America: a nation of grasshoppers?

As a third-grader, our teacher taught us Æsop's classic fable, "The Ant and the Grasshopper," as one of life's important lessons.

Remember the grasshopper was lounging in a field one summer's day singing and enjoying the sunshine when he noticed an ant toiling in the stifling heat to carry a kernel of corn to his nest. He laughed and called the ant a fool for working so hard. But when winter came, the grasshopper starved while the ant lived snugly in its well-stocked nest.

The moral of the story: Work hard, save and be responsible for yourself.

Today, it seems we in America are more like grasshoppers than ants. Gone are the days when everyone did without so they could pay their bills, put money away for a rainy day and save for their retirement.

At least that's how it seemed as I watched the parade of big-screen plasma televisions and Seahawks paraphernalia flying out of stores in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl. Remember, this is after Christmas when the average person is saddled with debt.

So, how can these folks pay all their bills, put money away for an emergency, save for their retirement and afford to buy all those fancy electronics and consumer goods?

They can't. In fact, many struggle just to cover the minimum payment and interest on their credit cards.

Americans are spending more and saving less. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, consumer spending last December increased at a rate more than double the rate of income growth. This buying frenzy helped push the savings rate for the year down to the lowest level since the Great Depression.

This is especially troubling today, when it is critical that people think about how they will support themselves in retirement. As President Bush said in his State of the Union address, two of his dad's favorite people - him and President Clinton - are joining a growing wave of Americans qualifying for retirement starting this year.

Will they have enough to live on, especially as our longevity on this planet keeps increasing? That's the core question.

When we "baby-boomers" were growing up, our folks emphasized the need to save money and not spend beyond our means. For example, my folks took my brother and me to the bank every month to put half of our paper route money into savings.

There is the notion in this nation today that someone else will take care of us - the government, an insurance company or employers. In reality, like the grasshopper, we are learning that we must take more responsibility for ourselves and our families.

Many of our legacy companies are struggling to cope with pension liabilities and health care benefits for their workers, families and retirees. For example, Ford Motor Co., which recently announced it would cut 30,000 jobs by 2012, has more than $32 billion in unfunded retiree medical costs. General Motors spends more than $5 billion a year on employee health benefits and has more than $60 billion in retiree health care liabilities.

The car companies are not alone. The National Association of Manufacturers reports that while our economy recovered from the 2000-2003 recession, profits did not. In fact, profits lagged by 67 percent. Nearly one-quarter of the profit deterioration was due exclusively to higher health care and pension costs, which are particularly troubling for companies with large retiree populations.

To survive, American employers need to find ways for people who work for them to take more of the responsibility for benefits - particularly pensions and health care. If they don't, they will fall to lower cost foreign competitors and millions of Americans may find themselves with insufficient health care and pensions.

In reality we have no choice. We must become a nation of ants and take responsibility for ourselves, or we will suffer the grasshopper's fate. It is a hard, but essential, lesson to learn.

Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.

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