To speak of ancient Greece is to speak of the foundation of Western philosophy. The names of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle have rolled off the tongues of professors and politicians for millennia. There is another great philosopher of the Greeks about whom little is known but much has been attributed.
Have you read any Aesop lately?
When winter comes, the grasshopper, unable to dig through the snow, finds himself (itself — gender not likely relevant) dying of hunger. When he comes to the ants to ask for food, they turn their backs on him in disgust.
The moral of Aesop’s fable? Don’t buy the 75-inch flat-screen when the 50-inch would work just fine.
What is remarkable about Aesop’s story isn’t the lesson it teaches. It is that he was teaching sometime between 620 and 564 B.C.E. That means the behaviors of failing to save, failing to prepare, living to excess and beyond means are not some sort of modern phenomena that Karl Marx gladly would have blamed on capitalism.
Then again, Marx blamed everything on capitalism.
In May 2018, the Federal Reserve released the Economic Well Being of U.S. Households in 2017. It was an extensive survey of American households covering a wide range of topics. Some of the results:
- Four in 10 adults said they would be unable to cover an unexpected expense of $400 or more without borrowing money or selling an asset;
- Over one-fifth of American adults cannot pay their monthly bills in full; and
- Less than two-fifths of non-retired adults think their retirement savings are on track, and one-fourth say they have no pension or savings at all.
This study becomes relevant as the government partial shutdown continues and every major news outlet parades a steady stream of government workers, most of them single parents with several young children, telling us “they just don’t know how they are going to make ends meet.”
They missed their first paycheck. The rules of thumb are to have three-to-nine months of income in savings to cover emergencies, and to save 10-15 percent of your income each year for retirement.
Last Friday, a Washington Post story described an effort by a federal worker to sell assets in the early days of the shutdown: “Sells for $93.88 at Walmart. Asking $10,” a government worker wrote on a Craigslist ad for a Lulu Ladybug rocking chair. “We need money to pay bills.”
Although I can’t prove it, I suspect that this worker’s financial problems started before Chuck and Nancy decided to shut down the government.
So, why so many grasshoppers and so few ants in today’s America, despite the warnings of Aesop?
The truth is that it has nothing to do with modern America per se. It has to do with the nature of man being accommodated by a culture that increasingly caters to grasshoppers over ants. This is evidenced in the United States and across all modern Western Nations in general.
If you tax something you get less of it and if you subsidize it you get more of it. Since the dawn of the welfare state under FDR and its inflation under LBJ, we have been creating a culture that tells people they need to worry less and less about their own well being because we have programs in place that will take care of that for them.
We have subsidized sloth. We have subsidized greed. We have subsidized envy.
Those are three of the seven deadly sins right off the top.
We have allowed people in our society to live their daily lives while feeling above the trapeze artist’s net. They feel as though they are backstopped, protected by the wealth and contributions of others. This allows them to pursue any form of excess they wish while, at the same time, setting aside any real need for industriousness and thrift.
In ancient Greece the role of government in creating any form of social welfare was mostly along the lines of acting as a conduit between the wealthy and the poor, to facilitate patronage and assistance. In today’s America, as in Western Europe, the role of government has been to tell “A” they will take from “B” to make sure “A” is ok.
This was all foreseen. William Graham Sumner, perhaps America’s first sociologist, wrote about the “Forgotten Man” in Harper’s Weekly back in 1883. Well in advance of the modern welfare state and the characteristics of dependency and false security it has brought, Sumner warned of this threat.
Countless others have warned of the perils of welfare along the way.
It isn’t someone being on welfare that creates the kind of bad choices and poor planning about which the Federal Reserve study reports. It is about living in a society where people come to believe the primary obligation for their own personal well-being rests in the hands of others, rather than with themselves.
This is the great tragedy about a culture built upon group, rather than self, reliance. We have indulged one of the worst inherent characteristics of man — the grasshopper that can live inside all of us — and we have allowed it to sing all summer long.
The problem is, what happens when the ants stop saving the kernels of corn? Asked differently, what happens when Atlas finally decides to shrug?