13 December 2011 ~ 1 Comentario

Grasshoppers, ants and the euro

By Carlos Alberto Montaner

La Cigarra y la Hormiga

Aesop returns to Europe riding a crisis. To explain the euro mess, caused by a humongous public debt incurred by the banks, experts resort to a Greek storyteller from the Sixth Century B.C. Nobody really knows if he existed, although some say that he was a slave of African origin.

His fable about the industrious and farsighted ant who stores away food for winter while the carefree grasshopper enjoys herself until she’s destitute and has to beg her neighbor for help is the example that newspapers are using to compare the northern ants — Germany, Holland, the Scandinavian countries — with the Mediterranean grasshoppers: Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece. France is a hybrid creature, half ant and half grasshopper.

Is this dichotomy true? Humberto Aguas, an expert in business productivity, shades the fable and its moral. "We all are a variable mixture of ants and grasshoppers," he says. The culture in which we move will determine which of the two insects will prevail in the way we deal with life. Even within the same nation, the mixture’s proportions vary.

The Germans in the south resemble grasshoppers more than the ones in the north. Something similar can be said of the Andalusians in relation to the Basques and Catalans, or Colombians from the coast when compared with those from Antioquia, the industrious "paisas."

In any case, it seems that the natural tendency of the species, as happens with the rest of the primates, is that of the grasshopper: Live from one day to the next and not look to the future. To save, postpone or dose the enjoyment of goods is not instinctive. They are attitudes that are learned laboriously, or they are simply behaviors we’re forced to adopt by social pressure or legal duress.

Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel think they can force the grasshoppers to behave like ants. France and Germany are the two most important powers in the euro zone and, for now, seem intent on saving the euro. The two countries together have a GNP of more than $5 trillion and have done their macroeconomic homework well. That allows them to call the shots among the 17 states that share a currency. (The combined GNP of the four grasshoppers is less than $4 trillion.)

Will the Germans and the French be able to discipline the Italians, Spaniards, Greeks and Portuguese in fiscal matters? Will they eventually convince the Poles, Bulgarians and Romanians, nations that plan (or had planned) to adopt the euro soon, to behave in accordance with the rules dictated by the European Central Bank? Let’s suppose they can. But that’s only part of the problem, and maybe not even the most important.

It is perfectly possible to have a reasonably organized economy, with full employment and a minimal fiscal deficit, and yet produce relatively little and lack innovative impulses. The long dictatorships of Francisco Franco in Spain (1939-1975) and Antonio de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal (1932-1968) are good examples of that.

When Franco died in 1975, Spain was already a country with a middle class and a per-capita GNP of 80 percent of what was then called the European Economic Community. That wasn’t at all bad, but, despite it all, its productive apparatus, compared with the leading nations — the usual ants — was mediocre and scarcely creative.

In the end, can grasshoppers turn into ants? Maybe, but if you asked Aesop the fabulist, he would (with some pessimism) tell us the story of the frog that, tired of its ridiculous dimensions, wished to turn himself into an ox. To do that, he began to inhale hard, that he might inflate and reach the size of the quadruped. After a while, he burst into pieces.

Moral: It is very dangerous to try to turn into what we’re not.

One Response to “Grasshoppers, ants and the euro”

  1. Rafael 17 December 2011 at 5:07 pm Permalink

    La clave estaba en haber “educado” a estos países antes de ingresar en la UE. ¿Por qué hasta ahora? A mi me parece que Alemania y Francia vienen a ser lo mismo que los países latinos: dejar todo a última hora…

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