Hello from Abroad!

by Gene Callahan

I’m writing from Zurich with two queries:

1) Having just paid about $4.50 at a tacky cafe for the smallest cup of coffee I’ve ever had, and $20.00 for the smallest can of spray for athlete’s foot that I’ve ever seen, I wonder, does anyone understand how these prices are sustainable? I feel like I could fly back to the US, load up a suitcase with anti-fungal spray, fly back, and make a profit re-selling it here. And don’t they make pharamceuticals here in the first place?! Does the law of one price not apply to Switzerland?

2) Driving through the airport on the way here, I passed under a sign reading ‘Use Both Lanes.’ It struck me as a misguided directive, for to whom is it directed? It isn’t helpful or even legal for the individual driver to ‘use both lanes,’ so apparently it is directed to the collectivity of drivers passing under the sign. But this collectivity has no decision making power: only individual drivers can decide to use one lane or the other, but no one whatsoever has the power to decide ‘Let the drivers evenly distribute themselves amongst the two available lanes’ — which is clearly the aim of the sign. The sign strikes me as a case of mistaking a spontaneous for a planned order.

Any comments?

13 thoughts on “Hello from Abroad!

  1. I’ve heard that it is law in Germany that a driver keep to the right unless passing, on the autobahns, if I recall correctly. I might interpret the sign you saw to override the “keep right” law, in this stretch of highway.

  2. Switzerland has long been like that, and Zurich is an expensive city by global standards. Even back in the days of the strong Mark, the Germans found Switzerland expensive. It’s especially bad now for Americans as the Swiss Franc creeps upward toward parity with the dollar. For a relative food value, try the Zeughauskeller off the Paradeplatz. It takes years for the law of one price to take hold. Look at the Economist’s Big Mac index every year.

  3. Gene, you’re just saying the sign is poorly worded, right? You’re not denying that the sign could indeed have the effect of causing the mass of drivers to distribute themselves evenly, are you?

  4. “the smallest can for athelete’s foot that I have ever seen”

    How big are your feet?

    What are you doing in Zurich, looking for more lost Mises papers?

  5. I realize I have not explained the ‘Use both lanes’ situation sufficiently. What is happening is that there are two lanes approaching the Delta terminal. Everyone crowds into the right lane because they suspect that thusly they will have a better chance of getting a good spot at the curb. And given that everyone is crowded into the right lane, they are correct! Some traffic fellow decided that this was ridiculous, and put up the sign saying ‘Use both lanes.’ But he is trying to solve a Prisoner’s Dilemma by saying ‘Cooperate!’ And it ainät gonna work.

  6. I used to live in Zurich, and yes it is very expensive, particularly for services with a high component of semi-skilled labour, such as getting your hair cut, or buying a cup of coffee. There is also very little competition in retail; there are two super market chains (Migro, and Co-op) and both are very poor compared with British supermarkets, offering over priced, poor quality products. Other retail sectors are the same. I guess that explains the high price of the foot spray.

    I now live in London (where some, but not all, things are more expensive than Zurich). Similarly to your road sign example – sometimes it is announced on the tube that “There will be no trains travelling in both directions on the Jubilee line”. Which is certainly true, but rather unsurprising. I have however noticed that whenever this announcement is made there are no trains travelling in either direction; I think there might be a connection.

  7. I am bit perplexed by your first question. It is exactly sustainable because people like you are sitting in a tacky coffee shop drinking expensive coffee and using expensive antifungal.

    It would not be sustainable if you were able to sit at the less tacky and more affordable coffee shop and use inexpensive no name anti-fungal from the discount pharmacy and write about the overpriced coffees and expensive antifungal others down the street are using.

    The fact that you do not have that option speaks volumes (I am assuming if you had that option, you would have made use of it). As a visitor, either you do not have the time, language skills, inclination or budget constraints to require you investing the time the time to get more bang for your buck OR the local business climate is accurately reflected by your purchases indicating that things are just tackier and smaller in Switzerland and you will likely not find any better options.

    I spent a month living in Zurich as a frugal university traveler (many years ago) and found that that there are many places to get cheap meals (namely bratwurst vendors) and popular drinking establishments with well priced beer.

  8. “I spent a month living in Zurich as a frugal university traveler (many years ago) and found that that there are many places to get cheap meals (namely bratwurst vendors)…”

    Very humorous! The bratwurst vendors were at least twice as expensive as any similar American fast food establishment.

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