The United States health care system is very much in the news, and it is a silly system indeed. How silly? Silly enough that the same product, the now-generic drug Lipitor, varied in price from $2.50 per day to $.38 per day at the time I wrote this blog. Insurance? No! List price. With insurance it's about a penny a day. With all the economic distortions created by the insurance companies, benefit managers, governments, and meddlers of all persuasions, one might not be shocked by this disparity. (And one might. I certainly am.) But, unaccountably, we sort of expect, understand, and continually fight about various aspects of this system, with the attendant waste of time, energy, and thought that we really need to accord to North Korea, for much better reasons.
Fortunately, commerce, apart from the benighted pharmaceutical industry operates more rationally, and prices of commodity products, e.g., foodstuffs, hardware, and motor fuels trade within a modest range.
Or Do They?
Despite my avowed preference for chocolate, I do have an odd fruit addiction. Every morning I consume a semi-banana. Bananas* come from stores; they cost about $.65 to $.90 per pound, depending upon whether they're organic or mined, and whether they're on sale. Or so I believed until I had two encounters on a recent trip.
I went to New Jersey, as I frequently do, to meddle at work. Feeling a bananalack, and in need of other items,I took advantage of a trip to the local Costco. (Walking distance! Is America great or what?) I found that unlike in other stores, bananas come in prepackaged, indivisible bunches, whose quantity was far in excess of what I could possibly consume during the remainder of my New Jersey stay. But the bananalack was upon me, and I reasoned that I could bestow the balance of the bunch on others at my place of striving. I hoisted the bunch into my cart, and was astounded to find at checkout the total price for three pounds (eight bananas) was only $1.39. I do like Costco!
Needless to say, sufficient unto the balance of the New Jersey segment of the trip were the bananas thereof. Then it was off to Las Vegas for the NAB—National Association of Broadcasters—convention. The hotel most convenient to the Las Vegas Convention Center is the Westgate Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. It used to be a pretty decent hotel, a member of the Hilton chain. At our first NAB, back in the mid-'70s, we exhibited our wares at the hotel instead of on the convention floor. Beginner's luck, perhaps, but we somehow ended up in a beautiful suite on the same floor as the major networks, all of whom had lavish food and snacks for their customers. Fortunately, they didn't know we weren't their customers. Fast forward a few decades, and the hotel hasn't changed much. And hasn't been maintained much, either. Which is fine with me; the point of hotel room luxury escapes me when one is there only to work and sleep. But there was a problem. Apparently people still smoke cigarettes, and "the only room left," which was offered to me when I checked in around 01:00, was a "smoking room." On a "smoking floor." Yes, I know this is a blog about bananomics, not about being exposed to extremely stale and pervasive cigarette smoke, so I won't mention that again. Even so, Yecch, as they used to say in Mad Magazine.
An interesting "feature" of the hotel is their protestation of being "green." (Green and greed differ by a single letter, and the hotel may simply have misspelled the latter in their in-room screed.) The manifestation of both was their offer of a ten-dollar voucher if one forgos housekeeping services on a given day. The voucher is good for food at a couple of stands in the hotel lobby. Not being above greed myself, and preferring food to the doubtful benefits of changing sheets that, when unfurled, would immediately be bathed in carcinogens, I took them up on the voucher offer.
Based on my experience counting time impatiently as a hotel room was serviced, and my guess at the cost of replacing the amenities** and the overhead of laundry, wear, etc., I believe that the $10 voucher saves the hotel about $20-$30 in expenses. It would be better, of course, if the hotel bill simply reflected their savings, but that's not how it works. Rather, consider that the $10 voucher actually costs the recipient about $25.
Behold the $3 Banana
Well, not exactly $3. If I bought it with cash money from the stand in the hotel lobby, just a few hundred feet from the stand in the lobby with $2 bananas, I could compare that with the bananas in the bunch below from Whole Foods that cost $1.39. Remember, though, that I gave up an estimated $25 worth of services for my $10 voucher. The economic cost of the banana, therefore, is 3*(25/10), or $7.50.
On the other hand, the organic banana bunch on the right of the photograph cost all of $1.39. Organicity only doubled the cost of the bunch compared to Costco, whose was twice the size. I foolishly neglected to photograph the (apparently) mined bananas, so you'll have to take my word for it.
Completing the cost calculations, then, we have:
Costco: $1.39/8, or $.174 cents/banana
for a ratio of about 43/1!
Not quite the luxurious variation exhibited by at least one common pharmaceutical, but they're working on it.