The Declining Baseline of Personal Choice

June 28, 2013 § 21 Comments

Rye, "haying" in the kitchen. This was the day after we finished putting up the real thing. The boy can't get enough.

Rye “haying” in the kitchen. This was the day after we finished putting up the real thing. The boy can’t get enough.

This whole conversation about health care and health (the former of which sadly does not generally contribute to the latter) has me thinking of a topic that’s been the subject of frequent conversations ’round these parts: Declining baselines.

I was first introduced to the concept via Erik, during my reporting of $AVED. It’s come up again lately thanks to an essay by Derek Jensen in the latest issue of Orion (it’s not on the magazine’s website, so I can’t link to it). In short, declining baseline refers to the phenomenon of adaptation to ever-lower standards. In Jensen’s essay, he refers to the profound loss of wildlife, and the fact that most people alive today don’t even know what’s been lost, since so much of it was lost by the time their frame of reference was even established. That frame of reference – a new normal, so to speak – is a declined baseline.

I think there’s also a declining baseline in regards to our expectations for human health and well being. I think of our own story surrounding money and debt, and how so many of the privileges we have been granted – a piece of land at a price we could afford, for instance, and even the embodiment of the basic skills necessary to build our house – are slowly eroding from our society. Only 15 years ago, we purchased 40 acres – and not just any 40 acres, but 40 really freakin’ nice acres – for $30k. How many young adults have that option today? And on that 40 acres, we built a house with our own four hands and numerous others belonging to friends and family. We never kept careful track of what our place cost to build, but it wasn’t too terrible much more than $50k. Even when adjusted for inflation, these numbers would be tough to match in 2013. Not impossible, perhaps, but tough, and the contemporary expectation that a young family must go 100’s of thousands of dollars into debt simply to put a roof over their heads is a declined baseline.

What of the fact that by 2050, one-third of all adults will have diabetes? Can you imagine how that might have sounded 30 years ago? But now, given that we’re well on our way to that 33% number, it no longer seems so outrageous. Why? Because our baseline has declined. What of the fact that in the comments yesterday, Beth notes that she feels compelled to pay $18k/year for her family’s health insurance coverage at least in part because the law tells her she must? That is the declining baseline of our freedom. Indeed, I even wonder if her apparent anger at folks such as myself and Tonya, who “move to the northeast kingdom in the middle of nowhere and live on the dole” represents a sort of declining baseline of human empathy.

I don’t know. Perhaps I’m wrong about all of this; probably I’m wrong about at least some of it. But I can’t help noticing how it seems increasingly difficult for people to carve out truly rich and meaningful lives in the context of cultural and economic arrangements that seem all but engineered to thwart them. Sure, some of it comes down to personal choice: After all, no one forced Penny and me to live in a tent for two summers, while we saved to by our land. We chose to exchange that inconvenience for at least some of the freedom we currently enjoy. Likewise, no one is forced to assume large mortgages, or drive new cars, or quaff 64-ounce jugs of Mountain Dew for breakfast.

And yet, it’s not hard to see how the quiet pressures to do these very things – celebrated in literally trillions of dollars of advertising and a culture that seems to have adopted them as the norm – might lead folks to believe there simply isn’t another way. After all, what else have they been exposed to? It’s the declining baseline of personal choice, and that might be the damaging of all.

Listen In

June 27, 2013 § 2 Comments

My friend David Goodman, who is a fantastic writer and all around swell person, has a radio show on WDEV called “Vermont Conversations.”

I joined him yesterday and it was a whole bunch of fun.

Listen in here.




The Affliction

June 27, 2013 § 17 Comments

The boys made sandals with Nate. Materials: Rawhide and the coat of Scottish Highland cattle

The boys made sandals with Nate. Materials: Rawhide and the coat of Scottish Highland cattle

Not long after $AVED was released, and shortly after I’d been interviewed on New Hampshire Public Radio, I received an email. The email was from a fellow who’d heard the interview, in which I’d gone into some detail regarding Erik’s and my family’s finances. He was perfectly polite, but his primary reason for contacting me was to point out, in no uncertain terms, that Erik and my family survive only at the behest of hardworking folks like himself, whose tax dollars are essential to the delivery of services upon which my friend, my loved ones, and myself depend.

In other words, that we are basically free loaders.

Of course, this issue is hugely relevant to the discussion of health care. As Tonya noted in yesterday’s comments “our family gets questioned about this often – how dare we choose to live in the way we do and have others pay for our healthcare…” 

Let me begin by saying that my family does rely on subsidized health care for our infrequent visits to practitioners who even accept insurance in the first place. Historically, the majority of our health care has been conducted outside the meme of insurance, but there have been occasions – such as the time I thought it might be good fun to depart my (long ago sold) motorcycle at speed – upon which we have been dependent on and grateful for the mainstream medical community.

