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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?