Brush twice daily for a healthier economy

I was planning to write about the Federal Reserve’s bailout of Bear Stearns, but it may come at a surprise that the required reading for such an essay is rather dense and sleep-inducing. Plus, most of us are not in the mergers and acquisition business — yet.

But most of us still find the time to brush our teeth. So I will write about that instead.

To start, I can attest that reading the economic literature on teeth-brushing is actually a lot more fun than flossing, though not quite as fun as grabbing an extra handful of lollipops from the candy jar when your dentist isn’t looking.

All dental economists (which cover orthodontics) will first point you to Princeton professor Alan Blinder’s landmark paper in 1974, which shows much more academic ingenuity than its simple title would suggest, “The Economics of Brushing Teeth.”

His major contribution was developing the two dominant economic theories for why people brush their teeth, which are still used as much today as Advanced Listerine with Tartar Protection Antiseptic Mouthwash, that is to say, it’s used a lot. They are, of course, the “bad taste in one’s mouth” model and the “mother told me so” model.

He goes on to claim that twins on a Wrigley’s chewing gum commercial brush their teeth more than longshoremen (3.17 versus 0.76 times per day) while assistant professors brush their teeth more than full professors (2.14 versus 1.47 times per day). This is all great stuff, until he tries to apply the analysis to “important problems as combing hair, washing hands, and cutting fingernails.” Now that’s just ridiculous.

The next professor — or rather, “an assistant to a professor” — to dare tackle such heady questions was A. Wuffle at University of California, Irvine. In “Should You Brush Your Teeth on November 6, 1984: A Rational Choice Perspective,” he concludes that the main predictor for whether someone brushes his teeth was whether he owned a toothbrush.

“Having purchased a toothbrush, one can brush whenever one thinks it important enough to do so, while the cost of toothbrush purchase can be amortized over a number of brushings,” he said.

While Wuffle and Blinder attract most of the paparazzi (and tedious economic columnists), let’s not forget G. Bradnock at the University of Birmingham. His 2000 paper in Nature, “Total Tooth Loss in the United Kingdom in 1998 and Implications for the Future” claimed among a long list of shockers that the Brits have bad teeth and that dentistry is a boring profession. Oh, and having regular dental checkups will save you, on average, five teeth over your lifetime.

The most recent paper to join this illustrious body of work is “The Economic Value of Teeth,” published last month by Sherry Glied and Matthew Neidell of Columbia University.

Like their forebears, they make some dramatic assertions: “With respect to employment, the anecdotes described above suggest that people who lack teeth may have trouble finding jobs.” They also found that people with better teeth, like those who are taller or prettier or not named Latisha, earn more in the workplace. (Two percent more, to be exact.)

Why should economists worry about restructuring federal regulations of the finance sector when there are so many important questions to be answered in dental-onomics? And don’t get me started on the economics of the Tooth Fairy.

Jerry Guo is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Fridays.

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