August 30, 2005

Try a toothbrush

OK, I've little problem with saying that US healthcare could be quite improved, but I just couldn't get up much sympathy for some of the subjects of Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker report:

People without health insurance have bad teeth because, if you’re paying for everything out of your own pocket, going to the dentist for a checkup seems like a luxury. It isn’t, of course. The loss of teeth makes eating fresh fruits and vegetables difficult, and a diet heavy in soft, processed foods exacerbates more serious health problems, like diabetes.

Wait a second. A toothbrush and toothpaste cost next to nothing. Same with dental floss. Same with a little Listerine. My family didn't have dental insurance (or even much health insurance) when I was growing up, so my parents -- in particular my father -- made damn well sure we took good care of not only our teeth, but our general health. If people like those in Gladwell's anecdotes aren't bright enough to brush regularly, they probably aren't bright enough to eat those needed healthy "fresh fruits and vegetables" either.

The pain of tooth decay leads many people to use alcohol as a salve. And those struggling to get ahead in the job market quickly find that the unsightliness of bad teeth, and the self-consciousness that results, can become a major barrier. If your teeth are bad, you’re not going to get a job as a receptionist, say, or a cashier. You’re going to be put in the back somewhere, far from the public eye. What Loretta, Gina, and Daniel understand, the two authors tell us, is that bad teeth have come to be seen as a marker of “poor parenting, low educational achievement and slow or faulty intellectual development.” They are an outward marker of caste.

But it most likely is a sign of poor parenting (and/or low educational achievement, etc.) if you have bad teeth because having bad teeth ("bad" meaning rotting due to lack of proper care/hygiene) plain means you're just not very bright. Or just plain lazy. Bottom line. (Notice I said "most likely" because certainly there are exceptions where even if one does properly care for their teeth some problems may arise.) And don't tell me "there's not enough education" about proper tooth care out there.

Further making my point is Gladwell's silly lead paragraph which describes tooth decay in depth ("Slowly, the bacteria works its way through to the dentin, the inner structure, and from there the cavity begins to blossom three-dimensionally, spreading inward and sideways.") -- tooth decay that simple twice-a-day brushing would prevent.

Good arguments are out there for improved US healthcare, but Gladwell's ain't one of them. In essence, he wants us all to pay for people's stupidity and laziness, which, come to think of it, is pretty much how our healthcare system works now. Y'know, people who eat like crap, smoke, drink like a fish -- they have this "right" to gratis or cheap healthcare, even though most of us out there actually try to take of ourselves and thus would rarely make use of the system the Gladwells would have us all share.

(h/t: Taranto.)

Posted by Hube at August 30, 2005 08:19 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

An inability to feel compassion for others isn't exactly something to brag about, Hube. Some people (including me) have very soft tooth enamel because of antibiotics our mothers took while we were in utero. I have brushed twice a day since I was old enough to hold a toothbruth, and Waterpicked besides, but my molars all developed decay anyway. As Gladwell points out elsewhere in the article -- which also includes some very compelling statistics about how grossly inefficient our quasi-socialized health care system is compared to some fully socialized systems -- some people without health insurance (such as victims of drunk drivers, people with inherited conditions, etc.) suffer not through poor choices but plain old bad luck. Some of us feel the standard conservative answer of "tough shit" shouldn't be good enough.

Posted by: Al Mascitti at September 2, 2005 12:10 PM

Play me the violin, Al. You missed this line: (Notice I said "most likely" because certainly there are exceptions where even if one does properly care for their teeth some problems may arise.) Obviously, your situation falls into this category.

I also say this: Good arguments are out there for improved US healthcare, but Gladwell's ain't one of them.

Need I go out there and list all the pitfalls of a fully socialized healthcare system, too?

You're sounding an awful lot like Garrett with the holier-than-thou "I have more compassion" nonsense.

Posted by: Hube at September 2, 2005 05:51 PM

Al: yes or no -- will simple daily dental hygiene prevent tooth decay? Even you have to admit that Gladwell was over the top in making the case for universal healthcare with his in-depth description of rotting teeth and the personal anecdotes that followed.

Posted by: Hube at September 2, 2005 06:31 PM

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