August 27, 2008 · Updated 8:41 PM
Its natural for many of us to enter the New Year filled with hope. Theres hope that, like misdirected golf shots, a passing years errors can be filed away as water under the bridge and that our next efforts will fly true enough to buoy our spirits.
Hope hangs on expectations; that we wont get hit by floods or drought, that health will hold up, that the kids will bring home glowing progress reports, that the market will climb, that the Mariners will figure out how to pitch. And just as hope hangs on expectations, expectations spring from whats gone before.
Wed like to think that our prospects for 2007 might be understood by studying patterns set in the past. Thats why number-crunchers work to define baselines. The Bureau of Labor Statistics once re-set the value of a dollar at 1.00 for the years 1982-84 so that we can know that it now takes $1.94 to match the buying-power of a single dollar in 1984.
Whatever names benchmarks or baselines may go by, theyre necessary because without them wed have no idea of how things are changing. Wed have no sense of urgency to set things right when they go spinning out of control and so its a good idea to sit back and review how weve deviated from benchmarks or baselines at the beginning of each year.
If we could stop to wonder how we might treat the year 2007 rather than how it might treat us, wed find ourselves falling into Al Gores camp. In Gores documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, he paraphrases John Kennedy: Ask not what your planet can do for you. Ask what you can do for your planet. Gore is a champion of baselines. He knows how critical it is to establish reference points from which we measure change.
Just as Gore accepts baselines for planetary health, responsible drinkers have accepted 0.08 as a baseline for blood-alcohol content. Public health scientists set baselines for unacceptable levels of bacteria in drinking water. The WASL set a baseline for the amount of learning required for a high school diploma.
Money-issues like the cost of housing, the rise and fall of the stock market and the value of a dollar are manageable baseline-type comparisons because theyre creations of our species and, to varying degrees, controlled by humans. The science of baselines gets controversial when economic concerns clash with nature: What measures should be taken to reduce carbon dioxide emissions? What is the value of wilderness? How is deforestation of the planet changing climate?
Well have ample opportunity in the months ahead to study baselines and benchmarks. Theyll pop up in everything from athletic records to estimates of fossil fuel reserves. Weather reports will cite benchmarks for frequency-of-occurrence such as dreaded hundred-year-storms. Drawing from history, meteorologists lead us to believe that if we got slammed by a hundred-year downpour in 2006, well not likely experience another until 2106 or thereabouts. Uh-huh.
Wary insurance actuaries study such stuff and set our rates accordingly. Time was when you could insure a house on a floodplain because destructive floods were infrequent. But now that rivers come visiting every few years, insurance rates for low-lying homes skyrocket and repeated claims for flood damage are denied. Strange, though, that no matter how hard Mother Nature hits and no matter how many claims are filed, profit margins for insurance companies hardly twitch from quarter to quarter. But thats another issue.
I wish that my hopes for 2007 could be anchored on sure knowledge that the future will be a linear projection of the past. Then I could build, plan, invest even go out on a limb pursuing an attractive idea. But too often when I trust baselines or trends, I end up chasing moving targets or scattered data that defies analysis. My expectations are left bounding erratically down the highway of life like a car with four drastically out-of-balance wheels. What happened to the tried and true measuring points that once guided our lives and ambitions? The experts raise bored eyebrows and reply, Thats life.
Look into economic, educational, political, military, social, environmental and agricultural issues (the list goes on) and the cause for chaos centers on one word: Change. Changing population, changing balance of trade, changing technology, changing transportation needs, and all of that is calling for change in the preparation and attitudes that graduating students carry into the worlds of work and citizenship.
Im frankly confused by all this. It used to be that one generation could say of the one before, Were better off than our parents. Maybe we are. Maybe we arent. Houses are bigger. We have more things. Cars may not be bigger but they sure have more bells and whistles. If things arent materially worse, why all the unease? Its because when we lose our reference points, were lost.
Beyond the everyday confusion of not being able to distinguish between enough and too much, only two global baselines remain clear in my mind: Water will always seek its own level and peace is an absolute. Deviations from these are affronts to nature or the underlying code for global society. They are as naturally virtuous as a fully-funded Social Security system, a neutral balance of payments and a balanced budget.
At a personal level, what if my pulse, normally 55, suddenly careened between 85 and 120? Deviation from my baseline would call for whatever treatment it would take to effect a cure. So it is with other important measures of life. When baselines go bonkers, its unsettling. And they have.
As we enter the New Year, lets hope and pray that the new Congress will heed the significance of baselines. They must if they are to encourage feet-on-the-ground stability over tattered standards left blowing in the wind.
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