Dentists in the United States earn on average a bit more than $200,000 a year. This is roughly twice the average in other wealthy countries like Canada and Germany, although still less than the $250,000 average for doctors. Their pay is more than 13 times what a minimum wage worker would take home in a year.
The conventional story for this sort of inequality is that dentists have highly valued skills in today's economy, whereas most minimum wage workers don't. As an alternative, let me suggest that we have a whole array of policies, from trade, immigration, labor, and monetary policies that are designed to keep the pay of minimum wage workers down. By contrast, dentists and other highly paid professionals are winners from these policies. (Yes, this is the topic of my [free] book Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Are Structured to Make the Rich Richer.)
The Washington Post had a piece on the limited access to dental care in many parts of the United States, focusing on a small town in rural West Virginia. While it is an interesting piece, one of the items that is striking is that it never once mentions the possibility of bringing in more foreign dentists to alleviate the shortage it describes and to bring down the price of dental care. (Yes, that means dentists get paid less.)
The Post has run many pieces over the years on how immigrant workers are needed to ensure an adequate supply of farm labor, high tech workers, and even seasonal workers at vacation resorts. It is a bit hard to understand why it would not occur to its reporters and editors to see foreign workers as a possible route for alleviating a shortage of dentists.
This is especially striking since the United States has strong protectionist barriers in place that raise the cost of dental care. We prohibit dentists from practicing in the United States unless they graduate from a US dental school. (We recently have allowed graduates of a limited number of Canadian dental schools to practice in the US also.)
It is absurd to imagine that there are not tens of thousands of well-qualified dentists in places like Germany, France, and other countries. Many would likely welcome the opportunity to double their pay by working in the United States, at least for a few years, if not their whole career.
Needless to say, we can count on much more genuflecting in the Post and elsewhere about designing policies that can reverse inequality. It's fascinating to see how they refuse to ever discuss the policies that cause inequality.