THE MAVERICK: Ruto’s Prisoner’s Dilemma: Will he Survive the Current Onslaught

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For a number of occasions, I have found myself questioning my friend’s methods of decision making, in their lives, or in whatever they do. This does not mean that I am good at decision making. But there exists rational, logical, and evidence-based decision making that is more effective than perceptions that are based on intuition and experiences.

In my history of examining tools for decision making, I have always loved one highly applicable economic concept of Nash Equilibrium. It is a 1950 game theory by a Princeton mathematician John Nash. Developed in the context of economics, the theory is highly useful in almost every other field where a person faces a finite number of strategies (options), whose outcomes are varied.

Nash argued that in decision making, the best decision is not the one that gives you the highest payoff; it is the one that puts you in a state of equilibria. A state of equilibria is a state that even if your opponents make any move, you will never be in a worse position than you are. 

Reviewing the theory, there are multiple lessons one can draw to the Kenyan political platform and particularly regarding the Deputy President William Ruto’s current state. A few years ago, around the period when the Jubilee regime came into power for the second term, the DP had a finite number of  ‘strategies’ to pursue as recommended in Nash Equilibrium. The question is whether, did the DP, unquestionably intelligent, took a strategy that would render the ‘moves’ of his rivals useless to his best payoff? Objectively, the DP failed to pursue a strategy that would have left his foes confused on what to do or an option that would have rendered their strategies less effective in his push to be the occupant of the State House. Maybe I need to illustrate the Nash equilibrium concept using the commonly used Prisoner’s dilemma example. 

Figure 1 exhibits a two-player decision-making matrix when faced with a social problem. The issue is a crime situation where two criminals are facing the prosecutor. Analyzing it in a political context, the assumption is that there is no cooperation among players. With that, there are four possible outcomes for each player; a one-year jail term, a two-year jail term, a five-year jail term, and an eight-year jail term. Faced with such a problem, every person would wish to do something which will give him a one year jail. But the question, in this case, is whether that strategy will place you in the best position? In my analysis, Ruto rushed and picked an option that would have given him a one-year jail term with the hope that his opponent would get an eight-year jail (in this case, think the best payoff as getting the least punishment; in a positive context, one would choose the one with the highest payoff). Let’s examine the best possible strategy he would have pursued.

To get a one-year jail term (the best payoff), you need to betray your opponent and pray that the opponent does not betray you. But if the opponent followed his ways and confessed, both would have earned a five-year jail term. An alternative option is remaining silent and hoping your opponent remains silent. That would have earned each the most lenient punishment of two years. In game theory, just like politics, remaining silent does not guarantee your opponent would remain silent, again presenting an opportunity that if the opponent decides to betray you, eight years awaits you. The wisdom in Nash equilibrium thus comes down to picking an option that would render a change in strategy for the opponent useless. That is betrayal. If you betray your opponent in a noncooperative game, it means that if the opponent decides to remain silent, you will get the highest payoff (one year in jail), if the opponent decides to betray you, both of you will get five years each. At this position, betrayal guarantees the highest payoff and equilibrium that the opponent can never change.

There is an interesting perspective in applying Nash equilibrium in politics, though, the possibility to cooperate. Ruto looks like he was in a hurry to get the best payoff, and forgot by cooperating, he may not get the worst payoff but will secure something worthwhile, represented by two years in jail for remaining silent and failing to betray the opponent. In cooperative games, as it happens in oligopolistic markets, the best outcome for each can be negotiated. But is also not a stable state as should be under Nash equilibrium. Collusion will remain unstable, and in Kenya’s current political landscape, Raila is the one who has cooperated, earning himself a relatively good payoff whose sustainability is questionable.

From Figure 1, Ruto’s two years of miscalculation will never deliver anything but the worst payoff. I think if his advisers and himself applied this economic reasoning and logic, they would not be en route to the worst payoff on the table. The possibility that they are headed for a crush is quite high at this time.

It thus comes down to asking if the current political matrix has a new matrix that some players can maneuver to come out with the best decisions that would leave them in the best position irrespective of what rivals do? There is. The problem is that people make decisions based on intuitions, emotions, and experiences, rather than logic, rationale, and where possible, evidence. To close this, there are political lightweights who are dancing on borrowed pants but are insulting those who they have borrowed the pants from. Natural wisdom dictates that it is just an issue of time before the pants’ owners undress them and leave with their pants. Politics, just like many scientific fields, need a calculative brain, not the loudest mouth.

The views expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the position of Nairobi Cool. 


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