Friday, August 26, 2022

The Trefoil Lawn

A year or so ago the wife pointed out some striking yellow flowers in our lawn. Rich color. Nice and low they were too, not like dandelions. She said maybe we could dig them up and put them in a wildflower patch. But then I saw some of them over by the rock wall, where I don't mow. They were a foot tall or more and didn't create the same impression. So I promptly forgot about transplanting them.

I looked em up. They're called bird'sfoot trefoil. Now, if I had any business sense at all, I'd be advertising and selling them as "Micro Trefoil". Kinda like the "Micro Clover" that came up in my Clover post: As long as you keep mowing it, it maintains the "micro" features that you paid an arm and a leg for.

If I had any business sense at all.


I don't think anybody ever gets my sense of humor.


I want it for my lawn

Around here, in April the low part of the yard is so wet you can't drive the mower there. By May things are better, and drier yet in June. In July and August things are so dry the plants start to die. This year again the lawn all turned brown -- or I should say, all except the weeds.

I'm never going to be a guy who can out-think the weather, remember when last it rained, and know when to water the plants. I only see it after things are dead or dying. Nor do I have time or hose enough to water the lawn. So I started looking at the survivors, the green weeds in the lawn, looking for something that would make a good-looking lawn, stay green despite drought, and stay low and fairly even for a week or more after mowing.

I found something, but it's not the clover. It's the trefoil, birdsfoot trefoil. The one the wife pointed out two years ago.

I'm just calling it "trefoil" by the way.


Herodotus, the old Greek, the father of history, wrote about the customs of the Persians, the enemies of Greece. In this part, from perseus.tufts, he writes of the Persian method of sacrifice to the gods:

To pray for blessings for himself alone is not lawful for the sacrificer; rather, he prays that the king and all the Persians be well; for he reckons himself among them. He then cuts the victim limb from limb into portions, and, after boiling the flesh, spreads the softest grass, trefoil usually, and places all of it on this. When he has so arranged it, a Magus comes near and chants over it the song of the birth of the gods, as the Persian tradition relates it; for no sacrifice can be offered without a Magus. Then after a little while the sacrificer carries away the flesh and uses it as he pleases.

Don't let the word "victim" get you thinking this was human sacrifice. It was some animal, probably a sheep that was sacrificed.

What I really want to say about this ancient Persian ritual is that they used "the softest grass, trefoil" when offering their sacrifice to the god. What I really want to say: If trefoil is good enough for the Persian gods, it is good enough for my lawn.

In a different translation, Herodotus says not "the softest grass, trefoil usually," but instead says

the tenderest herbage that he can find, trefoil especially.

"Trefoil usually" seems to leave it up to the sacrificer to decide what soft greenery to use. "Trefoil especially" seems to make trefoil the rule rather than just one of the options. 

Unfortunately, in the time of Herodotus and the ancients, they were not as fastidious about identification of plants as we have been since Linnaeus. It's more like they had a favorite name for plants they liked a lot, and they used that name for all those plants: They were all trefoil. 

And half of those, the most prized half, were the lotus.

The identification of plants

I found this great PDF from Harvard, called "Plants Named “Lotus” in Antiquity". I just call it Huh! Harvard. From the Abstract:

In ancient times, several plants were named “lotus.” They assumed very important roles in the religions and art of many cultures, but historiography and descriptions of the various plants called “lotus” have always been poor. The aim of this work is to define what plant species correspond to the ancient name “lotus.” Through analysis of classical texts and other historiographical sources, three types of “lotus” have been identified: “arboreal lotus,” “herbaceous lotus,” and “aquatic lotus.” From the sources examined, several botanical species have been identified for each “lotus” category.

For my lawn, I wouldn't want tree lotus or aquatic lotus. I'd want herbaceous lotus: something green and soft and nice to walk on. The "Huh! Harvard" paper identifies not one genus of plants, but four, and several species in total, as the plants the ancients described as "herbaceous and fodder lotus". Apparently no one really knows for sure which plants they were talking about.

