What Shaving Taught Me About Capitalism

A couple months ago, I ran into an article on TechDirt that linked to another guy’s post on his personal blog, both making the same ridiculous point: Shaving technology hasn’t really improved since World War II.

Anybody who watches sports in real time (when you can’t fast-forward through the commercials) knows this is crazy. For decades, shaving has had a “revolution” every two or three years: disposables, cartridges, comfort strips, double-blade, triple-blade, and now even 5-blade cartridges. Each revolution makes shaving a little more expensive, but it achieves the perfect comfort and safety that the previous revolution fell short of.

Or so the ads say.

But these guys on the internet were saying that all the revolutions were just marketing nonsense, and that I (and just about every other male on the planet) had been taken in by it. Shaving itself hadn’t gotten any safer, easier, or more comfortable since the last few bugs were worked out of the double-edged safety razor, a technology that is more than a century old.

All these “improvements”, they claimed, had only two purposes:

  • to create a patentable technology that would protect the manufacturer from generic competition for another 20 years or so.
  • to provide a marketing gimmick that would make men fork over big bucks for a product no better than one they could buy cheaply.

That couldn’t be right. Could it?

Reclaiming the way of my ancestors. It’s actually not that simple to find out. My local supermarkets and drug stores sell double-edged blades if you look hard enough for them — they get one hook in the whole shaving aisle — but the razors they fit into are nowhere. No worries, though, that’s what the internet is for: I got a perfectly functional razor (in the old butterfly style my Dad used) for about $20. That lone hook in my supermarket carries 5-blade packs for $2. Above it, rows of 8-packs of Gillette Fusion cartridges go for $32.

Do the math: 40 cents apiece vs. $4 apiece. Even for somebody like me (who goes bearded in the cold half of the year) that could add up.

But what about the experience and the quality of shave? You have to hold the handle at a slightly different angle (because the double-edged blades sit perpendicular to the handle rather than being angled like the cartridges), and that takes a day or two to get used to. After that, in my opinion, the “improved” 21st-century razor is no better and might even be worse.

Connoisseur shaving. Once you start browsing through shaving web sites, you quickly discover the other side of the market: straight-razor shaving, like the old-fashioned barbers did before King Gillette (his real name, apparently) invented his double-edged blades. (BTW, it turns out this great American entrepreneur was a utopian Socialist.)

Today, straight-razor shaving is a way for a man to establish his connoisseur identity, and it carries a comparable price tag. A high-class straight razor can set you back hundreds. Then you need a leather strop, and the perfect brush and bowl to mix your special shaving soap, and on and on.

Upper-crust malls have a chain of shops called The Art of Shaving, many of which include a barber chair where a straight-razor professional can demonstrate proper technique.

Does it make a difference? I got the cheap cousin of the classic straight razor — a $19 arm-and-handle that holds half of a double-edged blade. Straight-razor shaving turns out to be like driving a manual transmission or baking a cake from scratch. It takes some learning, there’s a certain satisfaction to mastering it, and even if you never do it again, you’ll have a deeper appreciation of what’s really going on when you shave.

Here’s the deeper appreciation I got: All blade shaving comes down to covering your face with something slick, and then dragging something sharp across it. You can improve by making the slick stuff slicker or the sharp thing sharper, but pretty soon you’ve gone as far as you can go. Beyond that, it’s all marketing.

Profit margins. So let’s review. Shaving has basically been a solved problem for at least half a century. By the 1970s the patents on those solutions had expired, and nothing of importance has been invented since. In a sensible world, all men would know this and the factories would focus on delivering cheap high-quality double-edged razor blades.

That didn’t happen because it wouldn’t have made anybody rich. Since a standardized, patent-expired product like the double-edged razor can be made cheaply by anybody, the profit margin is too small to buy Super Bowl ads or pay stupendous CEO salaries.

So instead, the market has gone two ways. The mass market has kept research labs busy churning out phony “improvements” that generate market-protecting patents and give advertisers something to work with. And vast amounts of money have been spent persuading men (successfully!) that there’s something new worth paying up for and something primitive about the double-edged safety razor.

For men who have caught on to that game, a connoisseur market sells expensive shaving paraphernalia to bolster an overclass identity. So whether you’re a mass-market Gillette-Fusion-type guy or a connoisseur wielding a buffalo-horn-handle Damascus-steel-blade straight razor, you support a market with high profit margins.

