Hairdos and Mr. Shultz

Hairdos are not exactly a hot topic of comment by the US Secretary of State. So when Mr. Shultz chooses to make an issue about them the American public should have more than just a passing interest. It seems that Americans spend an average of $35 per person per year for barbershops and beauty parlors. And $104 per person per year for TV and radio sets and $21 per person per year for flowers and potted plants. Yes? The point is that they spend only $43.91 per person per year (in tax dollars) for all US security and economic aid programs in the developing countries.

You guessed it. Mr. Shultz thinks the United States should and could spend more on foreign aid. As he told the Southern Center for International Studies in Atlanta, ''every American must understand that it's necessary to spend a fraction of our collective resources to secure our most precious goals of freedom, economic well-being, and peace.'' This is the message he is taking around the country in an effort to get the administration's $14.5 billion foreign aid package for fiscal 1984 through the US Congress.

Unfortunately, the attitude of many lawmakers seems to be, ''Oh, no, not foreign aid again.'' With millions of Americans out of work, with many tragically losing their homes as well as jobs, it is felt the public will not support increased US generosity abroad. Indeed, Congress has not passed a foreign aid appropriations bill for two years (opting, instead, for temporary bills).

How wise, however, is such a ''we first'' attitude?

Mr. Shultz, an economist and former corporate leader, knows whereof he speaks. America's economic growth hinges in part on the ability of the developing countries to buy US products - on an expansion of trade, in other words. Exports of goods and services now account for an increasing share of the US gross national product and two-fifths of these exports go to developing countries. Many domestic jobs are thus dependent on growth in the third world. But the developing countries - the so-called LDCs - cannot buy goods from the West and carry out their development plans in the face of worldwide recession and huge debts. After three decades of unprecedented progress, LDC growth this year will be about 1 percent to 1.5 percent, the lowest since 1950.

Steps are underway to buttress the lending resources of the International Monetary Fund in order to prevent a global financial collapse, and the US is asked to do its share. Beyond this, however, more bilateral and multilateral aid is required. This is not to absolve the poorer nations of making better use of assistance and of improving management of their economies. There are, to be sure, countless tales of misused and wasted foreign aid. But the overall record is one to be proud of. Present circumstances, moreover, demand an extra measure of humanitarianism. Commodity prices have dropped to such an extent that many LDCs are unable to cope. With fewer and fewer funds, they are forced to cinch their belts, cutting back on imports and domestic investment. Besides contracting the world economic pie, extreme austerity could lead to political instability - and, as the US secretary warns, threaten US strategic interests as well.

The President's $14.5 billion aid package is not a munificent sum, representing only a modest increase in development assistance. The biggest increases are in military grants and loans. A large share of the total aid, moreover, goes just to Israel and Egypt. Americans should be concerned that in recent years the United States has not been meeting its commitments to the International Development Association, the World Bank's soft-loan affiliate, and it has long trailed other Western nations in the amount of GNP devoted to economic aid (although, in absolute terms, it remains the largest aid giver).

Mr. Shultz does not ask anyone to stop going to the barbershop or the beauty parlor. Simply to reflect on the fact that Americans, for all their distress, are an extremely affluent people and that foreign aid giving is a bargain which brings them benefits they perhaps were not aware of.

Something to think about, sitting under that hairdryer.

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