By plane and bus, rail and car, they came: Dr. John Yuetter flew from Oklahoma to see what his keen economic analysis had wrought, while Dr. Aaron Perlut -- mastermind of the whole affair -- came from St. Louis.
From all points of the compass they came in twos and threes, the mustachioed and the mustache-allied, carrying signs and banners and little combs.
It was the Million Mustache March.
On April 1, the bewhiskered gathered in front of the U.S. Capitol to petition their lawmakers on behalf of the "Stimulus to Allow Critical Hair Expenses," aka the 'Stache Act, a proposed $250 tax credit to cover facial hair-related expenses. As the crowd grew from the dozens to the tens of dozens, emotions began to run high: This was about more than a tax break, more than a few measly dollars for wax and combs. It was about pride and awareness, and a chance to make their (slightly muffled) voices heard. As they marched down Constitution Avenue en route from the Capitol to the White House, the chants began:
"Occupy the upper lip!"
"Be brave! Don't shave!"
"What do we want? Mustaches! When do we want them? Now!"
Click through our photos of the Million Mustache March here.
A Hairy Hoax? Not Hardly
In the weeks before the march, the Internet hummed with missives sent out to mustachioed America. That the march was real was not in doubt -- in fact, the letters and press releases were careful to state that "Hell, no, it's not a hoax."
The 'Stache Act, on the other hand, was a different matter.
Dr. Aaron Perlut, chairman of the American Mustache Institute, has long dedicated himself to mustache advocacy -- and, not incidentally, to having fun with the media. Some of the institute's events, like its annual "Stache Bash" and "Robert Goulet Memorial Mustached American of the Year" contest are conducted with tongue firmly in cheek. But other efforts, particularly the institute's series of almost-plausible, seemingly-academic white papers, blur the line between news and satire. Not surprisingly, some of their questionable assertions -- including their claim that Chicago is America's most mustache-friendly city, and their study that showing that that men with mustaches earn 4.3% more than their baldfaced brethren -- have even found their way into the mainstream media's reporting.
The AMI's mix of mustache and myth is hardly accidental: The institute began as an inside joke at Fleischman-Hillard, the public relations firm where Perlut worked. "It was basically a few guys sitting around a table talking about how mustaches had fallen on hard times and we needed to help bring them back," he remembers. "It got out of hand."
But while the AMI's is largely playful, Perlut points out that it has occasionally veered into genuine advocacy. He cites the case of Sebastian Pham, a high school student who called upon the Institute when his school demanded that he shave his mustache. "Sebastian asked us for help and we advocated on his behalf," Perlut remembers. "We got the policy overturned."
And, for all its whimsy, the 'Stache Act has a basis in actual economics. Its underlying policies are outlined in Mustached Americans and the Triple Bottom Line, a surprisingly cogent white paper authored by Yeutter, a professor of accounting and tax policy at Northwestern State University. His argument -- that the financial, social and environmental benefits derived from going mustachioed justify a tax break on the implements that support the hirsute lifestyle choice.
Tax policy aside, the demonstrators came from all points on the political spectrum; for that matter, the AMI's widespread power base is certainly demonstrated by the variety of politicians who have offered measured support for the bill. It got a bemused smile from Mitt Romney, a vague wave from Ron Paul, and an enthusiastic endorsement from Jimmy McMillan, founder of the "Rent Is Too Damned High" party. Legislatively, it even got a little boost from Rep. Roscoe Bartlett: One of the Maryland Republican's staffers passed the 'Stache Act along to the House Ways and Means Committee.
Then again, as Justin Fox, author of The Myth of the Rational Market and editorial director of the Harvard Business Review, noted in an interview with Perlut, if the Act actually passed, it would translate into only about $62 for every mustachioed taxpayer.
Building Alliances with the Un-Stached
While the Million Mustache March was clearly directed at hirsute Americans, one of its greatest allies sports nary a hair on his upper lip. On Sunday, Scott Gulbransen, director of social media for H&R Block, stood at the front of the march, in a place of honor. Gulbransen had spearheaded the plan to make the march a reality. The famed tax preparation company -- which Gulbransen admits has a reputation for being "old and stodgy," had bankrolled the T-shirts, pins, banners and website.
H&R Block isn't the only organization to see its prospects change because of the AMI. On Sunday, the institute partnered with Millions From One, a group dedicated to bringing clean drinking water to poor villages around the world. "We liked their goal of raising funds to dig wells in Africa, and wanted to help," he explains. "We also liked the alliterative way that 'Millions From One' went with our 'Million Mustache March.'"
Alliteration or no, the partnership with Millions From One has some real impact: For every person who marched on Sunday, uploads a mustached photo to the 'Stache Act's Facebook page, or signs a petition in support of the proposed legislation, H&R Block has agreed to make a donation to the charity.
'It's There! It's Hair! Get Over It!'
As it wended its way to the White House, the Mustache March stopped short when a police car, siren blazing, swerved across its path. The marchers halted, their chants went silent. "Do we have a permit?" someone stage-whispered from the middle of the crowd.
The police car cut off its siren as it slowly pulled in front of the column of marchers. Then, with a sharp breeeet!, it began to inch forward, leading the cheering marchers ahead.
"Don't filibuster our cookie dusters!"
"Support our 'staches! Shave our taxes!"
"It's there! It's hair! Get over it!"
Soon, more motorcycle-straddling policemen were blocking side streets, protecting the demonstrators. While the Washington, D.C., police often assist marchers, it was hard to miss the enthusiasm with which the officers joined the parade -- or the thick, brushy mustaches that many were sporting.
Perlut is close-lipped about the AMI's next move, although he is quick to point out the growing popularity of the group. "We have 20,000 people on our mailing list, our website has received hundreds of thousands of visitors, and we have thousands of fans on Facebook," he smiles. "There's a lot of interest in a think tank that revolves around mustaches."
Click through our photos of the Million Mustache March here.
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer and mustache correspondent for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.