For $25 Million, No Way, But for $50 Million I’ll Think About It

At least for me, there are not too many questions that would lead me to respond, “For $25 million, no way, but for $50 million I’ll think about it.” Twenty-five million dollars is so much money that it’s hard to think about what you would do with it. It sure would be nice to have the first $25 million. I’m not sure what I would need the second $25 million for.

The U.S. Senate is hoping there are some folks in Afghanistan or Pakistan who don’t see it that way. Frustrated by the failure of the $25 million bounty on Osama Bin Laden to lead to his capture, the Senate voted 97-1 to raise the bounty to $50 million.

At one level, you have to applaud this move by the government. To a Pakistani peasant, $50 million is an unthinkably large amount of money. To the U.S. government, which is spending $10 billion a month in Iraq, $50 million is next to nothing. If one of the major goals of the Iraq war was to get rid of Saddam Hussein, think how much cheaper it would have been to offer a reward of, say, $100 billion to anyone who could get him out of office by whatever means they saw fit. Saddam himself might have graciously accepted the offer and traded the hassles of running a country for a pleasant $100 billion pension and a well-appointed French manor.

Indeed, we have blogged before about the virtues of big prizes to encourage people to work on problems, whether it is curing disease or improving Netflix’s algorithms.

On the other hand, if I can’t tell the difference between $25 million and $50 million, I can’t imagine upping the ante will push a wavering Pakistani over the edge of collaborating with the U.S. government.

Much more important, but harder to do, would be to find a way to make it credible that we will actually pay the bounty. I’m sure there is plenty of discretion in deciding to whom and how much of that bounty gets paid. For instance, if I did some statistical analysis that somehow narrowed down his whereabouts to within 1000 yards, and then the Navy SEALS canvassed that area and found him, would I get the money? I’m not so sure they would give it to me. I’m sure the Pakistani peasant who has some information on Bin Laden probably shares my doubts.


They really should up the bounty to 10s/100s of billions of dollars - it's worth it. 25-50 million dollars is not enough to tempt nations or even private companies to do the dirty work, but for a huge reward like that, you'd see a lot of different entities jump in to the Bin Laden hunt.


There must be a difference between 25 million and 50 million for many people, otherwise Scott Boras would be out of a job.


The way I see it, the act of doubling the bounty for Bin Laden is important in itself. Newspapers around the world will run stories on the increase, giving the cause free publicity.

On the other side, thinking game theoretically, someone with access to Bin Laden might be now try to bide his time until the bounty doubles again.


Mr Levitt,

I thought it was public knowledge already that S. Hussein had agreed to step down just before the US invasion. In fact he had agreed to pretty much everything that was asked of him.

So much so that Tony Blair had to up the request a few days before the launch of the invasion, by asking such frivolities as having him humiliate himself on TV. What was the point of this request? I mean, I can understand wanting to have him apologize, but the request here was: "either you humiliate yourself or we bomb your country to pieces, no matter what else you do." He couldn't just leave. No.

It's clear the motive was never to have him leave. That's why there was no bounty on his head, not for a lack of imagination or economic savvy. To put it even more cynically, what would have been the point of a 50 million buck reward for Saddam's capture, when military contractors had hundreds of billions of incentive to have the invasion proceed?



Along with doubts that the bounty would be paid, there are probably doubts that anyone who turned him in would be protected from harm by his followers. In a part of the world where family and religous bonds are much more important, is $50mil worth the possibility of going into some witness protection program, moving away from an Islamic country, then still getting killed by Muhammed Atta Jr.?


Why is Osama worth even one dollar of our national treasure? Why do we fear a guy holed up in a cave in Pakistan? But if you want to continue this nonsense, then it seems only fair to have Haliburton pay the reward.

And Levitt is half right. The guvment would probably pay him, but they wouldn't pay some poor pakistani citizen.


Regarding Saddam, I don't think it would have been wise for us to put a bounty on a sitting head of state -- at least not without an actual internationally-recognized indictment of some kind to back it up. Doing so would open the door for other countries to do the same thing to us. No one in the world can actually invade the US, but as you said, it's a lot easier to offer a huge bounty instead. Imagine the ensuing chaos if Ahmadinejad or Chavez put a 100-million-Euro bounty on George W. Bush…


Prediction Market for Pakistani peasants?


I know I am about to sound as a conspiracy theorist but I see the enormous advantage in doubling the bounty:

Considering that another 25 million dollars is nothing compared to the amount wasted in Iraq and considering that they only have to give 50 million dollars if Osama is indeed found, this is a very good way to show that America is still trying to find Osama.

This way, they can't be fingered for only going after Iraq and not the guy who started it in the first place: "Hey we just doubled the bounty, what can we do more??"


I know I am about to sound as a conspiracy theorist

You are firmly based in reality, my friend.

A conspiracy theory is the irrational belief that Bush is in charge and that Cheney is not the anti-christ set loose upon the world to send his minions of evildoers from the halls of Messiah College to strip bare the very foundations of the Magna Carta.

Now that's just crazy talk.


I read an article a few years ago about the bounty for OBL -- I think it may have been Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek.

Anyway, it said that the Pakistani and Afghani peasants had no concept of what $25 million was. They knew it was a lot, but just enough "to buy some new camels" or "get my own farm."

I agree that the uncertainty about the reward is probalby high, but the people most likely to take this offer also don't realize just how much money is being dangled in front of them. It's two orders of magnitude more than they'll ever earn their whole lives.

Jacob Tomaw

Let's ignore if OBL is worth $50m for now.

What is the price that would motivate entrepreneurs from outside the region to seek him out? Why are mercenariness not entering the area to find him? What are the barriers to entry?


Also, I'd imagine members of the US Military are not eligible for receiving the bounty - although I'm not sure this is true. Why not move to a true pay-for-performance system. I'm not saying the members of the US Military don't already have enough motivation to find Bin Laden, but why not add a little (big) incentive.


but why not add a little (big) incentive

The individual members already have a pretty good motivation: they'd get to go home.

Or be redeployed to Iraq. Hmmm, OK, not so much incentive.


What happened to the soldier who found Saddam in his spider-hole?


Thanks for highlighting yet another example of the US Congress focusing on appearing to do something useful rather than actually doing something useful.


The bounty is obviously targetted towards rich people. He probably has friends in Saudi Arabia or other places that are quite wealthy and might know where he is or how to track him down.


The bounty might be more attractive if you could stay alive to enjoy it. Immediate great wealth will not go unnoticed. Unless you wrap up the entire organization, there will be members left for whom revenge is prime.

On a smaller scale, it happens every day in US cities where street gangs operate. If you violate the "Don't Snitch" rule, you (or your family) are toast.


We are the people who dropped Pop Tarts in Afghanistan. Among other things. I think our credibility problem is the biggest drawback.


Jacob Tomaw- this mission is too difficult- the only time a comparable mission was ever successful was when bond found blofeld in the swiss alps- and even then, he didn't kill him