Let me also say that I have complete empathy for those who feel bitter and exploited by folks like myself and Erik who have chosen a life path that is unlikely to result in the sort of financial remuneration that allows for the purchase of health insurance on the free market. It is a bitterness that is stoked and fanned from almost every corner of our culture, and one can hardly blame them from having become infected by it.

But while I have empathy for this view, I cannot help but point out that it is generally blind to the systemic arrangements which quietly (and not-so-quietly) define what our society values. It is blind to the truth that the very reason so many in our nation must depend on government for essential goods and services is precisely because we have commodified these goods and services. And in the process, we have heavily subsidized the commodity providers of these goods and services, tilting the regulatory and rule making scales in ways that enable these providers to stash billions upon billions of dollars in tax-sheltered off-shore accounts, even as they suck the true wealth of natural and human resources out of our nation’s towns and communities.

I happen to believe that health care should be a basic human right, and no more so than in a society where so many aspects of the fundamental building blocks of good health – clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean food – have been taken from us by the very same industries that are so heavily favored by tax and regulatory law. The tragic irony is that the very arrangements that are making it increasingly difficult for working class families to afford health care without subsidization are the very same arrangements that are forcing them to become more and more dependent on the health care system in the first place.

Furthermore, I happen to believe that people contribute to society in ways that are far more profound and affecting that mere dollars. I’m not terribly comfortable trumpeting my own non-dollar-denominated contributions to my community and society at large, but I am very comfortable speaking of Erik’s. And what I have seen is that Erik’s impact on the children he works with is overwhelmingly positive. Indeed, since the book came out, I have received emails from parents who feel incredibly grateful that Erik has been a part of their children’s lives.

I believe this is what Erik is called to do, and I know that the world is a better place for his doing it. I am struck by the moneyed economic arrangements that define his value to society as being less than $10,000 per year, while someone who trades in complex financial instruments, or markets the sort of superfluous consumer gadgetry that continues to erode our relationships to one another and the natural world, all the while benefiting from the regulatory and tax codes that heavily subsidize their chosen professions, is able to command more than enough income to pay for the basic facets of their well-being on the commodity market.

So yeah, while I have empathy for the view represented by the email I received and the comments Tonya gets, and I feel badly that we inhabit an economy where people are compelled to feel so ungenerous, I am entirely unapologetic regarding my family’s dependence on subsidies to afford health care. Furthermore, I am struck by the fact that both conditions – that sense of bitterness and stinginess, and the broader societal and economic arrangements that compel so many of us rely on subsidized health care – arise from precisely the same place. They are both the result of our society having become afflicted by the mentality of money. And that, my friends, is the affliction that is truly making us sick.

The Keys

June 26, 2013 § 11 Comments

Fun with garlic scapes

Fun with garlic scapes

Over the past couple weeks, a handful of themes have come to dominate the numerous conversations I’ve had regarding money and wealth. It will probably not surprise any of you to hear that one of those themes is health care. I suppose I could have anticipated this, although frankly, I didn’t. Which is only indicative of yet another of my privileges: To be healthy and to have a spouse and sons that are healthy.

At the risk of giving away the whole darn point of this post in only the second paragraph, let’s be very, very clear: Our so-called “health-care” system is much less about keeping us healthy, as it is about treating and profiting from the numerous preventable diseases and conditions that prevail in 21st century America. Ironically (or maybe not), many of these conditions are the direct result of having monetized practically every aspect of human well-being. What’s that? You’d like an example? But of course.

Let us consider diabetes. Right now, the global market for diabetes drugs is currently in the $40 billion range, and is projected to reach $118 billion over just the next half-dozen years. And get this: The incidence of adult diabetes is projected to double by 2050, to the point where it will afflict one in three Americans. One can only imagine how much profit will be realized when fully one-third of us depend on diabetes treatment simply to live. For those of you whose moral compass is pointed due south, to the gates of hell, here is my advice: Diabetes. It’s a growth market. Invest now.