It gets worse. At perseus.tufts I searched for lotus clover. The relevant results all offer interpretations of the ancient Greek word "λωτός" that apparently means "lotus". In the sumary below, I have shortened the text, and removed links and references. It looks like lotus is lotus. But for herbaceous and fodder lotus, lotus is trefoil is clover. And "clover" is not necessarily the clover we know as clover.

  • λωτός. The lotus here is a sort of trefoil or clover, not to be confounded with the lotus of bk. 9. According to Sprengel, Bot. Hist., it is the Lotus corniculatus of Linnaeus.
    From: W. Walter Merry, James Riddell, D. B. Monro, Commentary on the Odyssey (1886)

  • λωτός. name applied to various plants and trees providing fodder or fruit:
    [Under "fodder plants" they list]
    1. clover, trefoil, Trifolium fragiferum
    2. fellbloom, Lotus corniculatus
    3. fenugreek, Trigonella Foenum-graecum
    4. melilot, T. graeca
    4b Italian melilot, Melilotus messanensis
    From: Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon

  • λωτός. the lotus, name of several plants.
    I. the Greek lotus, a plant on which horses fed, a kind of clover or trefoil
    II. the Cyrenean lotus, an African shrub, whose fruit was the food of certain tribes on the coast, hence called Lotophagi
    III. the Egyptian lotus, the lily of the Nile
    IV. a North-African tree; from its hard black wood flutes were made
    From: Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon

  • λωτός. lotus.
    (1) a species of clover
    (2) the tree and fruit enjoyed by the Lotus-eaters. Said to be a plant with fruit the size of olives, in taste resembling dates, still prized in Tunis and Tripoli under the name of Jujube.
    From: Georg Autenrieth, A Homeric Dictionary

I think the name "lotus" was applied to plants that were the most special in some way: for example, the ones that provided the softest herbage, the most satisfying narcotic, the most perfect flower, the most beautiful flute music.

The terms "trefoil" and "clover" described lesser members of the plant community, except the Greeks apparently thought their trefoil horse fodder was good enough to be called lotus: the best horse fodder ever. And apart from the upgrade to "lotus" for the fodder plant, the terms "trefoil" and "clover" appear to have been used interchangeably -- if they even had the two separate terms in the ancient language.

I'm still using "trefoil" to mean birdsfoot trefoil, or whatever it is I have in my lawn. But I do like that name "fellbloom".

Want to buy some Micro Fellbloom?


Why did Linnaeus call it Lotus?

One more item from the "Huh! Harvard" paper. I thought this was odd:

The most typical of autochthonous [native] plants used for fodder is Lotus corniculatus L. (Fabaceae), which has yellow flowers and rich nectar sought by bees. Therefore, the reference to the genus Lotus for herbaceous and foraging lotuses is well justified.

I think they are saying the yellow flowers and rich nectar justify Linnaeus's decision to use Lotus as the genus name for birdsfoot trefoil. I was wondering why he used that name; but their explanation seems a weak one, and odd I think: The paper seems to agree with the old Greeks that birdsfoot trefoil really did make fodder that was lotus-good. That's a strange explanation.

By the way, the "L." following the name Lotus corniculatus is used to indicate that it was Linnaeus himself who came up with that name for the species. News to me.

Here's a different explanation for Linnaeus's choice of the name "Lotus", this from Puzzlements, at In the Garden, jamesfolsom's place:

Linnaeus himself assigned the Latinized word Lotus to members of the bean family.  At the time, that was no surprise; the Greeks had long used the word for a group of small woody plants in the bean family.

I give this explanation more weight than the "flowers and nectar" explanation. But "Huh! Harvard" has a better explanation, too: Their opening sentence stresses the economic value of the various plants called lotus in ancient times.

In ancient times, the name “lotus” was applied to several plants, and each had a relevant economic importance...

"Huh! Harvard" also says the ancient lotus plants "assumed very important roles in the religions and art of many cultures". Sure. But I'd add that lotus became important in art and religion because it was important to people, because it was important economically.

