The wristband gap, Part 2.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Feb. 1 2005 3:55 PM

The Wristband Gap, Part 2

Awareness bracelets and the tragedy of the commons.

Last month, I noted that while all the proceeds for the yellow "Livestrong" wristbands sold at Nike and Discovery Channel stores were being donated to cancer research, only one-third of the proceeds for the camouflage-green "Support Our Troops" wristbands sold at 7-Eleven were being donated to the USO. I have since learned that 7-Eleven isn't the only business taking a substantial cut of the proceeds from the sale of so-called "awareness bracelets." As the varieties of these bracelets have proliferated during recent months, the charitable impulse that is their ostensible reason for existence has steadily declined.

For instance, a tsunami-relief bracelet costs $2, only half of which goes toward relieving problems caused by the recent massive tidal wave in southern Asia. But that's still better than the 10-percent cut that tsunami victims receive when you buy your bracelet on something called AwarenessDepot.com, where you can also purchase "USA" bracelets, "Jesus Loves You" bracelets, and "God Bless the Dead" bracelets.

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Some people would argue that the point of awareness bracelets isn't to raise money for charity so much as it is to raise, well, awareness. The wristbands invite onlookers to take a moment to think about cancer victims, or American troops in Iraq, or any one of a variety of other groups who need help or who perform difficult work for which the rest of us should be grateful. But over time, that goal has been subverted, too.

Perhaps you're familiar with "the tragedy of the commons," a social dilemma outlined by the late biologist Garrett Hardin in a famous 1968 essay of the same name. The dilemma is that when individuals pursue personal gain, the net result for society as a whole may be impoverishment. (Pollution is the most familiar example.) Such thinking has fallen out of fashion amid President Bush's talk of an "ownership society," but its logic is unassailable:

Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman willtry to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. … As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks,"What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?"This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds fromthe sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly+1.

2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effectsof overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utilityfor any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fractionof -1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him topursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; andanother …

The same logic applies to awareness bracelets. In this instance, the "common" is the visible spectrum, and the "herdsmen" are the groups promoting various causes by selling awareness bracelets of various colors. The problem is that there are only so many colors, while the number of causes is nearly infinite. At this late hour, it's impossible to look at somebody's awareness bracelet and learn precisely what that person is trying to raiseawareness about, because there are simply too many possibilities. Purple, for instance, now signifies support for Alzheimer patients, abused animals, battered women, epileptics, children in foster care, or people with irritable bowel syndrome, among other things. Teal invokes the fight against ovarian cancer, except when it invokes the fight against myasthenia gravis, drug addiction, or sexual assault. Gray can raise awareness about brain cancer, diabetes, disabled children, emphysema, lung cancer, multiple sclerosis, mental illness, or a couple of diseases I've never heard of; or it can raise awareness about asthma or allergies. ("Please join me in the fight to cure hay fever.")

With so much to be aware of, awareness bracelets have reverted to signifying nothing more than color itself. Idealism has devolved into fashion. That helps explain why my dear wife, who died of liver cancer two weeks ago, and whom I miss almost more than I can bear—and certainly more than any colored wristband could possibly express—held the awareness-bracelet movement in undisguised contempt.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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