Last week I received the following email message. I bet some of you did, too.
How are you doing. Hope you have not forgotten me, I am
the man from Nigeria who contacted you some time ago to assist
me secure the release of some money accrued from the over invoicing of
contract that was awarded by my government through my ministry during
militry regime some years ago. Though you were not able to asist me
conclude the transaction, I’m happy to inform you about my success in
those funds transffered under the assistance and cooperation of a new
Presently i’m in South Korea for investment projects with my own
share of the total sum. meanwhile, ididn’t forget your past efforts and
attempts to assit me in transffering those funds, I made sure you are
leftout in the benefit of the transaction hence I kept aside for you a
certified cashier cheque covering the sum of $250,000.00. (Two Hundred
Thousand United state Dollars).
Why, Mr. MarlvinSomtochukwu, how could I forget you? How often do you think it is that somebody offers me a sum of $250,000.00 (Two Hundred
Thousand United state Dollars)? Not more than once every 45 minutes, I’m guessing.
I used to think that this limitless supply of Mr.MarlvinSomtochukwu’s was the result of a strange folk superstition rampant in Nigeria that if you spun such a yarn to a stupid American, they would give you all their money. But apparently every now and then there is some dope who actually falls for it. The most recent would-be gazillionaire appears to be Dr. Louis A. Gottschalk, whom the
LA Times describes as a “world-renowned psychiatrist” who “gave as much as $3 million over a 10-year period in response to an Internet plea that promised the doctor a generous cut of a huge sum of cash trapped in African bank accounts in exchange for money advances.”
Hmmm, a psychiatrist, you say? Isn’t that somebody who is supposed to be an expert about why people sometimes do crazy things?
Appeals on behalf of these millions of dollars trapped in Nigerian banks are just a small part of the several hundred completely useless email messages that I receive every day. Although every now and then they are a little amusing, for the most part I regard these as simply a curse, requiring me to at least glance at the titles of the messages trapped by my spam filter, and occasionally causing me to completely ignore legitimate correspondence.
From an economic point of view, the nature of the spam problem is that it costs far less for the producer to send one of these messages than it costs the recipient to process it. There is for this reason way too much of this “good” being produced, a classic case of a market externality.
The classic solution to this kind of externality is to impose a tax on the producer. If it cost Mr. MarlvinSomtochukwu even 1/10 of a cent to send this message, I’m sure he wouldn’t think it worth his while to bother sending it.
When AOL proposed a fee that bulk emailers could pay to be exempt from company spam filters, there was a huge cry of protest from surprisingly diverse groups. And yet, a little reflection should convince you that being charged a fee in order to send an email message is exactly the correct solution. Ideally, each of us could set a price for which we would need to be compensated in order to receive an email message– personally I’d charge maybe one cent. The email service provider could add their own fee– say another half cent more– and a sender would decide whether they wanted to fork out the 1.5 cents to get the message through. A given bulk emailer could choose to send its message to all the folks who charge less than 2 cents per pop, for example.
Even if I didn’t get the penny myself, I’d still be better off under such a system. If it isn’t worth 2 cents to you to want to send your message, it isn’t worth my time to bother glancing at the message title.
Who’s going to be deterred from sending an email message if they have to pay a penny to send it? Well, the people who currently are sending their messages out to 25 million people. By my reckoning, they’d think twice about paying $250,000.00 (Two Hundred and Fifty Thousand United state Dollars) just in order to clutter up everybody’s email inbox.