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.

§ 21 Responses to The Declining Baseline of Personal Choice

  • Jennifer Fisk says:

    Each generation has learned to accept a lower standard. Think about food. My generation was the first to experience McDonalds and back in the 1960′s it wasn’t really that bad. Now, McDonalds and the other fast food places are offering a less tasty, fat and chemical laden but more profitable “food” but it is accepted because no one remembers anything different. Nice restaurants offer homemade soups which are really doctored up soups from the Sysco truck. Our population is less discerning and has accepted mediocrity. Only those who have been raised with good food will eschew this.

    • vpfarming says:

      Right on. I love the “Sysco truck” reference. I’ve been saying this for years to anyone who will listen. Almost anything you find in any restaurant today is commoditized food, dispensed from the same 2 or 3 foodservice companies. I cringe when I see the restaurants signs touting “made fresh” menu items. It’s a labeling ploy and more evidence of a declining baseline.

  • Kent says:

    This “Declining Baseline” is hugely important. Imagine viewing only a dozen frames of an hour-long movie: the take-home experience very likely would be way off from the intended drama’s conclusion. Unless we expand our baseline to grasp many more “frames,” we are blind. In human terms, we need to embrace at least three generations preceding our own mortal existence and project forward to three generations hence to provide a sober and realistic sense as to where our fragile planet (with all flora, fauna, & human population) is heading.

    • Judith Lawson says:

      Unto the seventh generation… thank you for helping me understand what
      this means a little more deeply. Many things take three generations to change. The prevailing corporate frame of short term profits and instant gratification destroys the ineffable, precious beyond telling.

  • Trish says:

    I’ve never heard of this term “Declining Baseline” but have long felt this to be the case. You can see this “acceptance” of mediocrity everywhere…food, music, quality of built items such as furniture, homes, cars etc. declining natural world and so on. It’s sad really. My daughter passed away at the age of 20 about two years ago. She was a sensitive soul and her heart couldn’t take the world as it is today. She saw where we are headed and decided to leave this earth. That’s my view on why she died so unexpectedly at such an early age. I pity the young people of today as even though they have a declining base line, deep down inside they know things are seriously wrong even though they are superficially accepting it. However the fact that more and more young people are on drugs (legal or otherwise) to just cope with every day life, speaks volumes that this generation of humans are not really accepting this reality even if on the surface it looks like they are. Hopefully they will come out of the haze of antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, alcohol and immune suppressing/brain deadening sugar and fat laden foods and make changes to this planet.

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Very sorry to hear about your daughter, Trish.

      I am still of the mind that the world is basically a beautiful place. But I do recognize the extent of the personal privileges that allow me to see it that way.

  • ember69 says:

    This is probably a terribly naïve and simplistic statement, but how is it living on the dole if you’re paying into the system with your taxes? Must be nice to have the income to afford that judgmental viewpoint (the “living on the dole” thing, of course). I say, if only more states operated like Vermont…and I get that I’m a borderline socialist by saying that; but when I knew my pay was going to take a big hit and I’d be insurance shopping, I looked at Medicaid without thinking twice, only to discover that the pittance my husband and I live on is too much to be considered for it. Now we’re barely making ends meet, only one of us is insured, and I’m not sure how I’m going to be able to afford Obamacare when it comes around, even as I rejoice in the option. And I’d be considered lazy for thinking of government subsidization…yea, pretty sure we’re not the problem!
    Big fan of your writing, Ben! You make me think.

  • Dawn says:

    You recently wrote about someone calling you an “isolationist.” I thought about that for a long time as I think some would describe me the same way, especially since having my children and looking at the world with new eyes. I think this desire to hunker down and hole up on my property and the close vicinity is a way of shielding myself and them from the pressures and messages you describe. Those media messages are so pervasive, they are considered normal by most. Health care is similar. I have many friends who kill themselves at jobs they don’t like because they think they have to have insurance that pays for every little nick and cut they might get. They think this is normal and even the responsible thing to do especially if they have children. We have chosen a very high deductible policy (essentially just catastrophic insurance) so we can afford to be home with our boys. I’ve had people question me about this and when we say we are just focusing on staying healthy and not getting sick in the first place, they look at you like you just sprouted horns. Accidents and illnesses do happen but it should not be a normal expectation that every child gets dozens of antibiotic necessary infections per year. But, that is what so many think and as long as that is the case, the insurance companies don’t have to change and true health care will never be given the priority because there is just too much money to be made in people getting sick. Thanks for making me think, as you always do!

  • Sandra Ragsdale says:

    It’s easy to paint everything with a broad brush…swipe, swipe, swipe.

    In post WWII America it is ironic that the resulting peacetime prosperity has wrought enormous social changes that were impossible to predict, much less control, the effects of which we grapple with today. I’m talking about urbanization, rural electrification, radio, television, mass marketing,
    mass production, the Cold War, civil rights issues, drugs, crime, and more recently, industry consolidation, the rise of corporatism, globalization, outsourcing, unemployment, terror attacks, climate uncertainty, immigration issues, litigiousness, corruption in Congress, drugs, crime, et cetera. It looks like affluence ushers in its own set of problems.

