What Happens When You Put a Bounty on Houseflies?

(Photo: Dan4th Nicholas)

Our recent podcast “The Cobra Effect” continues to draw listener/reader mail, with further examples of bounties-gone-wrong. This one, from Dan Banks in Indiana, may be my favorite:

How about a failed bounty on houseflies?

I run a group home for criminal youth.  They are generally manipulative and not too smart.  We have a “point” system where they do work to earn points that they can spend on various tangibles and intangibles.  It’s a great system as we print all the “currency” we want and exchange it for labor.

One summer we seemed to always have houseflies in the home.  A frustrated staff offered 5 points for every fly carcass that was brought in and handed out flyswatters to the kids.

Our residents killed the flies, then ditched the flyswatters and started gathering dead flies from window sills.  Then they started pushing out the appliances to dig out the dead flies.  Being of the criminal nature they would overcount and try to slip in other insects.  After exhausting the dead fly supply at the home, they started bringing them in from the outside.  When taken to a restaurant, they would go around digging for dead flies.

So the program ended.

Positive externality:

  • We did rid the home of lots of dead bugs.

Negative externalities:

  • We also “paid” to clean a lot of other people’s bugs.
  • The kids would do no other work.  Why spend an hour in the hot sun mowing the yard when you can simply collect dead flies?

Effect on the living housefly problem:

  • Nil — the kids would leave the doors and windows open to lure in the valuable flies.

I enjoy your work.  It inspires me to try all kinds of little experiments.  I am in a unique situation as I can control the “money supply” and price fix every asset in my closed economy.  Jealous?

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  1. Mike Kennedy says:

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  2. Eric M. Jones. says:

    I am Lord of the Dead Flies. I am surprised that the kids didn’t look into “fly traps” that were common before the days of, well, before the days of daze:

    Here’s how to catch flies wholesale–Take a handful of old window screen and make it into a cone. Cut off the tip of the cone leaving a 1″ diameter hole and make sure the base is larger than the mouth of a mason jar. Put it base down. Put a mason jar over it. Leave a plate under it of anything that attracts flies (no, I see you thinking…NO!). Something like grapes or jelly that smells okay to people and flies love.

    Make sure there is a gap so the flies can get to the plate. Make sure they can fly up to the “light” at the top of the screen cone. The flies sample the goodies, then leave by going up into the jar. Soon you will have a jar full of dead flies. This will feed your aquarium denizens for free.

    And a jar full of dead flies is always good for having fun.

    ps: If you owned a restaurant, why wouldn’t you have a couple of these working all the damned time? You can even buy these at Tractor Supply stores for cheap.

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  3. jonathan says:

    A similar anecdote is infamous in the software industry. When Quality Assurance (QA) engineers were paid bonuses for each “bug” in the code they found, they conspired with the developers to create bugs and split the bonus… :)

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  4. Clancy says:

    My first thought was that if I were being paid by the fly, I would leave more food out to attract them. Or maybe get some maggots out of the dumpster and start a farm.

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  5. Enter your name... says:

    I suspect that the price was set too high. One point might have worked better.

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  6. Kurt says:

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    • Seminymous Coward says:

      He said he ran “a group home for criminal youth.” They are literally criminals. He’s not claiming they are genetically predisposed to crime or suggesting that they should have reduced reproductive rights for that reason or any other. He’s merely observing that they are criminals and inferring causation between that and later unethical behavior. Recidivism is a real issue; in general, criminals tend to continue to commit crimes and otherwise violate social norms and ethical standards.

      What exactly do you think the word “eugenics” means? I suspect that’s the core of our disagreement.

      As a side note, quotation marks are supposed to indicate exact quotes, and he actually wrote “Being of the criminal nature” instead of what you claimed.

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    • TexCIS says:

      No Kurt, businessmen actually work in the hot sun and create value. They don’t try to game the nanny-state for near freebies.

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  7. Vanessa says:

    This is not germane to the point, but I’m stuck on “They are generally manipulative and not too smart.” It disturbs me that you are responsible for the well-being of people you seemingly have little regard for.

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    • dave says:

      The kids aren’t too smart? Who paid to have dead bugs gathered from restaurants??

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  8. Bill says:

    Hmm. Dan Banks runs a program, makes his name public, and says his charges are “not too smart.” Then goes into great detail about how his charges outsmarted him and his staff. Here’s hoping he has other skills that make him suitable for his work, because self-awareness, compassion, and, yes, “smarts” don’t seem be in his skill set.

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