TCS Daily


Doing Well By Taking Revenge

By James D. Miller - November 25, 2003 12:00 AM

Ever wanted to punish telemarketers? Would you pay for the privilege of making them suffer? My revenge plan might just solve our telemarketing plague while raising a fortune for charities.

 

The Telemarketing Revenge Plan

 

Under the plan, if someone annoying calls you, you have the option of hitting a special key combination on your phone (like *666) and then entering a dollar amount between, say, $0.05 and $2.00 The phone company will charge both you and the caller this sum, the money going to a charity of the phone company's choosing.

 

Government-enacted do-not-call lists are constitutionally troubling because once you sign up, the government decides which strangers can legally phone you. My revenge plan would deter telemarketers without having the government differentiating between legitimate and junk phone speech.

 

Under my plan, the free market and not the government decides which unsolicited callers get punished. Because you must pay whenever you force a caller to give to charity, you would impose revenge only on those who have truly bothered you. Furthermore, by deciding on the dollar amount to be paid, you could make the quantity of revenge proportional to the annoyance of the telemarketing call, thereby providing telemarketers with a socially useful market signal.

 

Telemarketers do have some value since at least a few people buy their products. Unfortunately, since telemarketers don't currently pay for the nuisance costs they impose on non-buyers, they have little disincentive to avoid causing mass irritation. My plan would not use the heavy hand of the state to outlaw telemarketing, but rather it would create market incentives for telemarketers to minimize annoying calls to non-buyers.

 

The do-not-call list currently promulgated by the FCC might be rendered ineffective by its charity exemption. Many telemarketers will undoubtedly evade the list's restrictions by reorganizing themselves as charities, thereby gaining the ability to make unlimited unsolicited phone calls. As university presidents' salaries show, nothing prevents charities from highly compensating their employees. My plan, however, would allow phone owners to mercilessly punish charity posers.

 

Of course, as an economist I should point out that under my plan phone owners would gain no financial benefit from revenge, however, so only the "fiscally irrational" would impose it. The hatred many of us have towards telemarketers, combined with the innate desire many humans have to strike-back at our enemies means many of us would pay to damage annoying unsolicited callers.

 

Of course, not only telemarketers but anyone making a phone call would be at risk. But, if you aggravate someone with your unwanted phone calls, isn't it just that you suffer?

 

Tackling Spam

 

Someday, my revenge plan might even be useable against spammers. A few have suggested charging emailers a small "stamp" tax so as to discourage bulk emailing while not inhibiting person-to-person communications. Imposing such charges would require developing a micropayments system tied to email. If we could develop such a system, we could also implement my revenge plan which I believe would be superior to imposing an email stamp tax.

 

Unlike a stamp tax, my revenge plan would allow you to impose a payment on spammers after you have read their email. Therefore, the revenge market would operate to discourage the most offensive of junk-email so those promoting barnyard animal abominations would surely pay more than those soliciting for legitimate charities, an outcome many parents would applaud. Furthermore, while a stamp tax would punish all bulk-emailers, my revenge plan wouldn't harm mass-emailers who could write spam which amused rather than annoyed.

 

James D. Miller writes The Game Theorist column for TCS and is the author of Game Theory at Work.

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