When Do 60 Rats = 1 Cellphone?

Our recent podcast “The Cobra Effect” explored the unintended consequences of bounty programs. The episode was inspired by a visit to South Africa not long ago, where I was told about a rat problem in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra. For whatever reason, that story didn’t make the episode. But now the Guardian comes to the rescue, reporting on Alex’s efforts to fight off the rats by offering a cellphone for every 60 rats caught:

[C]ity officials have distributed cages and the mobile phone company 8ta has sponsored the volunteer ratcatchers.

Resident Joseph Mothapo says he has won two phones and plans to get one for each member of his family. “It’s easy,” he told South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper, wielding a large cage containing rats. “You put your leftover food inside and the rats climb in, getting caught as the trap door closes.”

But there were signs that the P.R. stunt could backfire, as animals rights activists criticised the initiative on social networks.

Will this lead to rat farming or other shenanigans? The Guardian reports that owls have also been distributed to help hunt down the rats.

(HT: Joe Sternberg)

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  1. Wayne Yuen says:

    Well, it depends on what kind of costs are associated with the Cell Phone right? I mean if people get a free cell phone, but the phone is inoperable without a plan of some sort, then the government is getting work done (fewer rats) with a promotion that costs people money (subscription to the phone company’s plan).

    I suppose there is some value in the phone… They can be sold or recycled. But would that be enough to make up for the costs of breeding 60 rats? Probably not.

    See in the Cobra effect, the costs of farming was always lower than what the market was paying for the rats (or pig tails, or cobras, etc). But if they make the number higher, then the less likely it is going to be efficient enough to farm rats. But it might make it better for people to catch them, in passive ways, like traps or such, and pool them together to get a phone. 60 rats is far different a cost, than just showing up with one thing and getting paid for that one thing.

    I don’t know how ubiquitous phones are in india either… But if they are common, then we’re not really offering anything of real value for the dead rats.

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  2. Charles L. says:

    This will only occur if, going back to Micro101, AVC>MR, that is, the cost of growing 60 rats is less than the payout of one cellphone. I am not an expert on the South African economy, but I would reason this is not the case. Owning a rat farm would have little overhead but take up a ton of time and probably be very disgusting, at least to farm them in any noticeable quantity. As rats become scarcer, this might happen, but for the moment it would seem as if this plan is working.
    I think it’s good to bear in mind that while government incentive programs often have nasty side effects, they can also have very positive ones, which is why people set them up in the first place. The cobra effect is a hyperbole of a larger truth. Not all such programs end in masses of cobras swarming major cities, thankfully.

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