The characters from Aesop’s famous fable are symbols of the cultural divide growing from the economic crisis.

Two-and-a-half millennia before anyone thought of bundling toxic derivatives, Aesop knew what bugged people.

The foolhardy grasshopper in the ancient Greek fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper” enjoyed his summer singing while the ant worked in earnest, “toiling and moiling” to store up food. Winter came and the grasshopper, starving, took to begging from the ant colony.

Even today, “it goes to the very marrow of American society,” said Randall Miller, a scholar of political and cultural history. “Work hard. Take responsibility for yourself. Don’t expect others to bail you out for your own bad decisions …

“But who’s the government going to help in this economic mess? The grasshoppers!

“I sense something building, a cultural phenomenon. A lot of resentment has surfaced, and the people in Washington are feeling it.”

The anger of the ants – antipathy, if you will – rose up when Detroit auto titans hopped into their private jets to plead desperation for taxpayer-funded loans.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., sits on the House committee that weighed the Big Three bailout (which died in the Senate), and supported it to spare local manufacturing jobs.

“I understand the anger,” Cleaver said. “All of this is causing people to wonder if the American way is changing.

“How many out there are saying, ‘I just want to buy Christmas gifts for my family, and these guys in their private jets want my tax money?’ “

Many endings

Certainly, not all species of grasshoppers fly so high.

They include the zero-down couple who borrowed far beyond their means to get a house – better than yours – and now might get mortgage relief from the government. In other cases, many low-income homebuyers simply defaulted on mortgages for which they never should have qualified.

In supporting costly efforts to rescue the economy, Cleaver stressed another proverb over Aesop’s fable: “How about cutting your nose to spite your face? Doing nothing will bring about a cataclysm.”

Aesop’s lesson about hard work and preparation has various endings, depending on the retelling.

In an animated short film from Walt Disney in 1934, at the depths of the Great Depression, the Queen of the Ants allows the hungry grasshopper to stay in the ant colony if he plays his fiddle for room and board. In other versions, the grasshopper is rebuked by the ants and starves.

It is hard to see that fate befalling the most indestructible of grasshoppers – those that earn multimillion-dollar salaries, then get golden parachutes after driving massive corporations into the ground.

Nor could Aesop ever imagine that the grasshoppers’ mistakes would blow the roof off a lot of lower-income plans and aspirations, with a litany of layoffs, benefit cuts and credit freezes. Years of accumulated earnings from college savings funds and 401(k)s have been erased by falling stock values as the markets wither against worries of debt and credit.

“If they fall flat on their collective faces, we take it in the shorts right along with them,” said Brian Pierce, who teaches computer skills to grade-schoolers in Waukee, Iowa.

Whom to help?

A recent USA Today/Gallup survey of 1,019 people found that 63 percent of respondents said they thought that setting limits on top-brass compensation at companies that participate in the bailout was very important.

But even with executive-pay limits imposed by the federal rescue, the rich will get richer: A Wall Street Journal analysis found that “financial giants getting injections of federal cash owed their executives more than $40 billion for past years’ pay and pensions as of the end of 2007,” cash not covered by the federal caps.

A study by the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies found that the managers of the top 50 hedge funds and private equity funds averaged $588 million each in 2007 salary, benefits and bonuses.

“They thought they were smarter than they actually were,” University of Colorado finance professor Bsaid Sanjai Bhagat told The Denver Post about CEOs and their compensation packages. “But they were given a lot of stock, and they sold shares right away. They made millions, and now the investing public is basically in the tank.”

Said Miller of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia: “I don’t think it’s a question of whether the government should be priming the pump” to juice up the economy.

“It’s a question of whom to help and how. … And there lies a cultural divide.”

‘Constant me-ism’

What most bothers many people “is the rewarding of failure, rather than success,” said Leslie Paige of Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington-based advocacy group.

“These are qualities we hold to our hearts: You follow the rules and live within your means to make a better future for your children,” she said. “Now it’s all about instant gratification, this constant me-ism. Bailouts just reinforce that.”

For workers approaching retirement, especially, “it’s a real sense of shock,” University of Minnesota sociologist Phyllis Moen told

A generation nudged into expecting less from pensions and banking more on 401(k)s and other investment tools “thought they were in control … and, suddenly, they’ve lost control,” she said.

Sheila Bair, head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., has joined the procession to Congress to address the crisis at its root – the housing fallout that led to foreclosures and produced those toxic, mortgage-backed securities.

Bair asked for an estimated $24 billion in federal money (taken from the $700 billion already approved) to broaden an IndyMac Bank program that allows some homeowners in trouble to modify their mortgages.

Qualified borrowers would pay 38 percent of their incomes to keep a roof over their heads. That could mean extending a loan to 40 years, or cutting the interest, or pushing back the principal.

Of course, most Americans – those still dutifully making their mortgage payments – would get no such breaks.

Like all the bailout ideas, it requires an injection from taxpayers to help people with a history of blowing money – be they homeowners, financiers or jet-setting automotive chiefs.

“You’re angry and I’m angry that taxpayers are on the hook,” Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said about the double whammy of seeing one’s tax payments and those of the next generation going to fund the $700 billion bailout measure. “But guess what? They are already on the hook for the system we all let happen.”

Maybe, but the ants are still tired of getting stepped on.

Aesop could have never imagined that the grasshoppers’ mistakes would blow the roof off a lot of lower-income plans and aspirations, with a litany of layoffs, benefit cuts and credit freezes.

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