Y2K's Lessons for Health Care, Climate Change

I really like this thoughtful Farhad Manjoo article on the lessons of Y2K for current debates about health care and global warming. Y2K might seem like a shining example of the government's ability to be prescient and proactive about future crises, but the closer Manjoo looks, the fewer happy lessons he finds. I think he's right.

Y2K was a discrete crisis. Its deadline was literally its name. Health care inflation and global warming don't have specific tipping points that you can mark off on a calendar. That makes those crises less like Y2K and more like, oh I don't now, backing up your computer files. You don't know what day (if ever) your laptop will go missing or suddenly gobble up all of your work and swallow it into its inaccessible belly. That's why many of us never take the extra precaution to buy an external hard-drive, even though it's obviously the best way to protect your work and costs less than expensive data recovery. Human psychology responds to deadlines. A graph about rising Medicare costs might be scary, but an exponential curve isn't as galvanizing as a global meltdown at precisely the moment we exit the 1990s.

Manjoo concludes that "the fact that we fixed [Y2K] may make it harder to fix anything else in the future" since the crisis never happened. Maybe that's true. But even more toxic to government ambition to do something about global warming or health inflation is that the tipping point always seems to be "in the next few years," which means our election cycle always runs ahead of the crisis deadline.