Splitting Hairs with the US Government

[11 November 2007]

By Bill Reagan

In April 2007, US Presidential candidate John Edwards made headlines for spending $400 on a haircut. The media quickly jumped on Edwards’ fiscal irresponsibility with two consistent themes: How could a man who claims to want to give the working poor a voice in American politics possibly understand poverty when he is willing to drop four Franklins on a trim of his locks, and why would a man whose net worth is estimated between 13 and 60 million dollars choose to charge these extravagant hair appointments to his campaign? (Odd that Edwards’ $400 haircut seemed to be a bigger story at the time than George W. Bush’s $400,000,000,000 war: At least Edwards came out of the hair salon looking better than when he went in.)

While the political ruckus was fun fodder for the late-night hosts and even a stand-up opportunity for Edwards himself [”(Immigrants) want to come here,” Edwards explained, “because people like me can come from nowhere, the son of a mill worker, and now be running for the President of the United States and pay $400 for a haircut”], what the media left out of their otherwise thorough tar-and-feathering is the difficult truth that Edwards was the hapless victim in this scenario, another sucker who fell prey to the ruthlessly mercenary hair care industry.
Americans love to brandish their verbal slingshots against Goliaths like big oil, pharmaceutical giants, and big-box retailers, yet they have been silent about an industry that has apparently chloroformed the nation into submission with the noxious aroma of perm chemicals. Few industries have enjoyed the inexplicable and unconscionable price increases that have occurred in the hair care industry: Has the cost of scissors skyrocketed in the past few decades? Has the nation’s hair become more resistant to mousse? Have Americans demanded extensive R&D into the finer nuances of the crew cut? I find no evidence for “yes” to any of these queries. 

Let’s put tonsorial economic history into perspective by examining the monetary evolution of certain American staples:

Item1970 cost1990 cost2007 cost
Gasoline (gal.)$0.36 $1.16 $2.82
Milk (gal.)$1.15 $2.78 $3.13
25” Color TV$599.00 $499.00 $448.00
Haircut$2.00 $8.50$400.00

Apologists for the hair industry will insist that these are unfair comparisons, that while the price of gas has not escalated at the same rate as haircuts, per capita gasoline consumption has exploded, allowing a consistent markup to generate tremendous gross profit. (“Gross profit” being a double entendre based on recent earnings reports.) But considering that the nation’s population has been growing as exponentially as its fuel consumption (up 50 percent to 300 million since 1970) and that long hair has been out of vogue since the second Poison album (thus requiring more frequent haircuts), that argument doesn’t stand up.

True, not all haircuts cost $400. (In fact, the national average is several dollars less than that.) But when you look at the Edwards story, and recall the Clinton’s infamous Cristophe trim aboard Air Force One in 1993, then consider that First Lady Laura Bush paid $700 for a hairstyle from New York City beautician Sally Hershberger in 2005, a clear trend is emerging.

It seems there are now two Americas: One America that can indulge in a hair style, and another America that is forced to live with a mere hair cut; one America in which hairdressers make house (or plane) calls for their illustrious clients, and another America where people must sit with a crowd of strangers reading outdated Field and Stream magazines while waiting for their turn in the chair.

I am willing to grant that certain hair options clearly deserve a higher price tag, as I’ve seen several gravity-defying , multi-color coifs that look like they required a consultation with an experienced architect before they could be completed. But John Edwards’ haircut? In my America, a barber could knock that out in 14 minutes while simultaneously explaining the playoff failure of the 2007 Chicago Cubs, and Edwards would only be out a tenspot. (Apparently there are no barbers in his America.)

Polls tell us that one of the fundamental issues of the 2008 election is health care, and several of this year’s spate of presidential candidates are fond of saying that all Americans deserve the same health care program to which members of congress are entitled. Yet I look at the vast divide between plush salons that serve complimentary lattes and those corporate-chain hair slaughter houses where the apparent employment prerequisites are a certificate of completion from Vidal Sassoon University and a willingness to dye one’s hair to match the color of automobile antifreeze and I wonder when one of those candidates will announce a substantive Universal Hair Care program.