Why are we becoming so damn sick? Could it be because we have chosen to feed our populace from an ethos of quantity and profit, rather than quality and reverence? Yeah, I’d say it could be. Could it be because many of us feel as if our lives have been hijacked by debt and by the social pressures that compel us to assume a particular lifestyle, one that simply does not allow us the time to feed our bodies and spirits in a manner that is truly nourishing? Yeah, I’d say it could be. Could it be that one of the factors that keeps us from living in a manner that is truly aligned with our belief system and spirit is – get this – our fear of losing health care benefits? And that by not living in accordance with what we truly believe and know to be true, we become increasingly vulnerable to the omnipresent messaging that what we truly believe and know to be true is, in fact, false.
It’s certainly not just diabetes. Consider that between 2006 and 2010, sales of behavioral modification drugs like Ritalin and Adderall increased 83% to over $7 billion annually. Why? Does anyone really think there was an 83% rise in the incidence of the conditions for which these drugs are prescribed over just four years? And if that were really the case, wouldn’t our so called “health care” system – if it were truly interested in keeping us healthy – be as invested in figuring out why such an increase was happening as it was in treating the resultant symptoms?
Here is the truth: We do not have a health care system. We have a profit-care system, because that is what it truly cares about: profit. The manner in which we care for the health of the people of this nation has been perverted by the mentality of money. Just as the manner in which we feed the people of this nation, or govern the people of this nation, or educate the people of this nation has been perverted by the mentality of money. And so long as we continue to fatten the profit-care system with our money and our spirits, it will only continue to rot from the inside out.
This is all cold comfort to those who are already dependent on the dominant profit-care system. I realize that, and I have tremendous empathy for those who can see no alternative but to continue working a job and inhabiting a lifestyle they know is killing the spirit simply so they can keep the body alive. This is the true tragedy of the commodified arrangements of our time: They turn us into both curators and dependents.
But for those of you who are so blessed as to have choices, I urge you to do everything in your power to support the alternatives that exist outside these bloody rotten institutions that view us as no more than pockets to be picked. I urge you to do everything in your power to maintain your good health and vitality, along with the clarity of your belief that your worth as a person is not one iota dependent on capitulating to social pressures around the clothes you wear, the car you drive, the house you inhabit, the friends you keep, the education you get, the forces you should fear, what constitutes security, and so on.
I urge these things because they are, in so many ways, the keys to your freedom.

Filthy Tired Rich

June 24, 2013 § 9 Comments


The past few days have been among the most hectic, rewarding, and flat-out delightful of my hopefully-not-yet-even-half-over life. On Thursday we got the call that our help was needed in the field, so the four of us skedaddled across the valley, where I commenced to fire up Martha’s big John Deere and ted hay (this is the process by which mown hay is whirled and spread with an egg-beater like attachment known as a “tedder” so that it might better dry under each precious minute of sun). I love tedding; it’s the most brainless of all haying tasks – a freaking monkey could do it, which makes me particularly suited for the job – and basically consists of riding long, looping circles through the field under the high, hot solstice sun. Hell, yeah.

Whilst I tedded, Penny and Martha raked the dry hay into windrows, and every so often, I’d catch a glimpse of one of them atop the old Farmall’s, sitting tall in the seat, the rakes leaving endless dusky green waves in their wake. The boys, I knew, were fishing in the little pond at one corner of the 25-acre field, and for a couple of hours I was blessed by the sense that every little thing in my life was exactly as it should be. A field full of hay, a sky full of sun, my boys terrorizing the local population of perch, my wife waving from across the field, even the old, hot, snorting tractor beneath me: What more, really, could I even want?

I departed the field in early afternoon, en route to dinner with Jim and Wendy and a reading at Battenkill Books, in the profoundly lovely little town of Cambridge, NY. The post-reading conversation was exactly as lively as I’ve almost becoming accustomed to, and I was tremendously pleased to finally meet the indefatigable and hugely inspiring Jenna Woginrich, along with Jon “I did five blog posts before you even woke up” Katz. By a quarter to twelve, I was pulling back into our driveway and past Melvin’s hayfield, where, at the far end of the field, I could just see the lights of his big New Holland. Haying at midnight. Here’s an idea: Don’t ever complain about the price of a gallon of milk again. Not that you would. Just sayin’.

By 5 the next morning, we were deep into chores and preparing for a huge day. Twenty-five acres of square bales ain’t no joke, particularly since Martha’s baler does not have a kicker, the contraption that hurls bales high into the air and (usually) into the wagon behind. I’ll cut to the chase and just say that by 9:00 that night, we had each and every last bale off the field and under cover, at which point we collapsed into our beds, bodies still covered in the souring, half-dried sweat of our exertions, to which innumerable bits of chafe had become stuck.

Friday, I was up early and on the road to Woodstock, NY for Barnfest, a wonderful event made all the more wonderful by the surprise appearance of a friend I had not seen in nearly two full decades. I had not even known he lived in the area, and we spent five full hours chatting and eating and drinking and again I had that sense of all the odd little pieces of my life slipping into place, like the completion of a puzzle you didn’t even know you were putting together.

I suppose there is no real point to this post, which is probably indicative of the fact that I am currently walking a ragged edge of exhaustion. But it is a good exhaustion, a tangible sense of satisfaction and gratification for a barn that is full of hay, the work that put it there, the blessing of being invited into so many conversations, and friends that appear after decades of absence. So, yeah, I’m tired. But as the subtitle of $AVED suggests, I’m also feeling like the richest guy in the world.

And in a strange way, I know that even my fatigue is part of my wealth.

