The Economics of Brushing Teeth and the Tooth Fairy

There are many papers with titles in the style of “The Economics of X” with X covering a wide variety of topics, some deadly serious (“Economics of Suicide“) and others more trivial or unintentionally hilarious (“The Economics of Sleep and Boredom” comes to mind). There is a related genre of papers on “The Political Economy of Y,” once again with papers that are both serious and occasionally silly (or sometimes deadly serious papers with silly-sounding titles, such as “The Political Economy of Coffee, Dictatorship, and Genocide“).

But perhaps the best paper of this sort is a 1974 article on the Journal of Political Economy by Alan Blinder, titled “The Economics of Brushing Teeth.” It is, as you might guess, a paper that is somewhat tongue-in-cheek (tongue-in-teeth?), but the paper carefully follows the formal style you would expect from a JPE paper in 1974. I recommend reading the paper in full, and I can assure you that it is not at all like pulling teeth. But if you prefer not to look a gift horse in the mouth, here are a few favorite parts.

The paper is, of course, full of tooth-related puns, even in the footnotes, such as this acknowledgment: “I wish to thank my dentist for filling in some important gaps in the analysis.”

There are also plenty of jokes about human capital theory, jokes that only an economist could love, such as: “The basic assumption is common to all human capital theory: that individuals seek to maximize their incomes. It follows immediately that each individual does whatever amount of toothbrushing will maximize his income.”

Another section manages to poke fun at both sociologists and economists. In reference to a fake paper (no, there is no Journal of Dental Sociology), Blinder chastises the fake sociologist for misattributing a change in brushing patterns (assistant professors brush more) to advancing hygiene standards over time. No! It must be about maximizing income: “To a human capital theorist, of course, this pattern is exactly what would be expected from the higher wages received in the higher professorial ranks, and from the fact that younger professors, looking for promotions, cannot afford to have bad breath.”

And what good is a paper without a formal model of teeth brushing? This is the kind of model that many young economists cut their teeth on in graduate school.

Like I said, read the whole paper, the style is as rare as hen’s teeth in a day when most economics papers are boring and dry. But now, on to the real serious data: the Tooth Fairy and tooth values.

Specifically, many parents want to know: how much is the Tooth Fairy giving to my kids? In recent years, a dental insurance company called Delta Dental has been putting out annual data from a survey of parents they call The Tooth Fairy Index. The most recent release of the data shows that the average price paid to kids is now over $6 per tooth. That’s up almost $1 from last year, and it’s triple the amount from about 20 years ago. As a parent, this number shocked me a little! I don’t know any kids that are getting this amount, but who am I to argue with a survey?

How does the value of a tooth compare to wages? The TFI was first released in 1998 and had an average value of $1.30 per tooth. The average wage in 1998 was about $13 per hour, meaning that it took about 6 minutes of work to pay for the tooth (assuming the Tooth Fairy earns the average wage). Today the average value is up to $6.23, and the average wage is about $28 per hour, meaning it takes about 13 minutes of work to pay for the tooth, more than double in 1998.

I’ve also heard that in some cases, it is not the Tooth Fairy that gives money to children, but actually the parents themselves are stepping in to assist the Tooth Fairy. In those cases, it’s just one more example of where the cost of living (and keeping up with the Dr. Joneses, DDS) is really a kick in the teeth for middle-class families.

2 thoughts on “The Economics of Brushing Teeth and the Tooth Fairy

  1. Zachary Bartsch March 1, 2023 / 3:57 pm

    Neither inflation, nor children per household, nor earners per household increases comparably.
    There are so few years of the index, it’s hard to tell the determinant.


  2. StickerShockTrooper March 1, 2023 / 8:02 pm

    What a lovely find.

    I wonder how the TFI compares with other measures of childhood indulgence. Birthday and Christmas gifts? The cost of birthday parties? The size of Halloween candy bars? I’m pretty sure all of those have been rising faster than inflation.


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