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Healthcare Hindenburg

Alan Farnham on the problem with the public option


 

Combatants on both sides of the health care debate should pause on October 4th to observe a relevant anniversary. They should turn their eyes eastward to a hill in France where, 79 years ago today, a fiery explosion killed 54. This disaster marked the end of one of the most dramatic head-to-head competitions between capitalism and socialism ever devised.

In the late 1920s, England saw the need to knit its far flung dominions to the mother country by air. Airplanes being, at that time, unreliable in performance and limited in range, it was decided to use dirigibles–ones bigger, stronger and more sophisticated than any that had gone before. To create them, the Labor government pit socialism and capitalism against one another, to see which could build the better blimp.

Two airships were ordered: one built by free enterprise; the other by the government’s own workshops. Both had to meet the same design criteria and performance standards; but how they achieved these was up to their respective designers. “Let the best man win,” was the attitude.

“There are still lessons to be learned from this peculiar experiment of government and private enterprise working in direct competition,” wrote novelist Nevil Shute Norway in his autobiography, Slide Rule (1954). Norway, before achieving fame as an author, had worked as an engineer on the private industry airship, designated R.100.

Where R100’s builders tried to show a profit, economizing wherever possible and adopting proven technology, the builders of the government airship, R101, labored under no such constraint. They had the treasury at their disposal, and so could give wing to their imaginations, indulging in all manner of experiments with methods and materials. One example: Though R100’s team had determined by calculation that their giant ship could be steered by the strength of but a single man turning a conventional wheel, R101’s team decided the job could be done only by a heavy and complex electric servo motor. Costs spiraled upward. Years ticked by.

By 1929, when R100 was ready to go, the government’s ship still languished in its shed, still under construction. R100 flew faster than its stipulated speed. It flew successfully from England to Canada and back, upping pressure on the government to show what its craft could do. Upon completion, R101 was slow and so heavy that it could barely lift its own weight. It was cut in half, and a new bay inserted to allow it to cary more lifting gas.

The story of what happened next with R101 is complicated; but most historians believe that political pressures were allowed to take precedence over engineers’ concerns and questions of safety.

On the night of October 3rd, R101 set off in bad weather on her maiden flight to India. She got no farther than France. At 2 a.m. on the morning of the 4th, the people of Beauvais were awakened by a gigantic fireball and explosion: the apocalyptic end to the government’s airship. It had lost altitude and collided with a hill. The last message received from her had said: “After an excellent supper our distinguished passengers smoked a final cigar, and, having sighted the French coast, have now gone to bed.”

Less distinguished than extinguished.

All but six aboard had died.

So undone were the English by this tragedy that R100—airworthy and blameless—was ordered scrapped, her dissected corpse rolled flat by a steam roller.

No doubt history can be combed to find occasions where government’s solution trumped a rival put forward by the private sector. But with R101’s burning wreck freshly in mind, I think I’ll pass on healthcare’s public option.


 
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Healthcare Hindenburg

    • And when it was revealed to unsafe, it was taken off the road and people sued the automaker. And then it turned out that left wing magazines ginned up the danger and it was illustrated, in hindsight, that Pinto was not any more dangerous than any other car on the road. And remember that Pinto also passed NHTSA tests for design and crash worthiness.

      The Pinto case illustrates why I am anti-government. The Pinto was taken off the road, people sued and were compensated. Granted, it does not bring back loved ones but it is better than nothing. But when the government screws up, it does so with impunity. Like allowing tobacco sales or residential schools fiasco. Decades of mismanagement and harm but nothing changes.

    • And when it was revealed to unsafe, it was taken off the road and people sued the automaker. And then it turned out that left wing magazines ginned up the danger and it was illustrated, in hindsight, that Pinto was not any more dangerous than any other car on the road. And remember that Pinto also passed NHTSA tests for design and crash worthiness.

      The Pinto case illustrates why I am anti-government. The Pinto was taken off the road, people sued and were compensated even tho car was approved by government engineers and testers. Granted, it does not bring back loved ones but it is better than nothing. But when the government screws up, it does so with impunity. Like allowing tobacco sales or residential schools fiasco. Decades of mismanagement and harm but nothing changes.

      • I might be misunderstanding, but "allowing tobacco sales" sounds like the opposite of "anti-government". Can you clarify?

        I agree that governments can screw up big time. So can corporations, especially now that we have so many gigantic ones larger than governments. Perhaps there's nothing inherently wrong with either, it's the execution?

        My favourite example is that of the Sunday Shopping debates in the Maritimes several years ago. Nova Scotia had no Sunday shopping, and people+businesses+churches+governments all fought to have their preferred solution, but nobody talked about the actual concerns they had. For example, some people said "nobody should be forced to work on Sundays!" and therefore they wanted nobody allowed to *shop* on Sundays. Meanwhile, the parking lot of each mall and grocery store was filled with cars every Sunday from workers forced to work doing inventory and cleaning. If there's a concern, fix the PROBLEM, not the SYMPTOM. Ditto for health care.

      • Ford knew it was unsafe long before they were forced to take it off the road. Whether it passed tests or not, their own engineers had warned of gas tank problems, which spurred a series of internal memos and discussions regarding the cost to benefit analysis of fixing it versus settling lawsuits for projected deaths and injuries.

        There was a 1991 paper that argues the 'memos' are a myth, but it relies on the idea that the per human cost was taken from goverment figures, not Ford's own. Even with that knowledge, there was still a considerable paper trail to show that Ford ultimately decided that something like $8 per car to make the gas tank safer would cost more than the liability of inevitable deaths and injuries from doing nothing.

        The only reason I raised the issue is to point out the silliness of the above piece. One can cherry pick examples from both the public and private sectors until the cows the come home, but it doesn't illuminate a thing.

