The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, July 10, 2009

Ultra Deep Fields

Whether Galaxies or Healthcare Bureaucracy, a Lot More Is Already Out There Than May Appear

This is the story of two photographs.

The first photograph, taken several years ago, ranks among the most famous ever produced by the Hubble Space Telescope. The Hubble was already legendary for allowing human being to view the heavens with unmatched clarity and detail. However, Dr. Harry Ferguson and some other astronomers noted that while NASA built Hubble to see new things, they mostly pointed it at celestial objects we could already see with the naked eye or using Earth-bound telescopes.

As a result, they created the Ultra Deep Field Project, which, along with its precursor, the Deep Field Project, attempted to look further out into space (and, thus, further back in time) than we have ever previously peered. Their efforts produced a series of breathtaking images. The photograph you see here, like most pictured in books and web pages, is only a cross-section – the full images are so large. They contain over three thousand specks of light and all but a few of them are not local stars but entire galaxies.

NASA obtained these stunning pictures by pointing the Hubble at a piece of what astronomers previously had referred to as “empty space.” When we look up at the night sky, we mostly see the bright stars of our own galaxy separated by black void. Yet the Ultra Deep Field Project demonstrates that when we look at the blackness, we are not looking at a void at all but countless billions of stars, albeit stars too far away and faint for our eyes to perceive.

The lesson here is simple enough – Just because we cannot see something or even give it a name that seems the opposite of its reality (e.g. “empty space”), it still exists and may actually be larger and grander than anything we can see.

The second photograph, taken this week, is contained in a much smaller space, consisting of a hearing/conference room at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington D.C. Inside it, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions was working on healthcare overhaul legislation. Plenty of press photographers were on hand and most focused their lenses on the twenty-two Senators sitting at the table in the middle of the room – the “local stars” of the occasion, as it were.

But one of them, Robb Hill, a freelancer working with a team of reporters from National Public Radio, decided the more interesting picture – in terms of size and sheer numbers – was behind him. So he turned his camera around a snapped a shot of all the other people in the room. The version of his photograph you see here, like the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, is also a cross-section. Capturing his entire subject required a panoramic composition, viewable on this >link< from NPR.

All but a few of the two hundred plus individuals you see packed into the room watching the Senators are healthcare lobbyists. You can bet if the room were bigger, there would be still more of them.

NPR has teamed with ProPublica, an independent, non-profit news organization that conducts investigative journalism in the public interest, to identify each of the lobbyists portrayed in the photograph as well as the causes they represent. The effort is just beginning but, to date, all of them lobby for healthcare providers – healthcare consumers (i.e. us) are virtually unrepresented in the room.

The number of registered healthcare lobbyists more than doubled over the past decade to over thirty-five hundred, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. This is more than the number of galaxies in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field photo. Last year alone, healthcare lobbyists spent nearly $484.5 million attempting to influence government legislators and regulators. That amount should skyrocket with major healthcare reform on the table this year.

One of the initiatives favored by President Obama and Democratic legislators is a public option to cover people traditionally passed over by private healthcare. Republican legislators as well as an array of conservative thinkers oppose such a plan, arguing that government is inherently behemoth, bureaucratic, slow, and inefficient as an administrator. They assure us that private markets are always the infinitely better choice.

After all, private markets are also known as “free markets.” Who can object to “free?” Why pay massive taxes or incur massive deficits to have government run healthcare when natural market competition will inevitably force the best possible quality for the lowest possible cost? The problem with that logic, as the “ultra deep field” photograph taken by NPR demonstrates, is that our current healthcare system already has loads of bureaucracy in place at great cost.

David Leonhardt, an economic columnist for the New York Times, pointed out on Wednesday that whatever else its advantage, private healthcare deserves no praise for being trim and efficient. “The answer [to healthcare reform] isn’t obvious. But this much is – The current health care system is hard-wired to be bloated and inefficient.”

David Brooks echoes Leonhardt in his column today. “The basic problem is that the American people have gotten used to high-tech, all-everything health care, under the illusion that they don’t have to pay for it and that it’s always better for them. Politicians are unwilling to force voters and donors to give up that sort of system, even the parts that are ineffective.”

It is true that the public option Congress is currently proposing will do little if anything to reign in out-of-control costs. However, the most recent draft out of the Senate committee would leave only three percent of the population left uncovered. If it takes a massive bureaucracy to run such a system, then it will be more coverage with no more bureaucracy than we have today.

We may soon be able to name over two hundred different healthcare lobbyists who would vehemently disagree with this conclusion, if NPR and ProPublica prove successful in their efforts. However, the photograph of them all seated in a single room testifies to this conclusion’s honest reality. Just because we call them free markets, does not mean they are without significant unnecessary costs. Just because we cannot always readily see it, does not mean behemoth, slow, and inefficient healthcare bureaucracy is not already in place today.

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