Trends

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Santos uses a leased Yellow Cab to run a five-mile route through Houston, picking up passengers along the way who flag him down, for $1.00 per ride. Because Santos both solicits customers (including some who are waiting for city Metropolitan Transit Authority buses) and disregards the city's rate requirements for cabs, his operation violates Houston ordinances. So city authorities are out to nail him-even though Santos's customers appear to be quite satisfied with his service. The $1.00 fare is twice the city-bus base fare but is significantly lower than what regular taxis charge, and Santos's service is much faster than the bus.

Though MTA officials and Houston transit manager Antonio Montelongo are intent on rounding up the transit outlaw, Santos appears to have an ally in city government-one George Greanias, a city councilman who is pushing to reform the city's transit ordinances to allow, among other things, jitney services like Santos's. Of city officials' announced vow to nab Santos, the civil disobedient told the Houston Post "They can try to stop me if they please, but I have no intention of stopping the pesero voluntarily."

Hollywood Happy Over Hot Vid Biz

Videocassette fever is sweeping America, and it looks as if just about everybody is cleaning up. That includes the Hollywood moviemakers who not so long ago feared that booming video sales would seriously depress movie-theater attendance. Anticipating economic gloom, Hollywood's knee-jerk reaction was to seek (unsuccessfully, so far) legislation to control and regulate the video market. That effort is waning, however, now that the studios are beginning to see soaring dividends from the video revolution.

Just five years ago, movie producers earned only negligible income from selling their own videocassettes (or licensing others to make cassettes of the studios' movies), but last year's income from that source reached $625 million-13 percent of Hollywood's total revenues for the year. The nation's 12,000 video dealers, the storefront shops that both rent and sell cassettes (and that hardly even existed five years ago), also did a bang-up business last year, renting out 150 million cassettes and selling 8 million.

Far from depressing attendance at the theaters, video sales and rentals appear to stimulate the public's movie-going interest, on which consumers spent $3.7 billion last year. Theater owners are still somewhat jittery about the effect of home video viewing on movie attendance-by year-end, home videocassette recorders, the machines that play the cassettes on a TV set, are expected nearly to double in number from the 9 million units now owned by Americans. (VCR sales may have gotten a boost by the Supreme Court's ruling, in January 1983, that home videotaping of TV fare does not violate copyright laws.) But some theater owners are themselves catching the fever and are selling videocassettes in their lobbies (a tactic used by X-rated theaters for years).

Best of all, consumers are profiting from all the hustle of the unfettered video market. Because moviemakers get no cut of video dealers' income from cassette rentals, the studios are instead pushing video sales. And they're going about it in the old-fashioned way: by cutting prices and aggressively marketing their wares. For instance, while the average movie cassette has been going for $80 to $90, Paramount has been selling some of its biggest hits-including An Officer and a Gentleman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Flashdance-for $39.95. The studios are making it easier for customers to buy the cassettes by distributing them through supermarket and discount-store chains, as well as through specialty video shops and record stores.

And the competition among video-rental outlets is so keen now that in some places rental fees are as low as $1.00 per night.

There are bound to be some losers in the fight to satisfy consumers-cable movie networks, like Home Box Office, for example, may lose something to the videocassette competition. But, as they say in Hollywood, that's show biz (or, for that matter, any biz).

Consumer Control, The New Prescription

Can consumers make sensible decisions regarding the use of medical drugs? The federal government thinks not, so we have the Food and Drug Administration and a host of controlled-substance laws to see to it that we can't make those decisions for ourselves. But that rationale for drug regulation-if it ever made sense-is looking ever shakier thanks to low-cost computer technology.

In a chapter from Pharmaceuticals in the Year 2000 (published by the Alexandria, Virginia-based Institute for Alternative Futures), James Turner discusses how access to computerized health information enables consumers to make more-informed health decisions, thereby bringing into question the present style of drug regulation. Because such specialized information is increasingly available to consumers, individuals are in a better position to assess the risks of pharmaceutical use and decide for themselves which risks are worth taking. "The more information that is available," writes Turner, "the less need there is for intrusive government regulation." (This is an especially interesting thought coming from the author in 1970 of the "consumerist" work The Chemical Feast: The Nader Report on the Food and Drug Administration.)

Turner predicts a rapid increase in consumer medical software, "precisely because consumers will be able to purchase [these] new technologies without the government approval required for pharmaceuticals or other devices." And if consumers seek more information relevant to making health decisions, product manufacturers will respond to this demand, suggests Turner, and this will push government regulatory efforts toward increasing information and away from product regulation.

"By making it possible for any number of users of a particular drug to be systematically followed," Turner writes, computers can "greatly improve the existing adverse-reaction reporting system" (whereby individuals' bad reactions to specific drugs are reported to a central data bank). And within such an environment, "the government no longer has the authority (if it ever did) and we can no longer afford (if we ever could) to deprive the entire population of access to products or opportunities that might be harmful or less than optimal to some portion of the population."

Describing that approaching environment, Turner envisions an independent organization like Consumers Union that, through an extensive computer communication network, would "report on adverse reactions, do so by brand and type comparison, and also look at drug overlap and drug misuse."

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