Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Ant and the Grasshopper

We have all heard the story of the ant and the grasshopper. It’s a beautiful summer day, and the ant works hard taking grains of wheat, or kernels of corn, depending on who tells the story, to the anthill to store up for winter. The grasshopper plays his fiddle, and tells the ant she should relax and not worry – there is plenty of food.
A few months later it is winter, and the grasshopper is cold and hungry, while the ants are snug in the hill eating the supplies they set by in the summer.
The grasshopper sees the error of his ways, now that he’s cold and hungry. In some versions of the story the ant says, “Neener neener neener,” to the grasshopper, but in others the grasshopper is left to deplore his thoughtless ways in solitude.
The moral of this story is: it is wise to think about tomorrow today.
This story is attributed to Aesop. It is one of the animal fables that were told to teach lessons about life and the world. I was thinking about this fable last night as I listened to the radio. People were talking about how they had saved money all their lives, and had pensions invested in the market, and now – gone. A young man said he hesitated to save money now, because he knows there is no guarantee that his savings will be there when he retires.
So many industrious ants are finding they’ll be out in the cold with the grasshoppers, was my first thought. But then I realized that Aesop created these fables centuries before the stock market as we know it existed. The ant was putting away food, not making contributions to her Roth IRA.
The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that Aesop lived during the sixth century BC and was probably a slave on the island of Samos. Though no historical information on Aesop is available, he was probably a real person.
Phaedrus was a Roman slave born in Macedonia. He lived from around 15 BC to around 50 AD, during the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius. He put together books of fables, including Aesop’s, in Latin. Phaedrus' treatment of the fables influenced later writers.
So the story of the ant and the grasshopper comes from a time when people lived on agriculture, livestock, and the maritime trade in the Mediterranean. The stock market was where you bought a chicken or a goat or some other farm creature.
You could say that we all still depend on those things globally today, and we do, but most of us are a few layers removed from the farm, the ranch, or the boat with a cargo of amphorae of olive oil. Whether we eat or stay warm depends on how much money we have more than whether we gathered the crops in sufficiently and stored them wisely last summer.
So our savings are financial. The IRA, the 401k, the mutual fund, stocks, are all tied to the ups and downs of the market.
You may have been an ant all your life, but now you’re sitting around having a beer with the grasshopper wondering how the heck this happened to a nice hard-working ant like you. The grasshopper sympathizes; he has nothing, either, but fortunately he can still play that fiddle, so the evenings can be merry.
We are being stripped of our illusions of what security is. It ain’t money. This might be a good year to consider what security is.

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