In order to force the issue onto the national stage, I examined John Edwards’ health care plan and used it as a model for a complete hair care initiative that will benefit every American, a plan I call The Comprehensive Haircare Opportunity Program. The particulars of The CHOP include:

Empower Patients through Transparency
There are so many hair options available that most consumers try this stylist or that until they find someone who doesn’t make them look like a drivers license photo; once that provider is found, the customer becomes a lifetime regular and an unwitting pawn to the pricing whims of the salon. By creating a “Consumer Reports” of hair professionals, consumers will know who can deftly disguise an unruly cowlick, and who leaves their customers looking like they were attacked by a drunk wielding a Flowbee.

Create new hair care tax credits
What most Americans don’t realize is the world judges us by our hair. As Hilary Clinton said, “Your hair will send significant messages to those around you: what hopes and dreams you have for the world, but more, what hopes and dreams you have for your hair. Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will.’’ Yet this nation regularly sends business emissaries and tourists to every continent sporting unconvincing combovers, disconcerting mullets, even dated-but-not-retro bowl cuts, a routine that reflects poorly on all Americans. The CHOP addresses this problem by making hair care a tax deductible expense, ensuring that no American has to look like the “before” picture simply because their budget requires them to have their hair trimmed by a family member whose sole qualification is a grade of B earned in a topiary class at the local community college.

Require employers to help finance their employee’s hair care
Good hair isn’t a just governmental concern, it’s a national concern. While it is impossible to calculate the economic impact of a bad haircut, my fictional calculations estimate the damage to corporate bottom lines caused by home perms and bad dye jobs (primarily from lost productivity due to office gossip) to be in the millions of dollars. Since businesses will reap the benefits of a roster of exemplary hairdos, those businesses should be required to help foot the cost of this plan. In addition to financial contributions, the plan would also require companies to provide one “Bad hair day” per quarter as part of their benefits package.

Invest in Preventive Hair Care
Have you ever shopped at an Aveda store? It’s like visiting a minor-league spa: scented candles burn throughout the store, free neck massages for the shoppers, and the staff goes out of its way to make you comfortable before charging you $60 for a bag of items that will easily fit in the glove box of your car. Compare that to buying the house brand at your local drug store where the surly counter clerk acts unduly imposed upon because you selected his register, despite it being the only open register. The nation needs to bridge the divide between these two Americas so that quality hair products are not a privilege of wealth.

Under The CHOP, the aforementioned gravity-defying, multi-color, Jetson-esque coifs will not be covered, as that is the hair equivalent of cosmetic surgery. (Those cuts will still be available outside the plan at the customer’s expense.) The goal of Universal Hair Care is not that every snip, clip, and ego trip to the salon will be subsidized, but to ensure that every American has access to essential grooming without being at the mercy of an industry whose prices have skyrocketed while the service offered has remained exactly the same. (Okay, every now and then they have to learn to cut styles like the fictional Rachel Green or the science-fictional Victoria Beckham, but reading a how-to in American Salon magazine isn’t exactly reinventing the process.)

The United States needs to establish itself as a model for Universal Hair Care before Canada steals that thunder by including hair styling in their socialized health care plan. In recent years America’s reputation as a global neighbor has been tarnished by actions that have been perceived as ill-considered, self-serving and arrogant, reinforcing the fallacy about dumb Americans. Changing that perception will require years of effort, but in the meantime, the next President can make an immediate change by enacting The Comprehensive Haircare Opportunity Program. At least then when Americans are collectively mocked for their chronic inability to find any nation other than their own on a world map, detractors will say, “Dumb, yes. But they certainly have beautiful hair.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/splitting-hairs-with-the-us-government/