Romney’s fables

Mittens and the grasshopper.

No, I’m talking about Slinky’s latest departures from the truth.  RBC has outsourced that to Steve Benen.

I’m talking about Aesop.

I ran into a reprint of V.S. Vernon Jones’s lean, muscular 1912 translation, incorporating 284 tales. The level is sufficiently uneven to make me doubt that there was a single “Aesop.” Or maybe he was a collector rather than a composer of the tales that go by his name.  A majority strike me as rather pointless.

But I counted no fewer than sixteen that have become proverbial: sour grapes, grasping the nettle, the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the ass in the lion’s skin, the oak and the reeds, King Log and King Stork, belling the cat, the lion’s share, hic Rhodos, hic saltus, the goose that laid the golden eggs, crying wolf, counting your chickens, the dog in the manger, the tortoise and the hare, and blowing hot and cold, and “only one, but that a lion.”  Add to that the bundle of sticks representing fraternal loyalty, the father who gets his sons to till the vineyard well by telling them there’s treasure buried there, and Androcles and the lion, and that’s a remarkable hit-rate. (Neither the Brothers Grimm nor the Book of Proverbs, for example, does nearly as well.)

But it was a twentieth story that made me think of the Richie Rich for President campaign, and not in a good way. The story of the grasshopper and the ant creeped me out when I encountered it in grade school and it continues to creep me out to this day. For those who have been spared it, here’s the short version:

A grasshopper who was starving in the depth of winter came to an ant and asked him for some grain to keep him alive. The ant asked him, “What were you doing all summer, while I was gathering food?” The grasshopper said, “Why, I was singing and making merry in the sunshine.” “Well,” replied the ant, “if you sang in the summer, you can dance in the winter.”

In other words, “Go ahead and starve, and let me laugh at you and feel morally superior to you while I’m laughing.” That’s the whole emotional basis of the Republican “takers vs makers” appeal. And it still makes me feel sick when I encounter it.

While the Republican punditocracy is casting about for an explanation of what now seems likely to be a defeat, one candidate might be that there simply isn’t a voting majority of heartless prigs.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

35 thoughts on “Romney’s fables”

  1. That’s the whole emotional basis of the Republican “takers vs makers” appeal.

    Well, yes; except that the Republicans, or at least that minority of Americans the service of whose interests is the Republican Party’s sole real purpose, are themselves net takers.

  2. In reality, the grasshopper is the real right-wing hero. He actually spent the summer “going Galt” in reaction to the ants’ communal society.

  3. You should read Bernard Suits’ “The Grasshopper”. He gets his says in the finest work of ludic philosophy as of yet, a field of at least tangential interest to anyone concerned with systems and incentives.

  4. “What were you doing all summer, while I was LOOTING YOUR PENSION FUND?” The grasshopper said, “Why, I was looking for another job, but you seem to have sent them overseas.”

  5. “Slinky.” Mark keeps nailing it. Is he the First Academic Ever who has mastered political invective? I love it!

    1. Thanks for the kind words, but (like Aesop) I don’t make ’em up, I just remember ’em. Paul Begala referred in April to Romney’s “Etch-a-Sketch character and Slinky spine.” But that’s not where I saw it. I picked it up from Nick Burbules at the invaluable Progressive Blog Digest, who refers to the GOP ticket as “Slinky and Slinky Junior.”

      1. I prefer “Slinky and Stinky”. But then, who would play the role of Sauron? Karl Rove is too ugly and formless–the Kochtopus gets the Shelob job–Frank Luntz has the Saruman role in the bag.

        1. Okay, Adelson gets the job.

          Now for the hard problem: out of the thousands of qualified candidates, who would play Grima Wormtongue?

  6. As an aside, can I just say how much it bugs me whenever people misapply the lesson of the Fox and the Grapes? Whenever someone gets upset about losing, for example, a sporting event, they’re told “it’s just sour grapes”. When they blame a referee, or claim some victimhood of circumstance, they’re told “that’s just sour grapes”. Being upset about losing or looking for excuses is not sour grapes. Sour grapes would be saying “well, I didn’t really want to win anyway”. Sorry, but that’s a pet peeve of mine.

    1. And what’s wrong with being upset about losing anyway? Seems a pretty natural emotion to me. Sour grapes = wine…….sort of?

  7. And Mark has managed to misapply The Ant and the Grasshopper just as well. The intended moral, of course, is that if you don’t take any steps to provide for yourself, you cannot expect others to do so.

    But this is actually quite brilliant as an expression of one of the biggest differences between today’s Democratic and Republican parties: how you react to the fable.

    1. I saw the intended point. But I felt sorry for the grasshopper and angry at the ant. Still do. And yes, that’s the difference between Democrats and Republicans.