Light Shines Through

June 20, 2013 § 7 Comments

See that waist high grass? That's the return on last year's investment of minerals and manure

See that waist high grass? That’s the return on last year’s investment of minerals and manure

Quick reminder: I’ll be at Battenkill Books in Cambridge, NY tonight. 7 pm. Come on out! 

The launch of $AVED has gone far better than I could ever have imagined, particularly given that the book has not yet captured the attention of the national media. As I wrote in the shamelessly self-promotional post that I then removed, this is in some ways ok: There are many ways for a book to find readers, particularly in this era of Interwebs connectivity, and I suspect $AVED might just be one of those word-of-mouth books that never really gets a big media boost. On the other hand, if you’re reading this Oprah, I’m game.

Of all the things that have happened over the past week that have made me feel as if this book was worth the effort, the one I’m most pleased about was an email from an instructor of the Financial Literacy program at a local high school. He’s thinking of assigning $AVED to his class and is wondering if I might come in and talk to his students when the fall semester commences. Well, hot damn: Impressionable young minds. Really, what could be better? And to think, this was the very high school I dropped out of 25-odd years ago. Life is such a strange and interesting journey, is it not?

It is amazing how frequently the subject of children and education in the context of money and economy has come up over the past couple weeks, and most often in conjunction with yet another aspect of our society’s desire to accumulate far, far more than we need: Fear. In short (and of course it is far more nuanced than this, but hey, this is a freakin’ blog post, not another book!), parental fear regarding our children’s future compels us to force them into educational arrangements that we flat-out know are not honoring their human spirit but which, we dearly hope, will prepare them for the sad realities of the 21st century economy. This is the exchange: Spirit for solvency. Passion for prosperity. But of course it is merely a conditional solvency and prosperity, hinging on institutions that will keep us solvent and prosperous only so long as we can afford for them to.

I understand why parents feel compelled to make these choices. There is little support for an alternate view. And yet, over the past week or so, having had innumerable conversations about these very issues, I see that cracks are opening in so many assumptions regarding money and all the ways it defines our relationships with the facets of our well-being. With what it means to simply be human.

And do you know what happens when cracks open? That’s right: Light shines through.

Investing For Fun and Profit

June 19, 2013 § 6 Comments

Fin spent two hours making a bee-catching box, caught a bee, fed it sugar water, and settled in for some good ol' fashioned entertainment

Fin spent two hours making a bee-catching box, caught a bee, fed it sugar water, and settled in for some good ol’ fashioned entertainment

Last night, after I returned home from a reading and an interview on VPR’s Vermont Edition, Penny – who’d listened to the interview – dressed me down a bit. “You didn’t talk about our investments,” she said, and for a moment, I was a little puzzled, because like most people, my definition of “investment” has been hijacked by the mentality of money. In other words, exactly what investments was she thinking I should have mentioned? The $50 in small bills we have stuffed under our mattress? The half gallon jar of pennies sitting on my desk?

As should be entirely obvious by now, Penny is infinitely wiser than me, and therefore able to clearly see that the realm of investing needn’t be solely about money and finance. It needn’t be about flipping condos, or precious metals. It needn’t be about stocks and bonds and convoluted financial instruments that are generally rooted in the assumption that’s it’s perfectly ethical to screw someone else or ravage the environment in the name of profit. I mean, hey, we live in a dog-eat-dog world. If you ain’t getting yours, someone else is.

But of course these are not the only things we can invest in. I am starting to wonder what the world would look like if we applied the same ingenuity we apply to investing in money and finance to investing in the things that really matter, the things that provide true, unconditional security, not the strictly conditional security of that comes of relying on institutions that are both too big to fail (which almost certainly means they ultimately will) and beyond the sphere of our personal influence. Because let’s be crystal clear: These institutions care for you only so much as you can afford to have them care for you. It’s like paying for love, and we all know how that generally works out.

So the next time I have an opportunity (today, as it turns out: I’ll be on KERA’s Think program at 12:00 central, if you happen to be hanging in Texas and wanting to talk about this stuff) to discuss my family’s investments, here’s what I’m going to say:

Yes, it is true that we do not have much in the way of investments, in so much as investments are assumed to mean money and other assets that can readily be exchanged for money. But this does not mean we are not investing. Indeed, we are always investing: In our land, in our relationships with friends and neighbors, in our children, and in the skills that enable us to thrive outside the realm of money and finance. The tragic irony of monetary investments is that they inevitably divest us of the unconditional security that comes of immersing ourselves in family, community, skills, and the natural world, because if we spend the bulk of our waking hours in a quest for financial accumulation, there is little time or energy remaining to invest in anything else. So yeah, some people buy stocks and bonds in a quest for security. Me, I’m planting trees, putting up hay with the neighbors, and learning how to use hand tools with my boys. And darned if these don’t feel like the most profitable investments I could be making. 

Where Am I?

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