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Bad teeth

October 16th, 2007

To consider the possible future of the Australian economy, particularly if the current government stays in office, we should look at the US. One of the striking features of US economic data is that, at least on its face, it shows that most measures of median income (wage rates, household incomes and so on) haven’t changed much in the past thirty years. Here’s a fairly typical example, reporting that American men in their 30s have, on average, lower wages than their fathers did at the same age. Median household income did a bit better in the decades after 1970, because of greater labour force participation by women, but hasn’t shown any any clear increase since about 2000. Average household size may have decreased a little bit. In summary, the general evidence is that the average (median) American depending on labour income hasn’t seen a significant improvement in real income for a long time.

That doesn’t seem to square with casual observation suggesting that consumption of most things by most people has gone up. Of course, savings have declined, but that can scarcely be the whole story. An obvious implication of declining incomes is that, if consumption of some things has gone up, consumption of others must have gone down. This is all the more so, given that there are new items of consumption (computers, for example) that didn’t even exist a few decades go, leaving less for expenditure on goods and services that were available then.

So, I’m always on the lookout for examples suggesting that consumption of some category of good or service has declined in real, quality adjusted terms.

Here’s one example I’ve found. According to the NYT, Americans have worse teeth now than a decade ago.

I’d be interested to know how fluoridation has affected this. My guess is that there was an expansion in the postwar years leading to a “free” (that is, no direct cost to households) improvement in dental health, but that there hasn’t been much change recently. Also guessing, I’d imagine that what’s true of dental health is true of lots of chronic, but not life-threatening health conditions. With declining coverage of private health insurance and tighter conditions for public provisions, a lot of these conditions must be going untreated. Then there’s the striking fact that Europeans are getting taller while Americans are not This seems to be true right up the class spectrum, so a simple explanation based on access to health care and dietary info is problematic. Still, it seems reasonable to put down non-critical health care as a likely example of declining real median consumption in the US.

This Boston Review piece by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi pointed out by Kjohnson in comments, has lots of interesting info, particularly with respect to housing, where median house size hasn’t increased nearly as much as popular discussion suggests. There’s also the huge growth in manufactured homes (aka trailers) to take into account.

Of course, that still leaves plenty of categories where median consumption is increasing. There’s enough here to keep us going for quite a while. Thanks to commenters who’ve already helped.

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  1. mugwump
    October 16th, 2007 at 23:12 | #1

    Two obvious objections: most households now have two incomes where they had one 30 years ago. And the same dollar today buys an awful lot more than it did 30 years ago. In fact, just looking around my lounge room, most of the things in here were either beyond the means of my parents or simply did not exist.

  2. mugwump
    October 17th, 2007 at 00:02 | #2

    A significant difference between Australia and the US on spending patterns comes to mind: education. There is very little public money for private (elementary and secondary school) education in the US, hence the private schools are generally not as good as the good public schools.

    Private US schools tend to operate for specific religious education, not for superior academic outcomes.

    This means US parents have only one way of getting a better education for their children: move into a better (read more expensive) neighbourhood. It also means that if you want the best education for your children you should buy a house in the most expensive neighbourhood you can afford, so housing costs increases are really a proxy for schooling increases.

    Of course a similar situation applies in Australia, but because there is a fair amount of public money in private education, parents in poorer neighbourhoods have the option of sending their kids to a superior private school without needing to move into a more expensive neighbourhood.

    I suspect that 30 years ago parents were somewhat less concerned with living in the best possible neighbourhood for schooling. In the US, desegregation may well have had something to do with changing attitudes and maybe parents are just more aware of the issues today.

  3. jquiggin
    October 17th, 2007 at 06:22 | #3

    Thanks for these useful comments mugwump. I’ve amended the post in response to the first. I’m still thinking about housing.

  4. October 17th, 2007 at 09:03 | #4

    I’m having trouble seeing why the USA is the logical comparison for Australias future. If the comment relates to tax and spend policies then it should be noted that the USA has a higher tax burden than Australia and spends disproportionally more on the military. If we wish to become a low tax nation then surely our future looks more like Hong Kong (except with more space).

    If the concern relates to labour market deregulation then perhaps New Zealand would be a more logical choice. Or we could look to nations like Sweden and Norway that have no minimum wage or Canada that has a decentralised minimum wage.

    I’m not against comparisons with the USA. However I do wonder why it is so often the reflexive point of comparison. How are their teeth in Britian or Spain?

  5. October 17th, 2007 at 11:22 | #5

    This may be of some interest and it is on topic.


  6. Razor
    October 17th, 2007 at 11:34 | #6

    Has anybody else noticed how bad the teeth of people from the UK generally are?

    It’s just an anecdotal observation but I’d be iinterested in any factual backup.

  7. zebbidies spring
    October 17th, 2007 at 14:00 | #7


    There was a visual joke on that very subject in the Jackie Chan vehicle Shanghai Noon II, and I’ve heard catty remarks by US stand-ups on Britischer fang-work.

    I’ve read somewhere that dentition in the US is a semaphore for socio-economic class, more so than clothing and accent . Indeed, if you look at a class photo from one of the Ivy-League colleges, while you get all the varying physical forms of young people (fat, thin, plain, pretty, acned etc) there is a uniform mouthful of long, white, even teeth. Quite startling.

    Conversely, watching the “trailer trash” programs on TV, you will see people with far more (to my eye) normal teeth.

    Or perhaps I’m trailer trash and I have never had some bumptious child of privilege enlighten me.

