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Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from MIT; founded, one of the very first commercial websites, in 1994; separated from Homefair in January 2000 after it was sold to Homestore; is author of Under the Radar: Starting Your Internet Business without Venture Capital, and is an essayist. Send comments to us at

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February 17, 2004

Economists think about Spam

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Posted by Arnold

Alex Tabarrok probably thinks that this idea is original.

The problem of spam is really a negative externality generated by the people who actually buy the products spammers offer. Thus, I suggest sending out fake spam and prominently posting the names of all those who respond

The idea of punishing people who respond to spam, and therefore help keep spammers in business, was proposed by Allan Wastler as the idiot tax.

But the first known proposal of this sort was made right here, by yours truly.

What I propose is that any American who makes a purchase based on unsolicited email be fined $10,000 and jailed for 30 days.

Great minds (and economists) think alike.

Comments (4) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: spam wars


1. Zack Lynch on February 17, 2004 03:48 PM writes...


I think we'll go back and forth on this one forever, but the problem with your proposal comes in the cost of enforcement and the cost of researching those few times that individuals make an honest mistake in purchasing something from someone who they do not know is a spammer. More importantly, the internet is global. Spam will keep coming if anyone, anywhere buys. I still think it is an economic problem where the sender must bear the burden of proof (value) to get into my inbox. Pay me a penny to get into my email box and the economics of spam become too costly.

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2. Brad Hutchings on February 17, 2004 05:30 PM writes...

Zack, A big problem with the economic case for "a penny for my thoughts" is that it ignores the engineering reality. SMTP is here to stay. It is widely distributed. It is not in the hands of just the ISPs, and the percentage of mail that flows through an ISP SMTP server would strike you as surprisingly small. Which means that when people come up with "solutions" that involve scrapping SMTP, the costs associated with their solutions are extraordinarily high and involve tens or hundreds of thousands (or maybe millions) of legitimate SMTP operating organizations.

I am glad to see SPAM being thought of as polution. One source of SPAM (maybe 20% - 30%) that we could tackle easily is people setting up SMTP servers on their cheap home DSL and cable connections and the ISPs not doing anything about it. Now, I don't want government regulation of services, and I know the net needs a solution that crosses borders on this. So here is a proposal... We create a website access blacklist. An ISP can have their whole range blacklisted if enough of their clients manage to send out widescale SPAM from SMTPs on their connected computers. Other customers won't be able to reach participating websites if their ISP has been blacklisted. Perhaps then the ISPs, like Comcast (which wants to buy Disney) will get the hint that they need to (1) educate their customers, (2) detect offenders, and (3) fine them heavily enough for misuse that it ends up as an uncollected debt on their credit report and perhaps donate any proceeds to SPAM prevention organizations. Then we'll take on another 20% of the problem.


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3. Oscar Wilde on February 18, 2004 01:28 AM writes...

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4. Glenn Fleishman on February 21, 2004 12:26 PM writes...

First, let's put the elderly in jail for falling prey to Canadian lottery scammers...then let's eat the poor.

I do love the idea of punishing the idiots that perpetuate the existence of spam instead of the fiends who actually send it, but it's impractically hilarious.

Thank you, mr. kling (aka fielding)

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