10 January 2010

Ayn Rand Applauds When the Plane Lands

Russians passengers have a habit of applauding when an airplane lands. This is a peculiar habit from the Western perspective.

Russians have explained to me that this is their way of congratulating the pilot on a "job well done." In the West, we expect the plane to touch down safely. It is considered normal for the pilot to do his job, namely to land the plane without killing, injuring, or otherwise harming passengers in the process.

This points to one of the biggest differences between Russians and Westerners that I have encountered. In the West, there are certain institutions that folks take for granted. Examples are food and drug safety or police that is, at the minimum, difficult to bribe. In Russia, there are no such expectations. Basically, caveat emptor.

Whereas the Soviet Union offered a towering state with deep reaches into individuals' lives, the new rule seems to be that the individual is responsible for himself. Ayn Rand, having left Russia in 1926 in disdain of the Bolshevik ideals, probably would be proud of Russia in 2010. The modern Russian pharmacy experience is illustrative of this point.

In the US, the pharmacy is typically part of a larger store, and it is tucked in the back almost as if it is an effort to hide an embarrassment. Very much in a Soviet style, the patient approaches an official in a white uniform and submits a prescription from yet another official in a white lab coat. Then, the consumer provides rationing information as mandated by the insurance bureau. Often, not all things go well and the patient must trudge through a few more bureaucratic hoops and hurdles to get access to what may be a life-saving medicine. However, the patient is fairly certain that he will get the right medicine and that the medicine is safe to use.

In Russia, pharmacies are modern, elaborate retail chains. There is no "back of the store." The customer goes in, specifies what he wants, and gets it on the spot. There are no doctors to intervene and no insurance company hassles. Most surprisingly, Russian retail drug prices are generally lower than insured prices in the US. The experience is refreshingly efficient and liberating. But that freedom comes at a price: Caveat emptor.

In one particular pharmacy, I asked for anti-inflammation medicine. I received what I wanted, but then pharmacist pitched some allegedly Icelandic potion to me that would apparently help me "think better." While there is probably an insult somewhere in the pharmacist's recommendation, the pitch is rather amusing. I like to think that drug companies have pitched all that they possibly could have pitched to me in the US, ranging from blue pills that are intended to cause priapism (aka runaway erections) to cures for restless leg syndrome (I think regular exercise would be the cure for most people); but, no one has yet pitched a "better brain" medicine. If anything, this is entrepreneurial genius - but I digress.

I told a close Russian friend about this experience and indicated that the pitch seemed reckless and that the product was a potential health hazard. I then asked if the equivalent of the FDA existed in this country. My friend said, with some conviction, "In Russia, we believe that the individual should look after himself."

Assuming that there is no irony in this statement, it explains the delight of the average Russian when the plane touches down safely. Caveat emptor, because there is no big brother watching over you. And thus, safety is a happy surprise. Now that I think of it, I am certain that Ayn Rand would be amongst the most joyous passengers.

1 comment:

  1. Reminds me of gaping construction holes in the streets on a recent trip to Oaxaca. Unimaginable to have such a thing in the US -- imagine all the lawsuits!! -- but it makes complete sense that people should look where they're going as they walk down the street. I suppose the trick is to find a good balance...