Which bum should get the money?

Tim Harford, writing in Saturday’s FT, allows us, as benevolent utilitarians, to ask ten bums one common question, and upon hearing their answers we give a donation to one of them.

I am never one to believe that cheap talk has zero value, if so why would I write (or you read) a blog?  So what questions might be asked?  The bums know the game, so of course they are tempted to lie.  Alex, Tim and I pondered this one over lunch.

1. Alex’s idea: ask each bum "who deserves the money the most?"  If they have repeated dealings with each other, the folk theorem might kick in and the group will nominate the wealth-maximizing recipient and institute side payments.  This may or may not maximize group utility as well.

2. Ask each bum "what are you doing here?", with a provocative tone of voice.  Give the money to the bum with the rudest, least polite answer.  He is least likely to get funds from elsewhere, plus the polite bum is probably a drug addict or otherwise totally dysfunctional.

3. Take advantage of the human proclivity to boast about knowledge.  Ask each bum what is the best way to find or to drink cheap alcohol, and give the money to the bum who shows the least expertise.  This was also an Alex idea.

4. Find the single question best correlated with the results of an IQ test.  Give the money to the stupidest bum, who is likely to be unlucky more than self-destructive.

Alternatively, say you had to tax one of ten rich men, and had one question to ask the group to determine who should pay the tax.  What should the question be, and why is this a harder problem?

Your thoughts on either problem?


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