Posted Thursday, May 1, 2008, at 9:57 AM
Suppose you want to lose 20 pounds. You've tried a number of diets, but you are as hefty as when you started. Fortunately, a new firm called StickK has a solution. You enter a self-commitment contract, under which you promise that you will lose (say) two pounds per week for 10 weeks. Each week you step on a scale under the eye of a third party, who then reports to StickK whether you have met your goal or not. If you fail, then StickK deducts $100 from your $1,000 deposit. (You can pick other amounts.) The theory is that the prospect of losing money will block your impulse to snatch an éclair as it passes by on the dessert cart. You can also enter StickK contracts to help you stop smoking, study in school, and go to the gym.
What happens to your money? StickK doesn't keep the $100; instead, it goes to a charity such as UNICEF. But here's the problem. As you eye that banana split, it might occur to you that if you resist temptation, a school's worth of impoverished children in Burkina Faso may be deprived of a week of nutritious lunches. Could you look in the mirror again if you starved these children so that you could lose some extra pounds? Do good by doing badly: Eat the banana split and save a family! StickK's incentive contract will work best for misanthropes who shudder at the thought that their hard-earned money might help the poor.
Fortunately, StickK's founders have thought of this problem, and so they offer soft-hearted customers the choice to designate an " anti-charity ," a charity that you hate. They list Americans United for Life (for pro-choicers) and NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation (for pro-lifers). The Educational Fund To Stop Gun Violence and the NRA. The Bush Library and the Clinton Library. You get the idea. If you hate Bush, then the image of him basking in his library at your expense should stimulate the gag reflex before that chocolate bar enters your mouth. (They don't list neo-Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan. People who hate racism will have to find some other way to get rid of that spare tire.)
Not everyone will meet his or her goals, and so money will flow into charities and anti-charities. In one possible world, we should expect more protests of abortion clinics that receive more subsidies; legislatures being swarmed by armies of pro- and anti-gun people; the Bush and Clinton libraries housed in magnificent edifices (perhaps they will even have books!). Surely it is odd that StickK harnesses people's charitable impulses for the sake of their narcissistic goals, resulting in a not-for-profit arms' race that will generate social waste. Wouldn't it be simpler for StickK's owners to pocket the forfeited deposits than to encourage customers to designate charities? However, there would be a catch. StickK's owners would also have to promise not to give their profits to popular charities, as this would reduce their customers' incentives to meet their goals. If you think that StickK's shareholders will turn over your deposit to impoverished children, then you won't be able to resist that slice of cheesecake. Instead, the shareholders would need to commit themselves to extravagant overconsumption, the more repulsive, the better. It is touching to think that they would have to abandon their favorite charities and any public-spirited activism, and commit themselves to hedonistic indulgence, for the sake of their customers' well-being.
However, one can't help wondering whether StickK will prove to be a boon to right-wing charities rather than a zero-sum game between offsetting charities. Suppose that the type of person likely to sign up with StickK will be young, professional, urban, and yes, left-leaning, which means that most of the designated anti-charities will be pro-gun, pro-life, and pro-Bush. If StickK catches on, we can expect a future of thin and healthy liberals who can no longer obtain abortions, and obese, chain-smoking conservatives who can own as many guns as they want.