Computers, razors, and public schools. This isn’t a personal-care blog, so I didn’t tell you any of that because I think you care about shaving. Instead, I believe there’s a lesson here about capitalism and politics.

Whenever we have a public discussion about the virtues of the free market, we always end up talking about computers. Computers keep getting better and lighter and faster and cheaper because that’s what the market does; it forces everybody to improve or die.

So we’re always promised that if we turn the magic of the free market loose in some new area — if we get rid of public schools, say, and let the market educate our kids, or if we stop regulating healthcare and let hospitals, doctors, and insurance companies compete freely — we’ll see the same incredible progress we’ve seen in computers. Everything will get better and cheaper in ways no one can imagine now.

But how do we know that the education market or the healthcare market won’t turn out to be like shaving? What if, instead of low prices and spectacular improvements, we get high prices funding marketing campaigns that obscure and denigrate the low-profit-margin solutions that already exist and actually make sense?

Realistically, it could go either way. Neither the computer market nor the shaving market is an invention of some political propagandist. Both exist in the same economy.

Capitalism is double-edged that way. Sometimes the market inspires scientists and engineers to build a better mousetrap. But sometimes it’s the advertisers who turn out to be slicker and sharper than the rest of us.

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Comments

  • DanB  On July 16, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    Healthcare market? Did someone say healthcare market? Have a look at the recent history of cholesterol drugs (so-called “statins”, like Lipitor), or acid reflux medications (“proton-pump inhibitors”, or PPIs). I think you’ll find a similar pattern there.

    • weeklysift  On July 18, 2012 at 3:04 pm

      In my earlier draft I mentioned the prison market as a third example, but I took it out because the we-don’t-know note I was ending on was totally inappropriate there. We know: The prison industry will do its damnedest to make sure we keep locking up as many people as possible, whether it makes sense or not.

  • Rhett  On July 17, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    There’s one thing I’d like to mention in your musings on shaving. While it is definitely true that the market for straight razor shaving has catered to luxury and high-class buys, it’s also the case that it’s very easy to become a straight razor shaver without falling into that.

    I’ve shaved with a straight razor since 2007. My razor is basic steel and the handle is plastic. I got the strop free with purchase, and ultimately bought a paddle with both a strop and a sharpening stone. There’s nothing fancy about the brush. I swiped my wife’s “Xena: The Warrior Princess” coffee mug to use as my shaving mug. Her friends like to giggle about the fact that my shaving mug says “Worship me like the Goddess I am!”

    My total outlay for my shaving kit is less than the price of most of those straight razors you point to. It is a bit of an up-front outlay, but the razor and strop/stone will last me for the rest of my life, and the brush probably will, too. I’ve used these tools exclusively for five years, and the only new shaving purchases I’ve made is for bars of shave soap.

    I don’t want to get into a hardcore dollar-for-dollar contest on total cost of ownership, but I do want to simply dispel the notion that straight razor shaving is strictly for conspicuous consumption.

    • weeklysift  On July 18, 2012 at 3:01 pm

      Rhett: Thanks for your insight. My point wasn’t that you can’t shave cheaply with a straight razor, it’s that (as in the razor blade market) the wind doesn’t blow that way. It takes a considerable presence of mind to focus on what’s important and not let the marketing trick you.

  • Kim Cooper  On July 21, 2012 at 11:40 pm

    Sometimes, the market passes by things that were perfectly good but didn’t get enough chance to catch on. Sometimes, only the version that “most” people want exists because the minority who likes it another way is too small. The market does a lot of distorting rather than meeting the needs of people.

  • Callum  On August 11, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    I’m so glad to see you expand this discussion here, and thanks for referencing my blog. Love this line, “Capitalism is double-edged that way.” Cheers!

  • McDuff  On November 12, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    The straight razor users get advantage and they’re quite skilled(i admit it). Using this Knife isn’t easy, i tried quite a few time, and every single time ended up cutting my skin. However, there’s a guy i know can use all types of razors. And i believe that’s quite amazing :)

Trackbacks

  • By Shady Lane « The Weekly Sift on July 16, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    [...] What Shaving Taught Me About Capitalism. Forty years ago, the shaving problem was more-or-less solved, but the patents were expiring and nobody was going to get rich any more. So now we have “improved” razors that are no better, but ten times as expensive. How come that never comes up when we talk about unleashing the magic of the free market? [...]

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