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HOME > PAST ISSUE > March-April 2010 > Article Detail

MACROSCOPE

Just-as-good Medicine

Less expensive, lower-quality innovations abound in every economic sector—except medicine

David Kent

The rabbi’s eulogy for Sheldon Kravitz solved a minor mystery for my father: what was behind the odd shape of the juice cups he had been drinking from after morning services for the last few years? Adding a bit of levity while praising his thrift and resourcefulness, the rabbi told of how Sheldon purchased, for pennies on the dollar, hundreds of urine specimen cups from Job Lot, that legendary collection of pushcarts in lower Manhattan carrying surplus goods—leftovers, overproduced or discontinued products, unclaimed cargo. At the risk of perpetuating a pernicious cultural stereotype, for men of my father’s generation like Sheldon, raised during the Great Depression, bargain hunting was a contact sport and Job Lot was a beloved arena. My father, too, would respond to the extreme bargains there with ecstatic automatisms of purchasing behavior and come home with all manner of consumer refuse, including, and to my profound dismay, sneakers that bore (at best) a superficial resemblance to the suede Pumas worn and endorsed by my basketball idol, the incomparably smooth Walt “Clyde” Frazier. My father would insist that such items were “just as good” as the name brands. But we, of course, knew what “just as good” really meant.

In fairness to my father and his friends, from a utilitarian perspective (decidedly not the perspective of pre-adolescents), maximizing the overall good of the family involves economic trade-offs. Money saved from something “just as good” can be reallocated toward items that bring greater benefit than the value sacrificed. Indeed, these types of cost-versus-quality trade-offs are ubiquitous in our economy, and are especially useful when resources are tightly constrained. Those following the long march to health-care reform know that one of the few things beyond argument is that the old approach is unsustainable and threatens to bankrupt the country. Perhaps a little belt tightening and bargain hunting of this sort might make our health-care dollars stretch farther.





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