As for myself, the months I spent reading Simkhovitch's "Rome's Fall Reconsidered" and Huntington's "Climatic Change and Agricultural Exhaustion as Elements in the Fall of Rome" made the important even more important to me. Either Simkhovitch's exhausted soil or Huntington's long-term drought caused the decline of Roman agriculture. But Huntington and Simkhovitch agree that the decline of agriculture (and agricultural income) caused the fall of Rome. (Remember, Roman civilization was based on agriculture. Declining agricultural income hurt almost everyone.)

To have an expanding civilization you need an expanding economy, particularly when civilization is organized so as to require expansion (as Carroll Quigley so wisely points out). Keynes, too, knew that civilization rises and falls with the economy. He said economists are "the trustees not of civilization, but of the possibility of civilization." Thus, if economists cannot fix the economy, the civilization cannot survive.

Me, I've said that so often I'm tired of saying it, and now I talk about trefoil.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

A couple of last night's headlines

"More rate hikes" are in the works "until inflation eases". I'm leaving out words, but I got the key concept.

The concept is that inflation is caused by an overheated economy, and if we have inflation we have to cool things off. There is too much economic activity, and we need less. The economy is growing too fast, and we need it to grow slower.

The policy is based on a metaphor about temperature. The metaphor gives us a story we can understand. But that doesn't mean that the policy is right.


Milton Friedman used to talk about "the quantity of money relative to output". He said there is too much money, compared to the size of the economy: Too much money per dollar's worth of GDP. I like this story because it is based on economic quantities, not on the metaphor of temperature. 

I'm not saying that one of these stories is right and the other is wrong. I bring them up because I want to compare the two inflation stories. In the one story, there is too much economic activity. In the other, there is too much money.

I think Friedman would say that you can't have "too much economic activity" unless there is enough money to support all that activity: Thus, the inflation that is caused by too much activity can only happen because there is too much money. I pretty much agree with that story. So does the Federal Reserve. 

The news reports mention interest rate increases because interest rate increases will sooner or later reduce the growth of the money supply, and will reduce the growth of economic activity, and will reduce inflation. The Fed accepts this story. It is the accepted story.

The trouble with that story is, it is only a story about inflation. It is not a story about the whole economy. The only thing I've mentioned, above, is inflation. Inflation, and how we deal with it.

Hey! Inflation is a big problem. Everybody knows. If you don't know, you can tell from the amount of news coverage of inflation in recent months.

But inflation is a result. It is a result of economic activity, the quantity of money, and the rate of interest, along with other factors that we have not talked about here and which don't make the news. Inflation is a result, and we need to deal with all of its causes or our solution will eventually fail.

The last time inflation was as bad as it is now was 40 years ago or more. I keep hearing it in the news, and the "years ago" number keeps growing. They make it sound like everything was great in the years when inflation was less. But everything wasn't great in those years, and you know it. 

This is what happens, according to the accepted story: When inflation goes away, everything is okay. So when we get inflation to go away again, everything will be okay again. That is what the news reports boil down to, and apparently that is what we think.

I think we know better.

Let's go back to the inflation story and see what is left out. Back to the story of economic quantities, not the temperature metaphor. Here is the story:

  • You can't have "too much economic activity" unless there is enough money to support all that activity.
  • The inflation that is caused by too much economic activity can only happen because there is too much money.
  • The Federal Reserve responds to inflation by increasing the rate of interest in order to reduce the growth of the money supply.

So, how do interest rates come into the story?

The Federal Reserve understands that borrowing money creates new money and increases the quantity of money. If we borrow less, we will increase the quantity of money less. If they make borrowing more expensive, we will borrow less. And the Fed can raise interest rates to make borrowing more expensive. So that is what the Fed does: They raise interest rates to make borrowing more expensive, so that we borrow less, to slow the creation of new money and reduce the growth of the money supply, in order to reduce the expansion of economic activity and fight inflation.

As borrowing gets more expensive over time, more and more people reduce their borrowing. So the quantity of money increases less. Over time, this reduces the growth of economic activity -- lowering the economic "temperature" -- and it reduces the resulting inflation. So the Fed keeps increasing interest rates "until inflation eases substantially," as the headline says. That is the story of making inflation go away.

The part of the story that never gets told is what happens when inflation comes down and stays down for 40 years. What happens? People increase their borrowing for 40 years. Maybe longer. As long as we don't get the inflation, people keep borrowing more and our debt keeps increasing. That's the short version, but that's the story.

