A recent New York state lottery radio commercial bragged that it is “spending billions to educate millions”. I did a double take, thinking I misheard. Both liberals and conservatives should find this inadvertent revelation depressing. It seems that no one is concerned with productivity anymore, that it has become a “bad word”. However, gardeners know that you spend a little to get a lot.
In the same vein, the current mortgage crisis shows that the lessons a gardener learns daily have not been absorbed by ordinary citizens and the financial system as a whole. You have to respect the yield that a piece of land can produce, and you have to know that to overestimate that yield—to gamble—is to risk the farm. In essence, betting on the distant market (made to seem close through telecommunication technology) underpins the debacle that permeates the home lending industry.
Consider the contrasting garden economy: the productive garden, rather than the reactive market as a metaphor. Begin with the sun, a free and continuous source of cosmic power. Add the water and earth. The result is endlessly reproducing plant life. By both recognizing and respecting the ability of plants to use this free power, we can maximize their growth, despite obstacles such as disease and climate variation that nature throws our way. As it goes with plants, so it goes with human beings.
Thus, mortgage and home lending operate in similar ways. By beginning with the “seed” of a mortgage to buy a property, an owner can nurture the property by making prudent additions and renovating along the way. “Acts of God”, such as flourishing economies or the vagaries of fashion, can impact the property much as rain or winds impact plants, both positively and negatively.
The crux of the current mortgage crisis is that too many homeowners try to force maximum growth out of nothing. The plant, as it were, does not have room to grow, and the gardener has already promised the entire harvest. With multiple mortgages in a declining housing market, there is no way that a property owner can gain a yield to feed him, his family and the bank, from the first seed. Eventually, the house goes to foreclosure, and the homeowner is left without a home for his children. Any short-term gain that could have come from the deal is now long forgotten.
As the increasingly popular green movement suggests, society should imitate the virtues of nature—in this case productivity—rather than deviate from them. A society that “spends billions to educate millions” will eventually collapse: educated and broke. However, a seed is ruthlessly cost effective: the commonly accepted ratio is about 1:12—every dollar spent on vegetable seed and compost or granular fertilizer yields twelve dollars of incomparably tasty produce. Let this be a lesson to our economists as well as our educators. We should be like seeds, nature’s microchip. Create rather than conserve, save rather than spend, multiply rather than divide. You will never see a “bail out” for home gardeners.
In the news we often hear that the environmental crisis is influencing, if not determining, public policy. Yet, in the richest nation on earth, we are blessed with unprecedented natural resources, all based on plant growth. In addition we have air, water and land so promising that we could, and surely must, create a garden economy for generations to come. Nevertheless, we panic that environmental and economic catastrophes are closing in on us. I believe that the reality is the opposite: we shall continue to enjoy an earthly paradise unknown to our ancestors.
It is a matter of investing not only in ourselves, but also in our natural resources, and balancing these divergent investments together—caring for ourselves as we care for our gardens. Only in this way will our tilth yield the fruit of its labor. As the American Puritan John Winthrop suggested, we should put ourselves forth, not only as the “shining city on the hill”, but also the shining garden in the sun, one that plants seeds from which future generations will profit.