The “rabbit” in a marathon (and healthcare)


I was talking yesterday to Eron Ferreira, a former marathon runner. Eron is Brazilian, grew up poor and could not afford shoes, so he ran barefoot, as many Kenyans do. Later, when he was able to afford shoes he realized that they were soft, mushy and pointless, so he kept running barefoot. But he still had to make a living, and in the 1990s he did that by being a “rabbit“.

Now bear with me: As Eron was telling me about his time as a rabbit, I suddenly understood why Obama’s health care plan, which includes a controversial public-sector insurance option alongside private plans, is correct.

In the context of marathons, Eron explained to me, a rabbit is somebody whom the event organizer pays to run quite fast for the first half of the race. It is understood that the rabbit wears himself out this way, and he can stop running in the second half.

Now, why would the event organizer do such a silly thing–ie, pay somebody … to run fast in a running race? (!)

Apparently, because without such a pace setter, the other runners would hang back tactically and not run fast. It would be boring for the spectators. It would be bad sport. In any other industry, including health care, we would call this a market failure. In theory, it should not happen, but in practice, it does.

1) Success for Eron

In Eron’s case, this once led to his big break in life. One day, during a marathon in France, he was being a rabbit and running quite fast for the first half. He felt great that day, and it occurred to him that he did not technically need to stop, or even to slow down, at all. All the other runners knew he was “just the rabbit”, so they had allowed him to get ahead a bit. Eron looked back, saw that they were far behind him, and just kept going till … he won!

2) Success for health care

And what does this have to do with Obama’s health care proposals? Well, you may have heard that the health care industry and Republicans are preparing to gun down his plan because it will have a new, public insurance option alongside private health insurers. How un-American! How unfair for the private insurers! How socialist!

(For my general thoughts about health care, look here.)

Need I say more? In theory, all the private health insurers should be running fast to win the marathon and make spectators happy. In practice, they are all hanging back tactically. What this sport needs …. is a rabbit!
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Obama and I; Obama and me; Obama and … myself?


Psst, are they cheering you and me or you and I?

So-and-so “graciously invited Michelle and I,” he says. “The main disagreement with John and I,” he begins. Obama, Obama. You and I need to have a word. (But which one?)

All of you know by now that I’m a lover of, yes, Obama, but also of language, words and style. On the spectrum between grammar fundamentalists and libertines, I am closer to the fundamentalists (in this and only this in life!).

So I side with Naomi Baron, a linguist whom I quoted in this story in The Economist decrying the “linguistic whateverism” that is taking over (American) culture. It would make snobs out of people who care about the difference between who’s and whose, it’s and its, I and me, like and as, and so forth.

And so we come to Obama. First–still speaking about grammar–he is of course vastly preferable to the alternative. (Check out these speech diagrams comparing Obama and Palin.) And even though he entered his presidency with a grammatical stumble, that was John Roberts’ fault, not his. (Steven Pinker called it “blowback” for Roberts’ fundamentalism, since the chief justice apparently could not bring himself to “split the verb” and thus mangled the oath of office.)

But Obama is no grammar saint either. Bloggers have been pointing it out, and now Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, the authors of a forthcoming book about language, are opining about it in the New York Times.

One issue is subjects and objects; another is pomposity and naturalness. In turn:

I object

Nobody could possibly invite “Michelle and he” but quite a lot of people would love to invite “Michelle and him“. That is because the inviter is the subject and first couple are the objects (direct, in this case).

Nor could anybody give a fistbump to “Michelle and he”, although I would personally love to give one to “Michelle and him”. In this case the object is indirect (the fistbump being the direct object), but English doesn’t distinguish.

Oh puhleeze

Americans increasingly don’t see it that way, of course. To them you say the word me (him, her, them) whenever you’re being informal and the word I (he, she, they) whenever you’re being formal. Now that is pompous. It’s like eating a hamburger with fork and knife. It’s overcompensating, because a toff is watching.

Saying myself is not the answer, by the way. I cannot invite “Michelle and himself”, only “Michelle and him.” But, he could invite himself, although he is unlikely to be so presumptuous.

But it’s me

That brings us to the old chestnut: Which is correct: It’s me or It’s I?

The problem here is that the is is not an action verb but a linking verb.It is being linked to me or I, but neither it nor I are obviously the subject or object. So let’s see how other languages deal with the problem:

C’est moi. OK, the French think it should be it’s me.

Es bin ich. Oops, the Germans think it should be it am I.

Damn foreigners. They’re Old Europe anyway.

So the answer is that it doesn’t matter. And since there is the puhleeze factor to consider, I lobby for it’s me.

Now, I did say that is is not an action verb. There is of course one exception to that rule:

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Word-loving as science

I still remember my high-school English teacher telling me that good writers minimize the use of the, of, a and so forth. Those are fill words–in effect, noise. Turn nouns into verbs and get rid of them, so that the signal-to-noise ratio of your writing goes up. Don’t say: “A restructuring of our financial system and a recapitalization of our banks is an imperative for the avoidance of a depression.” Say: “We have to change our financial system and put capital into our banks to avoid a depression.”

I’ve also warned in a previous post about the treacherous first-person voice, which writers overuse, in my opinion, especially in America.

James Pennebaker

James Pennebaker

Well, James Pennebaker is now forcing me to think much more deeply about all this. He’s a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and he counts words. All sorts of words, especially the fill words that I thought existed only to be eliminated, and all those Is, mines and mes.

Why? Because how people use words, even and especially the ones we think don’t matter, says so much about them.

For instance, in analyzing the difference between Obama and McCain, Professor Pennebaker has this to say in on his blog:

Categorical versus fluid thinking.  Some people naturally approach problems by assigning them to categories.  Categorical thinking involves the use of articles (a, an, the) and concrete nouns.  Men, for example, use articles at much higher rates than women.  Fluid thinking involves describing actions and changes, often in more abstract ways. A crude measure of fluid thinking is the use of verbs.  Women use verbs more than men.

McCain and Obama could not be more different in their use of articles and verbs.  McCain uses verbs at an extremely low rate and articles at a fairly high rate. Obama, on the other hand, is remarkably high in his use of verbs and low in his use of articles.  These patterns suggest that McCain’s natural way of understanding the world is to first label the problem and find a way to put it into a pre-existing category.  Obama is more likely to define the world as ongoing actions or processes.

In this post, Pennebaker actually counts how often the candidates use various categories of words.

It’s all about probabilities, of course. But I love how Pennebaker reminds me–not that I’m somebody who was likely to forget it–just how much words matter!

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