Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Ant and the Grasshopper


One of the more well-known Aesop’s Fables is the story of “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” In the story, the ant works hard all summer long, storing up food for the winter that it surely knows is coming. The grasshopper, though he too knows that winter is coming, decides instead to fritter the summer months away—going so far as to make fun of the ant for working so diligently.

Of course, winter does finally arrive, and the grasshopper finds himself stuck in the cold, and hungry. He quickly remembers his “friend” the ant—and hops over to his anthill and proceeds to ask for a handout.

There have been certain animated retellings of this fable over time—in most of those, the grasshopper comes to see the error of his ways and appeals to the ant for a morsel of food in a contrite manner. And, in those “happier” versions of the fable, the ant has enough to share—and does—and everyone seems to live happily ever after. But in the original version of the story, the grasshopper approaches the ant not with a sense of contrition, but with one of entitlement. And in at least one older version of the story, the ant slams the door in the grasshopper’s face.

Respect “Ed”

I’ve not been a huge proponent of automatic plan solutions. Not that they don’t have their place, and not that they don’t have the ability to have a positive impact on plan participation rates. Certainly, some would-be participants just don’t get around to completing or turning in the enrollment forms, and surely others are intimidated by the process. But my thinking over time has been that those who could afford to save were—and that adults should be accorded the respect of allowing them to make their own financial decisions, even when those decisions weren’t the ones I would make, or the ones I think they should.

More recently, I had been concerned that many workers simply couldn’t afford the discretionary savings. But over the past couple of years, the miniscule drop-out rate from automatic enrollment programs has persuaded me that many of those who think they can’t afford it find a way (that, or they haven’t yet figured out that they can opt out). Economics is clearly a factor for some—but studies seem to suggest that isn’t the issue for most.

That’s left me wondering—again—why so many eschew voluntary savings programs, and that’s why, though I am philosophically opposed to mandatory programs (the fact that employees can opt out doesn’t mean that they actually feel that they can, or know how to), these days, I am willing to take a more aggressive stance That was inspired in some part by the whole subprime debacle. Clearly, there were a lot of people who made questionable (to put it mildly) financial decisions—decisions that, depending on who’s making the call in Washington, could come to be underwritten (directly or indirectly) by people who had the good sense not to overextend themselves.

It does not require a hyperactive imagination to see a point down the road where many Americans lack the financial resources to fund their retirement years, including workers who once had an opportunity to participate in their workplace retirement plan—“grasshopper” workers who simply may have made a choice to invest in things other than their retirement security at a time when most of the “ants” who had the chance gladly took advantage.

Of course, “automatic” enrollment is not mandatory participation, and the Pension Protection Act’s provisions (and the required annual notices) may make it easier for those who are automatically enrolled to opt out than it has been up till now. I’ll also concede that, as articulated motivations go, “making it harder for people to shirk their responsibility to save for retirement” comes off as rather, well, harsh.

Nonetheless, we’re all running out of time to do the right thing—and I’m not sure the rest of us can afford to let the grasshoppers continue to have their day in the sun.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

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