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December 19, 2018

Anchor polygamy debate in economics but not morality

Newly elected Kiambu women representative Gathoni wa Muchomba arrives in Parliament August 29,2017 during the orientation of new MPs ahead of the swearing in ceremony on Thursday.Photo/HEZRON NJOROGE
Newly elected Kiambu women representative Gathoni wa Muchomba arrives in Parliament August 29,2017 during the orientation of new MPs ahead of the swearing in ceremony on Thursday.Photo/HEZRON NJOROGE

To marry one or more? This is the public discourse that has sculpted conversations from boardrooms to cafeterias, thanks to one Kiambu Woman representative Gathoni Wamuchomba.

As expected, there has been no paucity of memes and gender biased responses. On one hand, there are those who unflinchingly back the polygamy proposal, and have defended it as an ‘African’ culture whose usefulness was incontrovertible. On the other hand, there are those who have audaciously anchored their objection on what the Church or Christian faith professes. These have largely been proponents of monogamous marriages.

What is, however, fascinating, is the common thread from both sides, subtly asking the State and the Church to keep off the business of the marriage institution, in proposing to us how many wives one can marry.

But what curious creatures we all are. We are like the proverbial Arab, who allowed his camel to stick its nose into his tent because the camel was cold; then progressively, other parts of its body, until the camel was entirely inside the tent and refused to leave, eventually kicking the Arab out of his tent.

But how did we not heed the ‘Beware the Camel’s Nose’ warning?

By allowing the State to legalise us when we say ‘I do’ or ‘I don’t’ through instruments that bind us called marriage and divorce certificates, respectively. We have also been comfortable with allowing the State’s ‘nose’ into our marriage tent by dictating to us at what age we can or cannot marry; in permitting which gender to be married to; in determining personal relief on taxation, and deciding on our children’s custody.

As for the Church, we have asked it not to interfere with our African culture. Yet we run to them to officiate our weddings; bury our spouses; baptise our childrenand arbitrate in our marital problems.

And now that the State and the Church want more than just their ‘nose’ in our marriage tent — by proposing to us how many wives we should marry — we very quickly pull out our traditional and religious red card. No wonder one gentleman observed that ‘Kenyans have peculiar habits.’

There is no denying the institution of marriage has continued to evolve and this has generated debate across all walks of life. However, the discourse has largely remained in the purview of morals, of what is right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable,- ethical or unethical.

But what has not sufficiently been interrogated is the economics of marriage.

In 2005, Jay Zagorsky did a comprehensive study on the economics of marriage and its impact on wealth creation. He closely followed the net worth of individuals in their 20s, 30s and early 40s. His findings showed that the wealth of the married respondents increased by about 16 percent for each year that they were wed. This translated to married people almost doubling their wealth and increasing it over 93 percent compared to single people.

The study documented three main drivers that caused this considerable difference. The first is savings. Most married people save more to raise children, buy joint assets or to have a comfortable retirement when they think and live as a unit. This becomes more conducive to long-term financial planning. The second driver is shared fixed expenses such as car-pooling, utilities and insurance. This sharing ethos considerably lowers expenses when the cost is split. The third driver is division of labour based on the partner’s strength and schedule, which subsequently increases efficiency and effectiveness. It is undeniably more difficult for a single person to cover all the expenses, household chores and raise children, while also having a full-time job that grows more demanding over time.

The study also found divorced respondents wealth starts to fall four years before the divorce, and they experience an average wealth drop of 77 per cent. This is because in this state, the couple is cohabiting and such partners tend to jointly save and invest less, while keeping their finances separate because they are not fully committed to one another. Other drivers of wealth depletion in the divorce industry are State-imposed costs such as alimony and legal fees.

Now that we have undoubtedly established that marriage creates wealth, let us examine this institution from the lens of polygamy, using the marginal utility theory.

In economics, this is the additional satisfaction one gains from consuming one more unit of a good or service. If you have four bottles of water and you purchase a fifth bottle, you will get more utility from it because of its proportion to the total. This fifth bottle increases your total water by 25 per cent. However, if you have 50 bottles and you purchase an additional bottle, you gain far less utility because of the proportion of the 51st bottle to the total. The 51st bottle only increases your total water by only two per cent. So, the more and more of a product one purchases, the lower and lower the marginal utility becomes, until it reaches a point where the buyer has zero need for any additional units of the good or service. At this point, the marginal utility of the next unit equals zero.

I, therefore, submit that economics, and not the Church or State or the Kiambu Woman Rep, should be the umpire of this marriage contract. If one wants to increase their total wealth evidentially brought about by marriage, they should calculate the number of additional units of partners who will increase their total utility. However, if they are content with their present wealth status, they should maintain their current number of partners to avoid a negative marginal utility, where an additional partner will only serve to decrease their total utility.

Could marriage be the one untested and understudied intervention of poverty eradication?


‘If you really want to increase your wealth and net worth, get married and stay married’ – Zargosky


 Mugwe is a political economist

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