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.

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