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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