Thursday, July 18, 2002

American Prospect's blog and the Star Tribune via Instapundit discuss the fact that the US Senate has passed a law allowing Americans to buy prescription drugs imported from Canada, where they are cheaper. However, the Bush administration will not carry out this plan

because it would endanger public health.... Opponents argue that such drugs could be tampered with, thus posing serious health risks. Senators added a provision to the bill that requires the secretary of health and human services (HHS) to certify that drug re-importation poses "no additional risk to the public's health and safety" and will result in a "significant reduction" in cost U.S. consumers.

Arguing that imported products are of lower quality or do not satisfy local safety regulations or something like that and therefore should not be allowed is of course one of the oldest tricks in the "I'm not a protectionist but..." book of tricks. But what is curious is how similar these "Opponents of..." sound just like politicians who have been bought by the music industry in my native Australia. Several years ago the Australian government passed a law making parallel imports of CDs legal: it is fine for people to buy CDs legally in any foreign country, import them into Australia, and then resell them. Previously only importers authorised by the copyright holder could do this. The record companies just hate this, and their cosy monopoly profits have been eroded. Rather than attempt to defend their distribution monopoly directly, their principal tactic in opposing this has been to insist that it will lead to enormous numbers of pirate CDs being imported into the country.

As far as prescription drugs are concerned, I do not know why the drugs companies, who I really have very little against, want to copy the tactics of organisations as morally bankrupt as the record companies. There actually are serious issues at stake here. If you have countries with radically different intellectual property laws, then it may be justified in prohibiting parallel imports from them. In the case of drugs, countries in the third world are going to be declaring emergencies and manufacturing drugs cheaply under compulsory licenses. It isn't appropriate to allow parallel imports of these drugs into the developed world. However, there is no good justification at all for banning parallel imports from Canada, Japan or Germany. If the drug companies try to do this and so manage to weaken their moral position, they are going to find it much harder to walk the tightrope they need to with respect to Brazil, South Africa and India.
An odd thought. from time to time (such as this afternoon) I sit in Starbucks with my laptop and work on the book I am writing. Starbucks are good, as there are usually power 0utlets in their stores where I can plug in my laptop and recharge its battery while I am working. (I am not sure if it is company policy to provide these, but I suspect so). I buy a coffee, sit down, plug in my laptop and work for two or three hours. In this time, I do not normally get up and have another coffee. This is not because I am cheap - although I am - but is simply because I do not wish to leave my laptop unattended while I get up and buy a coffee. Picking up the laptop, walking to the counter, buying a coffee and then sitting it back down again is simply too much hassle, and if I do this I face the risk of losing the table next to the power outlet to someone else.

Every now and then, a staff member comes along and takes away the empty cups. What I would like is for this person to ask me if I want another coffee, take my money, and then bring me another coffee. Yes, I know that I am asking for waiter service, and Starbucks is a company that minimises staff costs by not providing waiter service. However, what is needed is a sort of limited waiter service which only applies to people having a second or third coffee, or even only applies to people using laptops. What we need is an arrangement where people walk in, buy their first coffee, sit down, and then are waited on from time to time after that. I think the additional staff costs of this would be fairly minimal, and they would certainly sell more coffee to people like me. They have already gone out of their way to be laptop friendly with the power outlets (and the 802.11 wireless networks in some places) and surely this is just a small way to take it further.

I suspect the problem would be that if you offer some table service, then customers would rapidly expect you to offer full table service to everyone and nobody would ever come to the counter. Still, it's a thought.

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