Speak Loudly and Carry a Very Small Stick

by Russ Roberts on August 29, 2006

in Politics

I love the headline of this AP story on Yahoo news:

Obama urges Kenyans to oppose corruption

There’s nothing so exciting as an American politician in a foreign nation urging the corrupt leaders of that nation to be nicer to their oppressed citizens:

Sen. Barack Obama urged Kenyans to take control of their country’s
destiny by opposing corruption and ethnic divisions in government
during a policy speech Monday at the main university in his father’s

warned that Kenya and other African nations will never thrive if their
citizens cannot count on the government to deliver services fairly,
regardless of their tribal background or ability to pay bribes, Obama
told about 600 people at the state-run University of Nairobi.

Maybe, just maybe, Obama thought this might have a bigger impact on his constituents in Illinois than on the people of Kenya. Did he really Kenyans who heard his speech would nod and say, hmmm, maybe we really should be against corruption and hating those from tribes other than our own. What a novel idea! What were we thinking?

I suspect the incentives and constraints are the source of the problem. But moralizing makes some people feel virtuous.

The reporter was able to uncover this gem of audience reaction:

Law student John Kamau, who was in the audience, said he hopes
Obama’s message will get more attention because it comes from a wildly
popular figure and someone with no stake in Kenya’s political
rivalries. But the message itself was nothing new.

"It’s like a song that has been sung before," Kamau said.

Ah yes, an oldie but a goodie. It will be played again and delight the ear many times yet to come from many more politicians who talk as if talk were more than talk. If that song had a title, it would be Blowin in the Wind. And it’s definitely a khamsin.

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DanK August 29, 2006 at 12:34 pm

First off, the quote you mentioned seemed aimed at Kenyan citizens, calling on them to take action. Nothing asking Kenya's leaders to "be nicer."

Second: are you really mocking Sen. Obama for calling for a decrease in corruption? Would you mock the 100th person that called for the end of communism in Soviet Russia? Or the one millionth person that called for an end to slavery? Political and cultural change is based largely on momentum. Sometimes things worth saying once are worth repeating (even if their marginal product is small).

John Pertz August 29, 2006 at 2:08 pm

If you think Sen. Obama, I have no idea who he is nor do I care, really truely wants to devote his time to brining about change in Kenya then he would be doing alot more than holding publicized press conferences. Trying to reform the current political order of Kenya through rhetoric is pissing in the wind. If you believe that such rhetoric will lead to a ground swirl of political momentum that ushers in a new political order of peace and prosperity then the joke is on you.

olivier blanchard August 29, 2006 at 2:37 pm

"Hey, look at me! I have experience with international politics! Woohoo!"

Nice soundbites, Senator.

So… does Kenya have an agency kind of like FEMA yet? That would be swell.

Billy Shears August 29, 2006 at 3:27 pm

Don't give up on hope.
Things already known, are not said, and since not said, forgotten.

Allen August 30, 2006 at 12:25 pm

I don't mind giving Obama some schtick. If all he did was call for reducing or ending corruption and didn't offer a meaningful solutions beyond don't do it, he deserves to get some flack.

Will Beforea August 31, 2006 at 11:42 pm

Quote: "I suspect the incentives and constraints are the source of the problem. But moralizing makes some people feel virtuous."

it's fashionable, among economists at least, to blame everything on institutions, and offer no solution of their own. ;)

BTW, I enjoy your blog a lot. :)

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