So now, I have a question: What happens when we borrow money? Not the inflation part. We covered that. What else happens when we borrow money?

We increase our debt.

When we increase our debt, we increase the debt service payments we will be making out of our income. This leaves less income to spend on other things.

As a rule, our debt increases faster than our income. Household debt increases faster than household income, private sector debt increases faster than private sector income, and all-sector debt increases faster than all-sector income. As a rule, debt increases faster than income.

To simplify the picture of what happens, assume that debt is always increasing faster than income. That means that the cost of debt service is always increasing as a portion of our income. To get an idea of how much debt service cost increases for household debt, I looked at the TDSP dataset at FRED. That's "Household Debt Service Payments as a Percent of Disposable Personal Income".

I had Excel put a straight-line trend from 1980 (start-of-data) to the high point at 2007 (just before the financial crisis). The trend line rises by 1.95 percentage points, almost two percentage points of Disposable Personal Income.

That worked out to a 0.0723% increase per year during the 27-year period. Doesn't sound like much, but it does accumulate to almost 2% over the 27 years.

When the amount we pay for debt service increases, we have less income left over for other expenses. Between 1980 and 2007, we lost 2% of our income to debt service. If we were a business, that 2% change might mean we had to take the money out of our profits and pay it to our creditors.

That loss of profit could put us out of business. Financial costs arising from the growth of debt could put us out of business. Two percentage points of profit is a lot to lose.


Okay. When debt increases, the cost of debt service increases. It takes more of our income to pay our bills. We have less of our income left for other things, like current spending. Until there is a problem like there was in 2008, we may find ourselves borrowing more to meet current expenses, simply because our existing debt service payments consume so much of our income.

I'm not blaming anyone for this. I'm just pointing out that it happens: We end up borrowing more and increasing our debt, because money is tight because so much of our income goes to service our existing debts.

If only a few people get into trouble this way at any one time, we can point the finger and hold them in contempt, and get away with it. But if it happens to too many of us all at the same time, you get what they call "a financial crisis".

You can't fix inflation by focusing only on inflation. You have to also pay attention to the growth of debt, and the increase in debt service cost. And if you are aware of the problem, you can interpret inflation as the economy's attempt to compensate for high levels of debt and debt service costs. You can come up with a better story to explain inflation.

I know it's not as simple as I'm trying to make it sound here. But the problem is not just inflation. And the evidence that the problem is not just inflation is simple: The policymakers' solution to the inflation problem is to make borrowing money more expensive. Their solution to inflation is to make sure there is inflation in the cost of borrowing. It makes no sense.

The Federal Reserve raises interest rates to fight inflation. They raise interest rates, to get people to borrow less, to fight inflation.

Instead of doing that, or in addition to doing that, what we need is to take some of the so-called "excess" money that is already in the economy, and use that "excess" money to pay down existing debt.

No, it doesn't help if we borrow money today, creating even more debt, so that we can use that money to pay down debt. No. On the other hand, it doesn't help if the Federal Reserve increases interest rates so much and so often that they create a recession. Maybe we need to do both: raise interest rates some to slow the growth of borrowing, and create new policies that encourage people to pay down existing debt faster.

Hey, I can't keep going over these thoughts until they sound as clean and clear as I want them to sound. So I'm just going to post this thing and be done with it.

Sunday, August 7, 2022


I know this isn't economics. That can't be helped. 

I looked up clover lawns (as an alternative to grass lawns), read a bunch of pages, and made some notes. I ended up with notes on ten clover-lawn sites. This is a short summary of those notes.

The first link in my notes is Before banning clover, consider its benefits (2015) at the Statesman Journal. I wasn't thinking of "banning" clover, but I did think a list of benefits might be useful, so I looked. The best sentence I found on that page turned out to be the best sentence of all the sites:

But beware that [if you use herbicide] you can't compost the lawn clippings without the risk of herbicide residual effects in your compost.

Is that obvious? Probably, because I never hear anyone pointing it out. For me, though, things are never obvious till someone points them out. The article is by Carol Savonen, who definitely gets an honorable mention for mentioning it.