    There’s a lot wrong with our country and I would say there’s also a lot right with our country. And there’s plenty of countries where you’ll find less freedom and less personal choice than the USA.
    And advertisers have freedom too; they have the option to spend millions of bucks promoting unhealthy products. Who should be the arbiter of freedom? Should a corporation be prohibited from opening a factory in Bangladesh? Should hospitals and medical providers be subject to price controls?

    Here’s my pithy conclusion; sometimes change comes slowly, sometimes too fast. The trouble is when will human nature change.

    Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing.
    It’s easy to paint everything with a broad brush…swipe, swipe, swipe.

    In post WWII America it is ironic that the resulting peacetime prosperity has wrought enormous social changes that were impossible to predict, much less control, the effects of which we grapple with today. I’m talking about urbanization, rural electrification, radio, television, mass marketing,
    mass production, the Cold War, civil rights issues, drugs, crime, and more recently, industry consolidation, the rise of corporatism, globalization, outsourcing, unemployment, terror attacks, climate uncertainty, immigration issues, litigiousness, corruption in Congress, drugs, crime, et cetera. It looks like affluence ushers in its own set of problems.

    There’s a lot wrong with our country and I would say there’s also a lot right with our country. And there’s plenty of countries where you’ll find less freedom and less personal choice than the USA.
    And advertisers have freedom too; they have the option to spend millions of bucks promoting unhealthy products. Who should be the arbiter of freedom? Should a corporation be prohibited from opening a factory in Bangladesh? Should hospitals and medical providers be subject to price controls?

    Here’s my pithy conclusion; sometimes change comes slowly, sometimes too fast. The trouble is when will human nature change.

    Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing.

    It’s easy to paint everything with a broad brush…swipe, swipe, swipe.

    In post WWII America it is ironic that the resulting peacetime prosperity has wrought enormous social changes that were impossible to predict, much less control, the effects of which we grapple with today. I’m talking about urbanization, rural electrification, radio, television, mass marketing,
    mass production, the Cold War, civil rights issues, drugs, crime, and more recently, industry consolidation, the rise of corporatism, globalization, outsourcing, unemployment, terror attacks, climate uncertainty, immigration issues, litigiousness, corruption in Congress, drugs, crime, et cetera. It looks like affluence ushers in its own set of problems.

    There’s a lot wrong with our country and I would say there’s also a lot right with our country. And there’s plenty of countries where you’ll find less freedom and less personal choice than the USA.
    And advertisers have freedom too; they have the option to spend millions of bucks promoting unhealthy products. Who should be the arbiter of freedom? Should a corporation be prohibited from opening a factory in Bangladesh? Should hospitals and medical providers be subject to price controls?

    Here’s my pithy conclusion; sometimes change comes slowly, sometimes too fast. The trouble is when will human nature change.

    Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing.

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Good points, Sandra. Please remember that these are short blog posts, not full blown essays or even books. Some generalization is necessary to get the point across in a concise manner.

  • Sandra Ragsdale says:

    Sorry, looks like I posted my post three times. Yikes.

  • Sandra Ragsdale says:

    Gee whiz, Ben, my post was no longer than some of the others today, Dawn’s, for example. It’s just that I repeated it two more times.

  • Audie Jean says:

    I wondered, Sandra, if you were just trying to prove your point that “freedom of speech is a wonderful thing.” :-)
    Ben, great writing, as usual.

  • Bill says:

    This is a wonderful post–rich with truth and wisdom.
    We see the declining baseline in lots of places in our culture (education and manners, for example). It is also evident in what we’re willing to accept as food. Much of what our culture now eats would have been unacceptable (and unpalatable) a couple of generations ago.

  • Mike says:

    AND… the best photo ever. I could lie on the floor and do that for hours too. Sweet stuff.

  • Marek says:

    Ben — As per the discussion of declining food quality & access, you’ve probably seen this animated GIF created from CDC data:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BRFSS_obesity_1985-2006.gif

    … So it would seem SOME baselines are still expanding.
    (Plus, here are links to original data and some relevant comments posted @ BOING BOING …)
    – Marek

  • Angie says:

    Very well said. One thing springs to my mind after reading this and the previous post–

    The whole “handouts” issue is such a hot discussion topic. People get really worked up about our fellow citizens using tax money for health care costs or for food.

    But most people don’t realize that when they buy cheap, government-subsidized food (ahem–all the fast food and processed food that the vast majority of people eat every day for most, if not all, of their meals) they are also taking the taxpayer’s dime in the form of agricultural subsidies that allow us to have such an incredibly cheap food supply.

    I’ll start listening to people who complain about such things when I see them actually paying what it really costs for their food–that means buying all of their food from farms that do not get agricultural subsidies.

    And, speaking of handouts, here is an interesting link to consider:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_foreign_aid

  • Charli says:

    I wanted to comment on healthcare question. I live in Australia and work in a private hospital. All the staff I know(except me) pay thousands ( 20 thousand annually one lady pays for her family) on private healthcare. We have reasonably good free care here and I have been thinking I should get private healthcare too as my workmates do seem shocked I go to the public hospital and speak negatively about the public patients. I had a procedure today in the public hospital and the treatment was exceptional. You’re posts have changed my mind as did my experience today. I won’t follow the crowd and I don’t believe i’m doing my family a dis service by going public as this is what my society seems to be leading people to believe.

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