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How the MPs ruined my World Cup

I was planning to write about the World Cup this Sunday, but those parliamentarians of ours had to go and ruin everything. So you won’t get my pleasant ruminations about the world’s greatest tournament; instead you’ll receive my diatribe against the world’s most overpaid elected representatives.

Like most Kenyans, I was sickened by Ghana’s tragic and unfair exit from the World Cup earlier in the week; but I was even more sickened by the news of what our MPs are up to regarding their pay. We insisted they pay tax; they promptly set up a lapdog commission to say they will do so (sort of) after getting a whopping pay rise. The nation is, correctly, outraged. Processions and protests are planned, and so they should be. For this pay rise is unjustified on ANY grounds.

We are all angry, but let us keep calm and address this issue from an economic perspective. What are the rational reasons that a group of people should warrant high pay? Let me give you several.

The first reason might be that they deserve it, because they create great wealth for the economy. As far as I can discern, the only way in which our parliamentarians create any wealth is as consumers, not producers: they only, after all, work at campaign time, and spend the rest of the time trying to avoid showing up at their official place of work. However, let’s give it to them: they do seem to do a great deal to support taverns, perfumeries and secondhand car lots.

The second rationale could be that they face unusually difficult working conditions and very challenging situations, for which we must compensate them. I do accept that parliamentarians do often live in mortal fear of their constituents, but that is a reason to pay them less, not more. Since the average discussion in parliament seems to require no more debating skill than that possessed by a twelve-year-old, we can lay that rationale to rest.

The third reason could be that these people have many extended dependants, and so perhaps we should give them the high pay on humanitarian grounds. MPs will tell you that they hardly keep any of that money for themselves, and that they distribute it freely to their people. Tell it to the birds. If we want to pay them to support concubines, assorted misbegotten offspring, bar owners and petrol companies, then we are the fools.

A final reason might relate to their peers. Parliamentarians should be accorded pay that is in balance with what their peers earn, yes? So who are those peers? Their latest payrise will take them to levels enjoyed only by US legislators. Except that the US economy is 500 times the size of ours. Perhaps we should be comparing with a country more like our own? India, maybe, which is ‘only’ 50 times larger economically? Well, India’s representatives are paid a monthly salary of 16,000 rupees (Sh. 27,000). They want it hiked to 80,000 rupees, which would still make it just one-eighth of what Kenyan MPs are trying to force on us.

Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta has rightly pointed out that there is no money for this, and we can only hope he will take this battle all the way. I repeat, there can be NO justification for a pay rise for MPs – if anything, all the justifications point in the other direction. No shareholder or independent board would award MPs anything. They are only able to get away with this because they are both poacher and gamekeeper. For MPs to try to justify being paid more than 100 times per capita GDP beggars belief.

Let’s get back to some basics about life. You cut your coat according to your cloth, and we don’t have much cloth to go around. We remain a poor country struggling to pay its bills. Every year we announce grandiose budgets and then fail to finance or execute them. We depend on a tiny tax base. What little we have should be going into productive investment and essential operations, not into funding lifestyles.

Let me be clear: I have no problem with people being paid well for performance, and would want to attract the best people into public service, like Singapore does. But Singapore, good people, has clocked its achievements. It went from being a backwater to a first-world economy in a generation. That warrants reward for everyone, MPs included. And note that Singapore pays all public servants a ‘GDP bonus’ – they get more when economic growth meets its targets.

At the end of the day, the media and civil society can make all the noise they like. The fact is you, the ordinary reader and taxpayer, elected these people and tolerate their outrages. So next time you watch your child learn at a school with no books, or visit a clinic with no medicine, or walk for 50 km just to find a road, reflect deeply on that MP you elected and agreed to support like a prince.

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