I think the word "dentist" is funny. This was the point I was trying to make to Ann, my dental hygienist. "Don’t you think the word, ‘dentist’ is funny?" Ann was wrapping dental floss around her fingers. The way Ann skillfully stretched the dental floss and wrapped it around her fingers reminded me of a hired assassin preparing to strangle a Mafia don.
"Don’t you think the word, ‘dentist’ is funny," I said. Ann wasn’t smiling.
"Okay. A man walks into a dentist’s office and says, ‘I think I’m a moth.’" The dentist says, "You’re nuts. You need a psychiatrist. I’m a dentist. Why did you come into a dentist office?" The man replies, "Because I saw the light on."
Ann began to work on my teeth with the piano wire. She sawed it back and forth especially on the lower part of my jaw. "Do you ever floss?" she asked. The tone in her suggested that Ann thought I had committed a crime.
Gary Becker, University of Chicago and 1992 Nobel Laureate suggests that people will commit a crime when they discount the future heavily and the future costs are uncertain. In other words, people commit a crime when the present is more important and they might get away or go unpunished. In the case of flossing, I choose not to floss because I’m in a hurry and by the time plaque and tarter catch up to me, someone might have invented something to cure me. I like to say the costs and benefits of flossing arrive at different times so I compare the present benefits with future costs. Since the future costs are uncertain, I brush my teeth and bounce off to work. Consumers make the same decisions when using their credit cards, criminals make the same decision making process when committing a crime.
According to Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics, if the chance of getting convicted for a crime is low, crime with increase. In this best selling book, Levitt points to the dramatic increase in crime during the 1960’s a time when the likelihood of convicting someone for a violent crime fell. I conclude that when the benefits of crime arrive today and the costs arrive with uncertainty some time in the future, people will engage in risky criminal behavior because the benefits outweigh the costs.
Ann picked up some dental tools and began to scrape at my teeth. My negligence in flossing was making her job harder. In her view, I was receiving all of the benefits of not flossing, but incurring none of the costs. My behavior was a negative externality. I tried to lighten her up. "Ann, don’t you think the word ‘dentist’ is funny?"
Ann glared. I remembered another dentist joke from Playboy.
"A man meets a woman at a bar and they decide to go back to his place. The man makes a drink then washes his hands. The woman says, "You must be a dentist." Surprised, the man says, "Yes!" They go to the bedroom and later the woman says, "You must be a good dentist." Surprised, the man says, "Yes! How did you know?" "Because I didn’t feel a thing."
Ann, I was sure, thought I was trivializing her profession and went back to scrapping microscopic particles of plague from my teeth. She was particularly fond on working on a tooth near the back.
Tim Harford, author of The Undercover Economist, has computed the costs of flossing. According to an article in Slate Magazine, there’s a slim chance that I’ll lose five of my teeth by the time I 75 years of age due to not flossing. Since that’s 26 years away, I’ll take that chance. Dentists and dental hygienists believe that in the case of flossing, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I am not sure that economically, that’s rational. But like I said, the word dentist is funny.