Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In which corruption is defeated by a crack team of... wait, what?

Via Ray Fisman and Edward Miguel's discussion in Economic Gangsters, I learned about Antanas Mockus, who was mayor of Bogotá in the late nineties and early oughts. When he came to power, Bogotá had the highest murder rate in the world. Worse, he couldn't address it through the traditional means: not only would that involve building massive numbers of prisons, it would involve relying on a notoriously corrupt police force.

So instead, he hired about 400 theater students as mimes. They walked around, and when they saw people doing bad shit -- jaywalking, running red lights, corruption, vandalism -- they'd make fun of them. And they'd flash red cards, like soccer refs. And maybe even more important, they'd give out red cards to passersby, and encourage them to get involved in the mockery and condemnation.

And it worked. By every standard, crime shot down in Bogotá. Of course, there were presumably other factors at play, including some more concrete programs -- but this and other street-theater efforts seem to have had a pretty significant effect in changing the culture of corruption in Bogotá.

In my mind, this is closely related to my post about the Assurance game that dominates the school system. Fisman, being an economist, actually talks a little about this, although he doesn't name it: he talks about the two competing equilibria, and the fact that no one wants to be the only person who isn't taking bribes. Basically, the logic goes like this: I'd rather we be in a society that isn't corrupt, but if we're living in a corrupt society, I'm damned if I'm going to be the one honest cop. This is especially true since, if the society is corrupt enough, you may find yourself subject to distrust because of your honesty, as people start wondering if you're going to rat them out for their own foibles.

And to get from one equilibrium to another, what really matters is that you create a sense that everyone's moving in that direction. And it strikes me that theater is a great way to do that. It gets everyone talking, in a positive way, about the issues of corruption and disorder that plague the society: when we address these problems through enforcement, we give people an opportunity to (often rightly) blame the enforcer rather than the perpetrator, but when we address them through mockery, the easiest way to continue the conversation is by continuing the mockery. And this creates a huge preponderance of talk that suggests that corruption is frowned upon, which makes it seem like everyone's stopping, which means they do. I love it.


  1. Holy shit, that is fucking hilarious and awesome. Who says a little positivity can't solve EVERY problem???

  2. Funny aside: according to Fisman, in the talk I linked in the piece, Mexico City's response to this success story was to hire traffic mimes -- it's like, great, guys, but make sure you hire Colombian mimes, because they're the only ones that have been shown to work. And while you're at it, why not nominate a Mockus impersonator for mayor, too? Because so far, people who look and talk like Antanas Mockus have shown to be super effective at reducing corruption.

    The point isn't that mimes are good policy devices, it's that theater is -- and part of theater is knowing your audience, and knowing that just because a play is big in Moscow doesn't mean it'll be big in Chicago.

  3. This is brilliant stuff. Augusto Boal's work in Brazil before, during and after the junta there incorporated a lot of the active-reflection-of-corruption-anywhere theme that this project in Bogota sounds like it was/is focused on.
    For me, the diverse audience question is definitely a big one here in the States. Maybe it's just being in school (or that the only street theater I've ever been a part of was for kids), but it seems to me like plenty of experimentation in specific neighborhoods would be needed before city money could get behind a Chicago City Clown Brigade. Know anyone who is interested Per? I am.



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