        • I don't consider cherry-picking. I'd be surprised if there are any instances when the public sector out-competed the private sector. Sure, you can come up with examples where the public sector generated something, but when in competition, the private sector prevails. Private universities are better. Private grade schools are better. Private retail stores are better. Private health care is better.

          The private sector does not prevail because of any reason other than the fact that the companies that exist in the private sector exist at the expense of their competitors – the failures do not last. Government failures last forever.

          • Every time you say "are" you should say "can be", because many are worse.

            Private enterprise has no lock on the holy grail, and bad companies can exist for years if they can leverage monopoly power and natural barriers to entry, or use marketing and legal suits to block negative information from getting out.

          • leverage monopoly power and natural barriers to entry, or use marketing and legal suits

            Those are easily the exception and not the rule. Just how many private monopolies exist today, do you think? As for the marketing – what on earth are you talking about? As for legal suits, if you have a problem with the legal system, then you should blame the legal system.

            You are arguing a straw-man. I never said private enterprise has a lock on the holy grail. THere are plenty of failures in the private sector. The difference is that they don't last. The worse the failure, the shorter the existence. Nobody pays for garbage.

          • No, what I was saying is that they do last. They can last quite a while without regulation. Microsoft is the easy example, and that's in a market with virtually zero natural barrier to entry — purely on marketing, misunderstanding, and underhanded business tactics they built a massive monopoly. It's been cracking lately, but not due to competition so much as due to active prosecution on several fronts against its leverage of monopoly power.

            Sadly, people do pay for garbage when it's all they can afford. That's why dollar stores are doing so well lately.

          • Microsoft is not a monopoly, in any way, shape or form. It's true that, for a while, they were accused of uncompetitive practices, but a lot of that had to do with the fact that the market had never existed before. Microsoft pioneered the practice of opening up the operating system for third-party vendors to write applications on their O/S, which resulted in one of their biggest advantages, the PC has always had far, far more software available to users.
            To have the most market share does not make you a monopoly. And frankly, your characterization of the company is false, there were dozens of companies that had the same opportunities that Microsoft did. In fact, Microsoft is almost the exact opposite of what you claim – Microsoft completely obliterated any competition including the competition from public companies, Microsoft is a huge success story, so much of a success that I'll bet you have Microsoft sofware in your own home.

          • Microsoft is not a monopoly, in any way, shape or form. It's true that, for a while, they were accused of uncompetitive practices, but a lot of that had to do with the fact that the market had never existed before, so Microsoft took advantage. Microsoft pioneered the practice of opening up the operating system for third-party vendors to write applications on their O/S, which resulted in one of their biggest advantages, the PC has always had far, far more software available to users, most of it written by other companies. This opened up MS to the accusation of favouring their own software on Windows as opposed to other companies, which is hardly a radical position.

            To have the most market share does not make you a monopoly. And frankly, your characterization of the company is false, there were dozens of companies that had the same opportunities that Microsoft did. In fact, Microsoft is almost the exact opposite of what you claim – Microsoft completely obliterated any competition including the competition from public companies, Microsoft is a huge success story, so much of a success that I'll bet you have Microsoft sofware in your own home.

          • Also, your characterization of MS as having been harmed by litigation is hilarious. It has not had the slightest effect.
            Instead, Apple and Google and numerous other competitors have finally managed to gain ground on MS, not because of weakness in Microsoft, but because of strong products like the Iphone and google's open office.

          • Also, your characterization of MS as having been harmed by litigation is hilarious. It has not had the slightest effect.
            Instead, Apple and Google and numerous other competitors have finally managed to gain ground on MS, not because of weakness in Microsoft, but because of strong products like the Iphone, google's open office, the java language, and the Linux O/S.

          • No, what I was saying is that they do last. They can last quite a while without regulation. Microsoft is the easy example, and that's in a market with virtually zero natural barrier to entry — purely on marketing, misunderstanding, and underhanded business tactics they built a massive monopoly. It's been cracking lately, but not due to competition so much as due to active prosecution on several fronts against its leverage of monopoly power.

            Sadly, people do pay for garbage when it's all they can afford. Look at Walmart.

  1. What a fascinating story – too bad it's almost 100% irrelevant to the debate. As if nothing has changed in 79 years (on either side of that contest), and we somehow have no ability to legally require certain patient rights, access, or limits.

    Comparing the mythical, never-defined and only-maligned "public option" to an airship disaster is simply a different angle on Godwin's Law, I think.

  2. Non Sequitur much? As if an 80-year-old dirigible story has ANY true relevance to a health care debate.

  3. Health care is a system. Dirigibles are tangible things. They are not directly comparable.

    Maybe you'd like to tell us a story about a private, for-profit fire department somewhere. That would actually be relevant and useful. Is it surprising to you that you don't ever seem to see those?

    • Most fire departments are private and staffed by volunteers (almost every small town does it that way).

  4. Two airships were ordered: one built by free enterprise; the other by the government's own workshops. Both had to meet the same design criteria and performance standards; but how they achieved these was up to their respective designers. “Let the best man win,” was the attitude.

    And let us have an eerie recall of Government Motors' current cheeky slogan after it was resurrected by being a parasite on our future just before it should have experienced a justly deserved demise:

    May the best car win. (likely a trademark of "The New GM.")

    Shudder.

  5. I didn't realize that Macleans was a right wing red necked news organization? Kind of Foxy eh?

  6. Madeyoulook…..Please don't fall for the old writer's trick of putting something in quotes to give it credence. That quote didn't come from any original source, it was just a trick by the writer (alan farnham) to try and make you think so.

    • Between Farnham and you, I'll bet on Farnham.

    • So was the Pinto, if you backed into something. :)

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