American futurist, theoretical physicist and populariser of science, Michio Kaku, once said, “One problem with politics is that it is a zero sum game, i.e. politicians argue how to cut the pie smaller and smaller, by reshuffling pieces of the pie. I think this is destructive. Instead, we should be creating a bigger pie, i.e. funding the science that is the source of all our prosperity. Science is not a zero sum game.”
Kaku might as well have been talking about Kenyan politicians, who are masters of prevarication and pork barrel politics. Their recent behaviour in Parliament as they appropriated resources was deplorable and exemplified them as enemies of development.
They hovered around the national cake like vultures, before eventually shuffling pieces around without much convincing thought. Ultimately, they failed to fund the sources of prosperity that are putting money in areas that can spur further economic growth.
The entire debate centred on aimlessly cutting here and putting here, and waging supremacy battles between respective houses of our bi-cameral legislature with our money.
Observers were left wondering whether there was any framework guiding their discussions. With such unstructured debate, the credulous public becomes even more confused.
Most governments elsewhere invest much of their resources in sectors that would facilitate economic expansion, that is, investing money in sectors that are most likely to build a bigger pie for everyone.
Priority areas are determined by the political agenda of the ruling parties or coalitions in different tiers of governments.
The agenda is then cascaded down through policy objectives developed in an open and transparent manner. The investment agenda is then sold to citizens. Lack of such structural instruments may be the source of our confusion and wasteful use of scarce resources.
In some of the most advanced countries, game theory is widely used in strategic decision-making that the political class undertakes on behalf of citizens.
Roger Myerson describes game theory as “the study of mathematical models of conflict and co-operation between intelligent rational decision-makers.” Sometimes this theory is referred to as interactive decision making theory.
In its formative stages, game theory first addressed zero-sum games, an example being that one person’s gains exactly equal the net losses of the other person or persons.
Advanced democracies began to apply modern interactive decision-making mechanisms in politics to enable wider participation of citizens, which was in turn seen as vital in narrowing the gap between them and the politicians.
If our Members of Parliament were able to embrace this method of decision-making, the budget process would begin with priorities or problems that require intervention in order to ensure economic expansion, security and peace. Let us take unemployment, for example.
The most rational thinker here would seek to obtain the number of the unemployed, types of unemployment, opportunities available and what needs to be done in order to exploit the opportunities. In other words, research-inspired decision making.
The Kenyan economy generates about 400,000 jobs annually against an annual supply of 1.2 million people. If we created industrial incubation centres across the country, we could double annual employment opportunities.
That is if we developed the right policies to support cottage industries. To obtain the necessary data, virtually the entire country would be privy to the political intentions and possibly support them.
With such information, it becomes easier to make arguments on the floor of Parliament that we need to increase resources to the ministry of Industrialisation, for example, because we are likely to increase employment opportunities by X amount and the economy would grow at Y rate.
It will be easier to understand the direction of our country’s development and the reasoning of MPs.
As it is now, when an MP argues that we need to cut the budget of the Judiciary because we have an activist Judiciary, it serves to embarrass the entire country. It is even more damaging in this digital age, when such information travels fast around the globe.
The argument is not rational and does not contribute any good to the country. It would have been even better to allocate resources for the MPs’ own education on etiquette, decorum and proper reasoning.
We must move out of minimalist and selfish thinking to embrace broad and inclusive thinking if we have to move our country beyond where we are.
It is pointless to marvel at what South Korea or Singapore did to move their people out of poverty within the shortest period, when our definition of growth is limited to what is within our sight.
We have failed to dream big. There is great benefit in making our decisions interactively as it helps to reduce conflict and enables progress.
The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School.