      1. No, the intended moral is that if you take no steps to provide for yourself, others will laugh at you as you die.

      2. So you see no difference between, say, a grasshopper who spends the summer playing and one who spends the summer trying to gather food but fails through no fault of his own? The ant should feed both?

        1. Actually, yes, if the grasshopper is in danger of starving. And if the ant can afford to. He can b**** at the grasshopper about his bad habits later. Plus, how do we know the ant didn’t enjoy the singing? Most of us on the left think that yes, we are our brother’s keeper. This is a complicated and annoying part of life, yes. But what else is new?

          And as many have noted, the “ant” in real life very seldom has clean hands.

          1. How do we know that the ant didnt _hate_ the singing? If the ant wants the grasshopper to sing, he can make a deal with him over it. You cannot declare on obligation to pay somebody for a service they asked for, much less wanted.

            I have no problem with, “I am my brother’s keeper.” But in this case, just feeding the indolent grasshopper encourages all grasshoppers to do the same. That ensures they will all be in need of handouts every single year.

          2. See, here’s where it helps to actually think about the real world applications of what you’re saying. Are the people who currently need government assistance indolent? Of course not. People currently need government assistance because the economy is terrible and there aren’t enough jobs.

            But the soi-disant ants, many of whom piled up their winter store by the very financial shenanigans that destroyed the economy for the people who need help, haven’t changed their prescriptions at all. They’re still blathering on about not letting the safety net become a hammock, as if anyone’s problem is that the government is making life too goddamn easy.

            That’s how you can tell that the Republicans who are pushing this fable don’t care whether people have made steps to provide for themselves. They just want to feel superior to people who are having a hard time, no matter who’s responsible for it.

        2. hi, Fuzzy! I couldn’t find the right “reply” button.

          You wrote, “But in this case, just feeding the indolent grasshopper encourages all grasshoppers to do the same.” Well, that rather goes outside the bounds of the fable, much as did my speculation about the singing. (Which as you say, may have been annoying. Like most public art?) But I don’t recall the grasshopper going around bragging about how easy a mark the ant is. I think that’s a rationalization.

          I do think people on the right tend to take a Calvinist view and assume that poor people are to blame, and that rich people must be good. If we were to extrapolate this fable to real life, I’d say it’s just as likely that the grasshopper has a good reason he has no food, but for various reasons, he might not tell you about them.

          Anyway, it is good that you like to be contrarian, I am fond of it myself. What’s nice about this fable is all the stuff we project onto it.

          Can I just say, apropos of the news today, that there may be a new Romney strategy? I am actually almost starting to feel sorry for him. Didn’t see that coming!

          1. “I do think people on the right tend to take a Calvinist view and assume that poor people are to blame, and that rich people must be good.”

            Really? I speak to a lot of people across the spectrum, and I’ve never heard anybody say that seriously. What I hear is more that there are different groups of poor people: some are poor through no fault of their own and are trying to improve their lot; some sit back and demand hand-outs, and many are in-between, partially responsible for their own plight, but trying to make things better. The question is, should all of these groups really be treated identically?

            I think one of our biggest problems is that most people don’t talk across ideological lines, and develop caricatures of what the “other side” is like. Sadly, progressives seem more prone to that than most conservatives,

          2. I suppose nobody’s going to sit around in mixed company polishing their monocles and uttering that exact quote — though the WSJ’s line about the “lucky duckies” who are too poor to pay federal income tax comes pretty close. But there’s some revealed attitude here; if Republicans really believed that it was important to treat people better when they were trying to improve their lot, they’d favor a drastic increase in public aid when the economy is poor. Because that’s when it’s hardest to improve your lot, even if you’re trying.

            They have not done this, to say the least. They remain hostile to extended unemployment benefits, flexibility in welfare work requirements, and the safety net in general (I mentioned Ryan’s “hammock” comment).

            And in any case the obsession to separate out the deserving poor from the hand-out demanders could easily be mistaken for an attempt to prove that most of the less prosperous are less worthy than the more prosperous, if that were a mistake. Why aren’t those conservatives as obsessed with the undeserving rich? Someone who thought it was important for people’s rewards to match their efforts wouldn’t have spent more than a decade attacking the estate tax.

          3. Fuzzy: I hear them say it all the time on the telly and in print. I guess we watch different channels and read different papers. They just use different words.

            And please note: if you treat all poor people as suspects, you will drive the suffering underground. To me that pretty much seems the intention, often. No doubt, you don’t see this and it just seems like a harmless byproduct.

