“If something cannot go on forever, it will
— Stein’s Law as postulated by Herbert Stein, the
late chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.
For those of us who don’t follow the vicissitudes of the
fashion world, the Lance Armstrong LiveStrong bracelet is the most
highly visible trend in apparel. More than 8 million of the
bracelets, which retail for $1 a piece with the proceeds going to
the Lance Armstrong Foundation, have been sold, and the University
community is certainly responsible for a disproportionate share of
those sales. The bracelets make a great case study in the adoption
of social trends, and their popularity raises a dilemma that most
commentators have ignored: When will we reach the other tipping
point? Namely, when will people stop wearing the seemingly
Giving up on the LiveStrong bracelet isn’t exactly as
simple as switching in your pair of UGG winter boots for the
comforts of spring’s flip-flops. The bracelets bill
themselves as a symbol for deep values, and merely giving up on
them would suggest callousness to the plight of cancer survivors.
For most causes celebres that generate an apparel-based sign of
support there is a tangible sign that a wrong has been remedied and
the symbol can be dropped. A war ends. A political prisoner is
freed. A corporate tax bill is vetoed, etc. If Emile Zola had asked
the dreyfusards to wear pins featuring a drawing of Devil’s
Island they would have known to end their effort when Dreyfus was
eventually pardoned by the French government. Of course, cancer
isn’t going away within any of our time horizons despite the
best efforts of groups like the Lance Armstrong Foundation. So are
we obliged to wear them ad infinitum?
The first and most pressing concern is olfactory in origin.
It’s true that the LiveStrong bracelet is made of 100 percent
synthetic silicon rubber and unlike, to give an example, a hemp
lanyard, the LiveStrong bracelet is less susceptible to this fetid
threat. But while the stench threshold of the LiveStrong bracelet
is substantially higher than in the case of other, less synthetic
wristwear, it is nonetheless an unavoidable reality. Maybe not
today, maybe not tomorrow but someday soon a foul cloud of odor
will hover around everyone still wearing their bracelets. From a
social welfare perspective, continuing to wear the bracelets after
this fail-safe date would be simply disastrous.
Fortunately, the Michigan winter provides an excellent, low-cost
escape opportunity. As soon as the bitter cold mandates the donning
of long-sleeved shirts and bulky coats the bracelet can be
tastefully, and unnoticeably, removed. Six months later, when you
can once again allow your wrists to be exposed to open air without
fear of frostbite, the bracelets will be gone and no one will be
the wiser about this abandonment of principle.
The accumulation of debris and body odor clearly presents an
insuperable barrier to the perpetual popularity of the bracelets,
but there are other considerations that suggest the bracelets may
have to be thrown off before nature works its noisome course.
Obviously, no one wears them for social acceptance or to get a hot
date — that would be wrong and self-interested and all the
things that the Lance Armstrong Foundation stands against. But
let’s just make the highly speculative assumption that there
are actually some people depraved enough to wear the bracelets for
conformity pressures. So while seeing that Ben Affleck, Matt Damon,
Bono, Angelina Jolie and John Kerry were all wearing the bracelet
might have encouraged some people to go to their nearest Niketown,
plop down a dollar and do their part in the fight against cancer,
seeing that the googly-eyed kid in your stats lecture wears one
might not result in the same behavioral response. Actually, market
research has definitively shown that no one has purchased one of
the bracelets because of John Kerry.
But the greatest obstacle of all remains the one first
articulated by the great, self-loathing Groucho Marx. “I
don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a
member.” Eventually and despite our best efforts, we are all
forced to accede to the logic of this tragic conclusion.