Getting the Rich Out of Our Hair

In 1998, I owned the Comic News and we ran an election feature that focused on candidates the way regular people pay attention. We speculated on the political viability of John Kitzhaber and Bill Sizemore, based solely on their hair. We even airbrushed out their faces, to remove any insignificant distractions as we plumbed the non-depth of the typical voter.

Our hair-splitting analysts noted Sizemore’s cowlicks as evidence of some “frightening incongruities.” We interviewed Kitzhaber’s Eugene hairdresser, Diana Drake, about the specific fortunes of our incumbent head of state.

Those memories came rushing back after the recent South Carolina Republican primary. Looking at Newt Gingrich, always with his too-blonde wife at his side, you can’t help but wonder what his election could do for the hairspray industry.

Romney’s consultants must have looked at a head-to-head race with Gingrich and seen an opening for the rough cut. Mitt Romney raced to Florida, sporting a new tousled look. Hairdressers call it “bed head,” or — more brazenly — the “just been [sexually satisfied] look.”

The rough-and-tumble Romney was unveiled the same week as his tax return. He looked hard-working. He didn’t look too perfect. Florida swung his way.

But scrutiny about his finances may sink in. We know all about his tax rate (very low), his tax shelters (very far), and his tax stances (very varied). Yet unexamined is how this one person “earned” (his term) a quarter of a billion dollars. Ever since Horatio Alger, America has prided itself for rewarding hard work. We pay celebrities obscenely because we have no royalty, but what is the “work” that earned Romney more cash than is held by some sovereign nations? And what is the “work” that continues to earn him $50,000 a day? Bain’s core competencies make only one thing: money.

Economists then remind us that America also rewards risk-taking. Was Romney’s Bain Capital taking risks that merited billions for its partners and investors? If the racetrack is any guide, huge payouts follow long odds. Bain’s bets must lose most of the time to justify such “lucrativity.” But they don’t.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was right. The very rich are different from you and me. Work is not the same. Risk is not the same either.

Around the same time that Bill Sizemore was having his mop-topped head handed to him in the 1998 gubernatorial election, I had lunch with a local millionaire, whose name you would know. I asked him how much of his wealth came from his family, and how much from his own endeavors.

He complimented me for asking the question so directly, but said it wasn’t a good one. “It’s a false distinction,” he said. “I can take risks that others can’t, because of that ‘other’ money. I don’t have to worry about feeding my family by the risks I take.”

Which brings me finally to Gingrich’s harebrained moon colony proposal. (It’s not a bad idea. I just couldn’t resist one more homonymed hair reference.)

Gingrich proposed one tenth of NASA’s flight budget be set aside for X-Prize-style contests. $1 billion would be a powerful lure for private industry to develop inventive new solutions. President Obama’s “Race to the Top” prize program uses the same strategy to speed education reform. Gingrich wants to extend that model to engage the private sector.

We need a space prize, but also a battery prize, a commuter hovercraft prize, a make-your-own smartphone prize. The smallest government contribution to America’s biggest problems will allow all of us to claim victory when they are solved.

Railroads made people rich, but we all got connected. Steel made people rich, but we all got cars. Some millionaires get inventive with land trusts and faculty endowments and heritage projects, but others lack imagination.

The problem isn’t that the rich have too much money. It’s that government hasn’t pointed them toward important or interesting things to do with their resources. And so they use their money like Romney has — only for the barren and boring purposes of making more of it, and not parting with what they have.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs. Diana Drake has cut his hair since 1998.