            It seems to me a clear fact of life: most people don’t talk about the things in their lives that are difficult. When you ask someone here how they are, the answer is almost always “fine.” When we know that statistically, that can’t possibly be true. This is what props up dictators small and large, and it’s why there is so much abuse that later, people are “surprised” by. To me, and maybe I’m biased a bit, to be a conservative is to live in a bubble. Neo-economic theory is the most perfect bubble ever invented. Imagine, corrupting people by helping them. What hogwash.

          4. NGC: Given that you call it “the telly” I’m guess you’re not living in the US? In that case, yes, we probably do read different papers (I watch almost no television, so if that’s where it’s being said, that’s why I don’t hear it).

            Not sure who is “treat[ing] all poor people as suspects.” Maybe the same people that you see and I don’t? Hm. My point was actually the idea of treating people based on their behavior. Surely you don’t see that as treating them as suspects?

            I’m also guessing that maybe you don’t have a lot of conservative friends to discuss politics with, if you think being conservative means living in a bubble. I’d use that description for academics, actually, since they don’t need to test their ideas in the real world.

          5. FuzzyFace: Declaring that poor people must prove their worthiness before they will get any aid is, indeed, treating them as suspects. Here are two stories about the pernicious effects that has on those who need help.

            As for the conservative bubble, do a search for “conservatives + ‘epistemic closure'”. Or you could look a little bit into the history of why the blog you’re reading is called what it’s called.

  8. No, I think that Romney Republicans would feel proud of being the ant in this fable:they feel very righteous about not giving their hard-earned money to layabouts who squandered their equal chance at being rich.

    Of course, in reality, the grasshopper spent all summer working two minimum-wage jobs, and had nothing in the winter because Bain Capital looted his pension fund. But imagining he was fiddling sure helps the ant feel better, right?

    1. In the fable it was the grasshopper himself who gave the succinct summary of his own efforts: “Why, I was singing and making merry in the sunshine.”

      I gotta go with Herschel and Fuzzy on this one. If Aesop had been trying to make a different point, perhaps about a grasshopper who spent the summer trying hard but had failed to make enough to save, he could have had the grasshopper reply differently.

  9. “The grasshopper is not one of my kind” saith the ant.
    The suffering of aliens does not call for the same moral response. The attempts to distinguish who Jesus really meant by the “the least of my brothers and sisters” in Matt 25 is unattractive.

  10. Leo Lionni’s book FREDERICK is a brilliant reinterpretation of The Ant and the Grasshopper. Here’s the description from Random House’s website:

    “While the other field mice work to gather grain and nuts for winter, Frederick sits on a sunny rock by himself. “I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days,” he tells them. Another day he gathers “colors,” and then “words.” And when the food runs out, it is Frederick, the dreamer and poet, whose endless store of supplies warms the hearts of his fellow mice, and feeds their spirits during the darkest winter days. Frederick’s story will warm readers as well in this Caldecott Honor winning fable.”

    It sure corresponds with my hippie beliefs.

  11. What about the Scorpion and the Frog fable?

    The thing to remember about those fables is that they are always a “Fork”, with one prong for the child, another for the adult.

    For the boy who cried wolf, the children are told to not raise alarm for their own amusement.
    But the adults are reminded that there really are wolves, even if the last alarm was a false one.

  12. I think this fable is defective. For one thing, has anyone noticed a shortage of grasshoppers? Somehow they seem to get by. But this thread does give me a chance to post the lyrics to Leon Rosselon’s song version:

    The ant and the grasshopper, everyone knows how the story goes,
    How the ant was diligent, never spent
    Anything lightly, laboured wisely,
    And gathered his store for tomorrow.

    As for the grasshopper, clad in the summer sunshine,
    Light as the wind on the broken water,
    His song he gave to the summer days,
    Singing “Where the dance leads I’ll follow”.

    Then came a hard winter, nothing grew, and the cold wind blew,
    But the ant was safe and sound, underground.
    Carefully counting his pile around him,
    Dividing his time until tomorrow.

    Now see the grasshopper, blown by the north wind’s fury,
    Hungering for the easy summer,
    Comes to the ant and says, “My brother, give me bread,
    “Now’s the dance that I must follow”.

    “Why did you waste the summer, summers don’t last forever,
    “You’re just an idle beggar, you must pay the price, sacrifice.
    “You wouldn’t heed me, you took life easy –
    “Take the punishment that follows”.

    Now see the grasshopper reel like a dry leaf falling,
    Weaving a dance that will last forever,
    Back goes the ant to his nest to work, to feed, to rest,
    For him there will always be tomorrow….

    1. I think this fable is defective. For one thing, has anyone noticed a shortage of grasshoppers?

      And who has heard a grasshopper sing, anyway?

      Nonetheless, I think it is a great fable to see how one reacts – is there any hope of the grasshopper learning his lesson after charity from the ant? A nice window into our preferences and ideologies.

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