Commentary: Yes, Grasshopper, you get a rebate | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: Yes, Grasshopper, you get a rebate

May 7, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: It's been quite some time since I was a student in Miss Mary's kindergarten class. My memories of those halcyon days are at best episodic.

I can recall, for instance, that I hated the place. That's an easy recollection because I despised grade school from the day I first walked in the door. I spent much of my formative years wondering what I'd done to offend an avenging God that He would visit the interminable tedium of elementary education upon me. When Miss Mary invited the entire to class her wedding, I was the only kid who didn't go.

The one thing I did enjoy was story-time. A couple of times each week, Miss Mary would call us from our quotidian tasks of printing the alphabet, coloring within the lines and putting boogers into the paste jar to read us a story. I looked forward to these interludes the way a chain-gang inmate anticipates a smoking break.

We'd sit on the floor in front of her chair while she read aloud, pausing occasionally to show us the illustrations that accompanied the text.

One story I remember in particular was that of the ant and the grasshopper. It was a children's rendition of an Aesop's fable, though at the time, I didn't know Aesop from Annette Funicello so proper literary attribution was not a pressing concern.

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The tale was a simple one: All summer long, the ant labored to prepare for the coming winter while the grasshopper fiddled around. When winter finally arrived, the ant was well-prepared with a sturdy home and a well-stocked larder. The grasshopper was left out in the cold.

In Aesop's original, the grasshopper perishes while the ant survives in comfort, thus demonstrating the benefits of delayed gratification and industry. The storybook's authors, however, apparently felt the death of a grasshopper to be too traumatizing for our tender psyches. They modified the ending so that the ant now gives the grasshopper a stern lecture about the errors of his foolish ways then takes him in. The final picture in the book showed the grasshopper playing his fiddle and dancing with the ant beside a cozy hearth.

The problem with this humanized denouement is that it changes the moral of the story. When Miss Mary asked if we wanted to be like the ant or the grasshopper, I immediately opted for the latter, reasoning that the grasshopper got to play all summer then enjoyed the same winter accommodations as the guy who worked his tail off.

I remember that she sighed and looked toward the calendar, no doubt counting the days until she could kick me into the first grade. "You'll understand when you get older," she said. Well, I'm older now and I still stand by my original analysis.

The government has decided to stimulate the economy by sending out tax rebate checks. It's borrowing about $165 billion to do this. The dubious wisdom of trying to borrow your way to prosperity notwithstanding, a novel feature of the program is that you don't have to actually pay taxes to get the rebate. In fact, depending on your income level, being a real taxpayer may preclude you from receiving payment.

Consider the hypothetical case of two divorced fathers of grown children. The first guy is something of an ant in that he's been continuously employed throughout his adult life. He currently earns $75,000 a year from his primary employer and brings in another $12,000 working a part-time job to help pay off the loans he took out to put his kids through college. He pays 28 percent of his income in federal taxes.

His grasshopper counterpart likes to drink. On the days he feels up to it, he works at a day labor service for minimum wage. When he's too hung over or strung out to bother, he simply stays home, forfeiting a day's pay for the comfort of his pillow. He has no educational loans to repay because his kids all dropped out of school. Last year, he earned $7,500. That, plus the food stamps he receives, allows him to scrape by. His tax liability is zero.

Which of these guys qualifies for the rebate? Miss Mary might be shocked to learn that it's the grasshopper, but I saw this coming a long time ago...