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. Continue reading “Health reform, the new Y2K”


Health care: Score one against the hyenas

Hyena caricatureN.B. The hyena caricature (right) is from William Belcher’s Address to Humanity, published in 1796. Thanks to Ragged Edge Magazine.

On Monday, the day after passage of the new health reform law, I received a visit from a friend (call him Vic) who’s perpetually broke. He and his wife (Tina) lived with us at one point when their only other alternative was the street. Now they pay $39 a day to stay at a seedy hotel near the Interstate.

They were supposed to have moved on by now, to have a place of their own. Months ago, a man set aside $1,000 for Vic and Tina to pay a deposit and first month’s rent on an apartment or rental. But Vic and Tina haven’t found a place they can afford, at least not one that Tina is willing to move in to. Vic won’t even look in Birmingham, where rents are lower, because they want to be in a good school district. Their 11-year-old daughter lives with Tina’s parents, and they want her back.

It hasn’t occurred to them to get a cheap apartment for the short term in order to save money. Saving is not a realistic prospect to them. In their entire adult life — Vic is 48 — they have only experienced two conditions: not having enough, and having just enough. Continue reading “Health care: Score one against the hyenas”