Health reform, the new Y2K

Remember Y2K? That was the prediction, in the late 1990s, that aging computer programs would be unable to function after Dec. 31, 1999, and social chaos would result when these systems failed. The current anxiety about health care reform — or “government takeover” as the Republicans insist on calling it — has a good deal in common with that earlier panic.

Y2K, short for “Year 2000,” was a code name for concerns about the fact that programmers traditionally used only two bytes to represent the year in a date, e.g. 85 for the year 1985. Programmers in the ’60s and ’70s hadn’t expected that their programs would still be in use three and four decades later, when 1999 rolled over to 2000. Most of these “legacy” programs had been cooked up as needed, with little thought for the long term. But as long as the programs continued to work, it was cost-effective for large organizations to keep using them.

By the late ’90s it was feared that the year 2000, or 00, would be the moment at which they all, or a critical mass of them, stopped working forever. Climate control systems would fail, making most city buildings uninhabitable. Avionics would stop working, and transportation would come to a screeching halt. Electricity would stop flowing, phone lines would go dead. People’s life savings would become permanently inaccessible as the financial record-keeping system crashed. Anything could happen.

The Y2K problem forced institutions to suddenly need in-depth knowledge of one aspect of their legacy software and coded hardware. Namely, they needed to know how each application and every electronic machine handled the 2-digit shorthand for a year, and how each one might behave when the year rolled over to 00.

But that knowledge was simply unavailable. And the code itself was too vast and too complex to figure out in a hurry — assuming that source code had even been preserved. As for the veteran programmers who wrote the stuff, most had retired or died, leaving behind millions of lines of mostly undocumented code. The few who had not retired were too busy grappling with their current employer’s legacy code to try to remember what they had done for a prior employer.

So institutions rushed to hire squads of relatively low-cost recruits, then trained them to read obsolete programming languages from the era of disco and Skylab. Or they shelled out to upstart consultants who promised to rid them of this mysterious two-byte menace. Enormous sums were spent on massive, last-ditch efforts to neutralize the “Y2K bug.”1

The great irony about Y2K was the grayness of the problem. Despite its having emerged in an environment of binary thinking, unambiguous if-then statements, and complete quantifiability, the Y2K problem was a threat because it was — that bane of algorithms — an unknowable quantity. Countless events and forces composed the problem, and even though we humans had created them all, we could not control them. It was like tracking a storm in the ocean: We could see it coming, but we couldn’t tell what it would do until it made landfall.

Our ignorance did not, of course, keep us from making predictions. Not a few people confidently predicted the end of civilization, which they assured us would be horrible and agonizing.2 One programmer I worked with calmly assured me that Y2K didn’t matter because the Rapture was coming first. It was a sure thing. Countless others, who placed their faith in the technology rather than the Lord, chastised the anxious doubters with the zealous scorn of inquisitors: Everything would be fine, and anyone who doubted it was a knee-biting Neanderthal.

In short, Y2K made a splendid surface for us to project our fears and faiths onto. The forecasters shed no light on what would happen in 2000, but they revealed a good deal about themselves.

The new blank surface

Like Y2K, health care reform is a blank adhesive surface. It’s a looming phenomenon resulting from a system we created, but can’t fully control. Its secrets are concealed in tens of thousands of lines of legislative code, plus millions of lines of private insurance contracts, and no one has the expertise to determine in advance how those lines will interact with each other. The whole problem forces us to confront the uncertainty of the future.

So it’s no wonder that we have so many charlatans clamoring that health care reform is going to be the death of our republic.3 They’re the heirs of those who believed (or thought they had something to gain by proclaiming) that doomsday would ensue from Y2K.

Mix in the ordure of partisan politics (which was pretty much absent from Y2K) and you have an especially lumpy composition of anxieties, wishes, misgivings, doubts, panderings, resentments, loathings, bare-faced lies, and panic. Health care reform, that huge, patched, human-made phenomenon in our near future, presents the perfect surface to stick all these gooey things to.

The results? First of all, they’re not pretty. Second, they’ll tell us nothing much about what health care reform will bring. But third, they offer an opportunity to learn about people by listening to their forecasts. They’re not really talking about health care; they’re telling you about their faith and fears.

1 The most remarkable satire of Y2K hysteria I know of is Mike Keith’s constrained rewriting of “The Raven”, by Edgar Allan Poe, converting it to the story of a software engineer who in 1997 resolves to open a Y2K consultancy in London. 
2 I saved this quote from Ken Raggio’s Prophecy Newsletter: “[Y2K] is a leviathan, coming up out of the deep to attack modern civilization in a nasty, gut-wrenching, blood-dripping, doomsday affair that will find its way into the history books as more devastating than any event preceding it — bar none.” The website still exists, but that quote seems to have disappeared. 
3 Examples are too numerous to specify, but I’d like to single out hometown boy Bobbye Humphryes, a county commissioner in Jefferson County, Alabama (metro Birmingham). His considered opinion, according to the Birmingham News, is that health care reform is likely to lead to “a revolution.” As I say, it tells us more about Bobbye than it does about health care reform. 

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