The Declining Baseline of Personal Choice
June 28, 2013 § 21 Comments
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.