' past experience with these types of improvements, one could even calculate the effects on revenues when carriers pay for meals or offer passengers the option of paying an upgrade charge for an extra two inches of leg room.

Numerous other industries come to mind. How much do customers value the local bank branch in their supermarket? Does a call center that opens at 4:00 a.m. compensate for having only two local banks from which to choose? Economists improve the lives of consumers by giving industries a tool to calculate answers to these kinds of questions. They also remind us that the market does occasionally work in, if not mysterious, at least surprising, ways.