The other day I took my two younger kids for their regular dental checkup, and our long-time dental hygenist, Sue, said to me, in disbelief, that kid #3’s teeth actually looked pretty straight, compared with kids #1 and #2, who have already been through two palate expansions and three sets of braces between them, and compared with kid #4’s dental situation, which Sue always refers to as something like a “major excavation and reconstruction project” ahead…
Let me pause here to say that having already paid for three sets of braces on just two kids, I often wonder if orthodontics are a way of giving families “practice” in paying outrageous bills–i.e., practice for (or prevention of?) paying for college. It was at the time kid #2 was about to get her second set of braces, that I first realized that this “double braces” treatment that I had agreed to before she got her first set of braces, was going to be double the cost. Of course, I had to swallow hard and pay the bill, but as an economist and not just a mom, I was left wondering if early orthodontic treatment makes economic sense for anyone but the orthodontist. Does one end up spending double the money for the same ultimate result? Or is the result that much better that it’s worth paying for the early treatment? Anyone out there know?
…Well, back to kid #3’s story: Sue the hygenist asked what the orthodontist had said about kid #3, because although kid #3 looked pretty good, it wasn’t completely perfect, and I happily reported that the orthodontist said this kid would NOT need braces, and if the orthodontist himself is saying that, you know it would be totally frivolous to spend all that money to correct very minor imperfections in kid #3’s teeth. I went on to say, with a laugh, ”well, I’d get braces for myself before I’d get braces for her–you know how messed up my teeth are.”
But afterwards I realized that no, I wouldn’t really get braces for myself before I’d get braces for my almost-orally-perfect kid #3. I wouldn’t do that, because that would seem even more frivolous–not because my teeth couldn’t objectively use some fixing, but because I’m too old and far along in my life to make straightening my teeth a wise investment. Heck, my teeth are awful in more ways than how far from straight they are; I’ve had so many root canals and crowns since age 40 that I’m convinced I’m not that far away from having all my teeth fall out. And how would I ”use” straight teeth?… I know I’m not going into a career in show business, despite the unusual movie stardom of my boss, Bob Bixby.
(My own parents had already done the cost-benefit analysis on my orthodontic situation when I was a kid, and when my younger sister was so obviously in greater need of braces than I–so she got them, and I did not. My parents were not economists, but they’ve always been better at family/home economics than I am. They knew how to budget as if there were constraints, because they had them (they were working in academia as underpaid scientists)…)
But kid #3, well, she could very well become a movie star someday….she’s danced at the Kennedy Center twice after all (I’m sneaking in the brag book)… or even if she doesn’t, she’s young and has her whole, pretty life ahead of her! The marginal lifetime benefit to perfecting her teeth is way higher than the marginal lifetime benefit to fixing mine, if only because she has a lot more lifetime left.
All parents know that spending money on one’s children never feels quite as frivolous as spending money on oneself. I know that pretty much anything that my kids don’t immediately consume–and I mean literally consume, as in EAT–I think of as worthwhile investments. (Come to think of it, I justify buying that more expensive, organic food for them at Whole Foods, as an investment, too.) The thousands of dollars spent on my kids’ music lessons, ballet school, sports, all sorts of camps, their hobbies (kid #2 is a great photographer), etc.–all wise spending that gives my kids a “richer experience” with life that will make them better, more productive, happier adults. (That is why the term “enrichment” is such a great way to get parents to spend money.)
There might be a little bit of irrationality in how parents do the cost-benefit analysis when it comes to their kids (more on this in many future posts), but I think parents do the intergenerational math much better than the government does. Becoming a parent makes one a lot more far-sighted and forward-looking (even with the occasional banana-peel slip ups), while the politicians and policymakers seem to only see as far as the current electorate and immediate distractions (banana peels all around). As a public finance economist and a mom, for years I’ve felt that the government invests too little in the human capital of the young (i.e., in their education and health care), while government spends too much on the pure consumption of the old, whether that be subsidies for old industries that don’t need them, or tax cuts for really rich, old people who have just transitioned to being really rich, dead people. As a society, it’s not a wise investment strategy and doesn’t maximize social, lifetime net benefits. It makes as much sense as my getting braces.