  8. Steve
    October 17th, 2007 at 14:37 | #8

    Two comments by mugwump:
    “the same dollar today buys an awful lot more than it did 30 years ago.”
    “in poorer neighbourhoods have the option of sending their kids to a superior private school without needing to move into a more expensive neighbourhood.”
    don’t necessarily stack up. Increased access to consumables does not equal increased monetary buying power (note living below the poverty line these days does not preclude owning a car). ‘Superior’ and ‘private’ don’t always go together where schooling is concerned. It’s a question of the conservatives (I refuse to call them liberals) running down public education, but public school-educated students still stick it out at uni, once they get there, longer on average than their private school-educated peers.

  9. mugwump
    October 17th, 2007 at 15:16 | #9

    Steve, I wasn’t claiming private implies superior. The “superior” qualifier was intended to distinguish the superior private schools from the inferior ones.

    There are superior and inferior public or private schools, although the worst public schools are a lot worse than the worst private schools (parents of kids in any private school care about their schooling by definition).

    With the exception of housing, my dollar goes a lot further today than in my parent’s time. We had very little when I was a kid, even though we would have been a little above median income household.

    As for housing: the state governments in Australia have become so bloated with bureaucracy that they can no longer afford the infrastructure needed to make new suburbs livable and those same bureaucrats have a vested interest in stalling all development. Until that is fixed housing will remain unaffordable despite living in the most sparsely populated continent on Earth.

  10. melanie
    October 17th, 2007 at 18:25 | #10

    The Warren & Tyagi article from the Boston Review was fascinating. In short, Americans spend less than they did a generation ago on just about everything except housing. The mortgage, which used to take half of a single income, now takes 70% of a double income. (Also why a 4 ton Cherokee isn’t big enough for a family with three kids. Oh such irresponsible people who dare to have 3 kids!!!) No wonder they’re going bankrupt.

  11. October 17th, 2007 at 19:43 | #11

    I would presume that spending on clothing has gone down quite a bit. Both from freer global markets and increased competitiveness of Japan then China.

  12. Dylwah
    October 17th, 2007 at 19:58 | #12

    “the state governments in Australia have become so bloated with bureaucracy that they can no longer afford the infrastructure needed to make new suburbs livable”

    Ah ha the old bloated bureaucracy trick, well 99 is this one made of hay or luscerne, beats me how they can afford to waste good feed during a drought.

    We all hate B’cracy Mugwump, even when i was a b’crat i hated b’cracy. who are these b’crats that are stalling development, Govt b’crats or corporate b’crats, we can go rock their roofs, bugger some nanny made it compulsory that roofs be able to withstand a category 65 hurracaine and none of the roofs will budge.

    Re teeth tho Prof Q, i found the dentists in LA to be quite intimidating. as a member of the fluride generation i was 40 and had all my teeth bar one and no cavities. yet when i went to the dentist i was double teamed and then triple teamed with visions of disaster if i did not spend upwards of $5,000 right now. i should have lost all my teeth a year ago, they are still there.

  13. dearieme
    October 17th, 2007 at 21:33 | #13

    I’ve always assumed that the lower life expectancy of the Americans compared to other advanced nations is caused by the excessive dental treatment they’ve had.

  14. Graeme
    October 18th, 2007 at 10:34 | #14

    Interesting piece on the BBC world service about the decline of the NHS dental service. Interviewed a bloke who, unable to afford over one hundred quid just for emergency attention at this local dentists, has taken to doing his own dental work. Pulls rotten teeth with pliers; uses hot needles in cavities… Excruciating to listen to, but he was strangely philosophical about it.

  15. Yobbo
    October 19th, 2007 at 17:39 | #15

    The teeth thing is probably also diet-related.

  16. October 20th, 2007 at 21:30 | #16

    Fluoridation has had no beneficial effect on Americans and possibly has contributed to our declining health. The British Medical Journal (October 6, 200) indicates that, of 3200 fluoride/fluoridation studies world-wide, none were scientifically valid. They could find no science that shows fluoridation is safe or effective.

    However, a recent US report by the National Academies reveals science which shows fluoride, ingested at low levels injected into water supplies, has very detrimental health effects.

    If fluoridation were to be stopped in it’s entirely in the U.S. in one day, I’m sure our health statistics would improve markedly. However, our junk food diets don’t help either.

  17. October 21st, 2007 at 23:52 | #17

    Bottled water is often not fluoridated. It’s a bug, not a feature.

  18. Molon Labe
    October 22nd, 2007 at 07:27 | #18

    Re: public schools, as I am not posting with my personal name I’ll be blunt as to the withdrawl of many middle and upper middle class voters from supporting the public schools more strongly.

    I was a product of public schools in the 50s and 60s, one of 5 children in a blue collar, working class family. I got an excellent education, went on to an expensive college education with the help both of scholarships and of loans – and a fair amount of hard work on my part.

    The affirmative action policies of the 1970s combined with teachers unions destroyed that. I voted Democrat for many years, supported antidiscrimination activities and hoped for good things. What happened instead is that a lot of urban mayors and school boards were elected as an entitlement from the Black community – and hired teachers the same way.

    There is no one more unhappy than I about the utter destruction of quality public education in US cities. But I watched middle class voters of all races be pushed aside in the name of affirmative action. Is it any wonder they’ve stopped caring and stopped supporting new initiatives? Our inner city schools in many cases have some of the highest per capita education budgets in the country, and concomittantly some of the lowest achievement.

    It’s a scandal and deeply dangerous to the nation. But to lay it at the feet of uncaring conservatives is to miss the pernicious roots of the problem.

  19. Molon Labe
    October 22nd, 2007 at 07:29 | #19

    And just to be very clear: I am not concerned about Black leaders in political and educational systems.

    I’m concerned about *unqualified* people of any race, religion or whatever being voted into those positions on the grounds that “it’s our turn”.

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