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2012 Spring Issue 5 (May 4, 2012)

Feigenbaum: Policy on the Ground

May 4, 2012
By Sam Feigenbaum

Sometimes it’s hard for us to see how public policy affects our daily lives.  When I was in Malawi during my gap year, the late President Bingu wa Mutharika artificially inflated the kwacha, the Malawian currency.  You could see the effects of the poorly thought-out policy all around.  Lines at fuel stations would wrap around street corners as people stocked up, minibuses would run out of gas and be left on the side of the road, and a black market in currency exchange flourished. As we head into the general election here in the States, I think it’s important to remember that public policy deeply affects us, in ways both intended and unintended. The small drama that follows is written from my time in Malawi.  It’s a trivial story, but it nicely illustrates how public policy, even that of foreign countries, necessarily invades nearly everything we do. Without President Mutharika’s ill-fated monetary policy, it never would have taken place.

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I walk down to City Centre, past the gas station to the steps of the Forex Bureau.  Up to the man in the white plastic chair.  He is dressed in a suit and tie and has dark sunglasses on.  He peruses the newspaper.    

Playing dumb, like my friend has told me to, I ask, “Excuse me, sir, where’s the place to get the best exchange rate here?”

Down comes the newspaper.  He slides his sunglasses to the tip of his nose.  He has a toothpick hanging lazily from the corner of his mouth.

“Right here friend, right here.  What are you looking to change?  How much?”

“US dollars.  How about you tell me the rate and I tell you how much I’m going to change?”

He smiles. He’s definitely seen many young azungu, white people, try this before. 

“No, no, no, no.  You tell me how much you want to change.  That way I can give a better deal.”

“Ok. Ok.  200.”

He thinks for a moment.  “I give you 35,000.  175 kwacha to the dollar.”

“180,” I counter.

“No.  175.  Best deal you’ll find anywhere.” Which is true.  All the banks are changing money at 148 kwacha to the dollar.

“Ok.  I’ll do it.”

He smiles again. “Very good.  Come inside with me.” 

I follow him inside to a small medicine shop. He pulls his pant leg up and reaches down to his sock. It is bulging with bills. He pulls out four stacks and hands me three.

“You count.”

I flip through the bills, seventy in all.  Three stacks of twenty, plus another ten. 35,000 kwacha in total.

From my computer bag I pull out my 200 dollars and count it for him, trying to play it smooth.

“20, 40, 60, 80, 100,”  I count.  “120, 140, 160, 180, 200.” 

I fumble a bill only once.  He takes the bills and wraps a rubber band around them.  Then, reaching down again, he stuffs them all back into his sock.

“Come again?” he asks.

“Certainly. Have a good day.”

I walk out, waving away the Rasta hawking his CD’s and DVD’s, thinking quite happily that my friends will be in class right now slowly drifting off as their professors natter on about this theory or that.

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