The economics of bad breath

21st January, 2006

Dear Economist,
My dentist tells me that I should floss, but what do you think?
William Henderson, Virginia

Dear William,

You may be misremembering John Maynard Keynes’ famous wish that economists should aspire to be thought of “as humble, competent people on a level with dentists”.

I don’t think Keynes ever believed that economists should become dentists. Fortunately for you, Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, thinks otherwise.

Professor Caplan’s dentist, like yours, is quick to list the benefits of flossing in rather vague terms. No doubt the benefits are real. But are they greater than the costs? Flossing is tedious, uncomfortable and undignified. You can quantify the costs of a lifetime of flossing for yourself: I suggest that you ask your dentist to quantify the benefits before you make a decision.

Professor Caplan’s dentist didn’t seem to understand the question, so Caplan turned to the scientific journal Nature for enlightenment.

It turns out that dentistry itself may not be as useful as Keynes believed: regular dental checkups are likely to give you no more than five extra teeth when you’re 75 – assuming you live that long. This is a modest and distant reward for a lifetime of being drilled.

Of course, this column shouldn’t be mistaken for informed medical advice. Neither Caplan nor I know a thing about dentistry. But I believe that if economists make a bit of an effort to understand dental health and hygiene, the dentists should meet us half way and produce that cost-benefit analysis.

You may think this is missing the point: flossing also helps to produce more kissable breath. Perhaps most economists feel that bad breath is the least of our worries.

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