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Opinion: Inflation under the pillow

Circa 1955: Bobby, whose two front teeth dropped out recently, with his twin brother Jerry.
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Circa 1955: Bobby, whose two front teeth dropped out recently, with his twin brother Jerry.

Children of America who may feel trapped by NPR in the back seat of the family car, or at the breakfast table — listen up! You may be chomping on a gold mine.

Delta Dental's annual poll of parents reveals this week that the average amount the Tooth Fairy slips under the pillow in exchange for a child's lost tooth has climbed to $6.23 — a 16% jump!

Justin Wolfers, the esteemed economist at the University of Michigan, told us, "The children of America are getting what their parents are not: Pay rises that more than compensate for inflation."

(Inflation, you may have heard on this very network, is at 6.4%.)

Professor Wolfers cites several factors in the skyrocketing Tooth Index.

For one, the supply of teeth in a child's mouth is limited, finite and non-renewable.

"Each child, despite the rising incentives offered by the tooth fairy, still only loses 20 teeth," he reminds us. "And even that takes 10-12 years."

Then he notes there is what economists call excessive concentration. The Tooth Fairy is a monopoly. There is no Tooth Elf — or Toothlestiltskin — a child can turn to for a higher price.

"For far too long," says the professor, "the Tooth Fairy has managed to force kids to accept low prices, and made parents willing accomplices."

The Tooth Fairy used to slip a dollar or one euro coin under the pillows of our daughters when they lost a tooth. As I look back on it now: how miserly. I wonder if our 16-year-old can still file a federal suit to charge she was underpaid by that robber baron of children's teeth who cloaks themselves under the whimsical name, Tooth Fairy. To the ramparts!

And finally, notes Professor Wolfers, "losing a tooth is no longer a carefree rite of childhood passage." Young people today must worry about social security and other government programs running out of money before they need it.

"That tooth is a key part of their financial futures," he explains. "It's little wonder that little tykes are asking big bucks for them."

Professor Wolfers predicts that "the tooth market will normalize," if Congress can act to reduce the national deficit, and develop a bipartisan plan to save social security from bankruptcy.

Parents all over America might rally for Congress to reach that deal now. Save Social Security! And break the Tooth Fairopoly!

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.