Government no more spends our money than a garden spends water or a body spends blood.
This is but one of dozens like it. Regard it. Admire it. Stand in awe of its majesty. But you say, a garden does spend water? Tut. Nitpicking, nitpicking. A body does spend blood? Besides the point.
And what, exactly, is the point? Well, we don’t understand our economy because we think it’s a machine. And it’s not. It’s a (wait for it) … garden. Or so say Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, authors of The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy and the Role of Government, and authors of an op-ed essay in today’s New York Times, “The Machine and the Garden.”
Your patience will not allow as thorough an examination of this essay as I would like to provide; hence, a brief precis:
Obviously, we all think the economy is like a machine because we use metaphors like “jump start” and “grease the wheels” and “tune up” and stuff like that. QED, right? And that’s where we went wrong:
What we require now is a new framework for thinking and talking about the economy, grounded in modern understandings of how things actually work. Economies, as social scientists now understand, aren’t simple, linear and predictable, but complex, nonlinear and ecosystemic. An economy isn’t a machine; it’s a garden. It can be fruitful if well tended, but will be overrun by noxious weeds if not.
Never mind that only pencilheads like Krugman think the economy is linear and predictable. Let’s take a look at this “garden” metaphor.
First of all, a garden is by definition an artificial representation of nonlinear nature. You choose what you plant and where you plant it. Selection is not natural, but imposed from outside. There is no creativity in that there can be no mutation, no random element, and no room for experimentation. Okay, enough of that — an economy is about as much like a garden as a supernova is like a butane lighter. but:
In this new framework, which we call Gardenbrain, markets are not perfectly efficient but can be effective if well managed. Where Machinebrain posits that it’s every man for himself, Gardenbrain recognizes that we’re all better off when we’re all better off. Where Machinebrain treats radical inequality as purely the predictable result of unequally distributed talent and work ethic, Gardenbrain reveals it as equally the self-reinforcing and compounding result of unequally distributed opportunity.
Is “gardenbrain” a synonym for “dirthead?” I have read this gibberish several times now, and still cannot get all the way to the end without abdominal spasms from guffaws so profound that my ribs threaten to crack under the strain. “We’re all better off when we’re all better off.” And that last sentence — what freshman essay at what community college did the authors lift that from?
The authors also have an interesting habit of making statements that are so patently wrong they should make the reader start barking in protest, but the calm assurance of these assertions somehow tends to soothe one into at least an initial acceptance, until the mind recovers from the opium and suddenly croaks “What?! What?!”
Humans, it is said, originated in a garden. Perhaps that is why we understand so intuitively what it takes to be great gardeners.
Frankly, I think ether are very few people working at the New York Times that think for one second that “humans originated in a garden.” And I would bet serious money that not one person in a hundred alive in the US today would agree outright that they “understand so intuitively what it takes to be great gardeners.” If they do say so, they lie.
The authors see the government in this metaphor as an all-knowing, benevolent dictator that weeds out undesirable growth and nourishes admirable and desirable shoots for the benefit of all. One thing here we might agree with is the image of government spewing fertilizer in all directions, as we have actually been witness to this phenomenon for nigh on 65 years now.
Enough. I can’t go on. Let me tell you boys something: an economy is not a machine, nor is it a garden, or a Ferris wheel, or a curious piece of green putty you found in your armpit on a warm afternoon (Douglas Adams). If you want to make a botanical comparison, however, there is one more apt: it’s a jungle. We can clear it, defend ourselves from it, try to bend it to our own benefit, and we can to some extent contain it. But we don’t want to reduce it to some sterile plot of completely designed and rigidly managed state of equilbrium, because we need its feral nature to provide the innovation, creativity, laboratory and incubator that will guarantee our continued progress towards a better future — for everybody.
Finally, we find it hilarious that the authors of this puerile nonsense and all its contradictory imagery seem to be unaware of the use of this metaphor back in 1971 in Jerzy Kosinky’s masterpiece, Being There, where the sweet but simpleminded groundskeeper of a recently-deceased plutocrat is mistaken by the plutocrat’s associates for a profound sage, and therefore elevated to great prominence, because, whenever asked a question, he would respond by saying “It’s like a garden….”
Or, in the words of the authors:
Find the right ground and cast the seed. Fertilize, water and weed. Know the difference between blight and bounty. Adapt to changing weather and seasons. Turn the soil. This is how a fruitful economy grows.
Great ideas never die. They just come back as unintentional self-parodies. Gardenbrain indeed.