The article opens with a question about using fertilizer to kill clover. Savonen answers the question, then writes:

I am going to ask you a point-blank question. What's so bad about having a little clover in your lawn? It requires little in the way of care or feeding, as it has the ability to take nitrogen from the air, making its own fertilizer.

From my notes:

I, too, like the idea of clover "making its own fertilizer" for my lawn. But those large clover leaflets -- three on every clover leaf, unless you get lucky -- are visual misfits in a grass-blade lawn. Round and heart-shaped leaves just don't belong with the long, narrow blades of lawn grass. Silly? Maybe. But that's one of the places my mind goes when I mow.

My perfect lawn wouldn't have a mix of clover and grass because I don't like the look of it. I thought about having an all-clover lawn, because the clover in my lawn stays green when my lawn grass goes brown, dormant or dead in the hot, dry summer. I thought about that, but I already have clover flowers floating over my lawn, all over my lawn. When those flowers turn brown they look like burdock burrs. It's not a pretty sight. 

I see them, and I have to mow again. So it's not like clover means less mowing.

I wanted to see why people like clover lawns and the grass/clover mix. My question is not "Why ban clover?" but just the opposite: What's so great about clover? And that is how I came to write this post.

The second clover link in my notes is Lawns and Microclover, from the University of Maryland Extension. In this one also I found a "best sentence" -- the latter sentence here:

Because of these characteristics and their nitrogen-fixing ability, there is interest in using microclover in lawns to enhance turfgrass growth and reduce nitrogen fertilizer applications. Limiting nitrogen runoff is a goal of the Maryland Lawn Fertilizer Law as part of broader efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay.

It seems there is a lot of concern about the environment, and action, too. That's good. But it never shows up in the news. I didn't know things had progressed so much. Still, I am left wondering: Can we plant too much clover? Can we get too much nitrogen in the soil, from clover? Wouldn't that nitrogen also run into the Chesapeake Bay and harm the environment?

Yes, apparently that can happen. So maybe the problem is not what we choose to grow for our lawns, but how much lawn we have. Maybe the civilized world is too big for the natural world. And maybe that's what caused the fall of Rome. 


Okay. I'm going to drop this thought right now and go back to clover.

The Maryland Extension link gives a description of "microclover":

Microclover refers to smaller varieties of white clover (Trifolium repens var. ‘Pirouette’ and ‘Pipolina’). These types have smaller leaves, fewer flowers, and a lower growth habit compared to Dutch white clover.

Smaller leaves, fewer flowers, and a lower growth habit: That makes an interesting comparison. Then they add this:

They also have a less aggressive clump-forming habit.
Wait, what? Clover has an aggressive clump-forming habit? A clover lawn is lumpy?

No answer.

The "visual misfits" thing arose again as I was going over my clover-lawn notes. One of the links -- Benefits of a Clover Lawn at -- suggests that microclover eliminates the misfit because the clover leaves are so small: microclover is "the smallest clover variety available and blends really well into lawns".

They say it "blends really well". But they want me to buy microclover. They have a vested interest. So I am not convinced. I'm not convinced microclover solves the problem. And according to another of the links in my notes -- Clover and Microclover Lawns -- what's the big deal? at OSC Seeds -- it doesn't solve the problem.

They point out that microclover is just a variety of white clover, not a different species. They point out that to maintain the "micro" habit (smaller leaves, fewer flowers, and a lower growth habit) regular mowing is necessary. Without regular mowing, this site says, microclover "will become more like Common White Clover, both in appearance and behaviour as the years go by."

I believe it. Microclover is a not a different species; it's just a different variety, an uncommon version of Common White Clover. If you don't keep after it, it can revert. If you let it reseed itself naturally, it can revert. If you fail to mow it regularly, it can revert.

As microclover reverts, losing its "micro" appearance, the leaves become bigger and the visual misfit between clover and lawn grass becomes more obvious. Hey, maybe it doesn't bother you. I'm not trying to convince you otherwise. But it bothers me, always, when I'm out mowing the lawn instead of sitting here at the keyboard. 

And sometimes that's twice a week.