I read with interest Emily Cole’s piece, “What a Bug’s Life Teaches Us About or Capitalist Society,” written in The Nerdest in November of 2020. Like Ms. Cole, I’m a big fan of the Pixar film, but I think Ms. Cole is really missing out on what the movie teaches, not only about capitalism but also the socialist society she envisions as Nirvana. In her piece, Ms. Cole plays the part of what Stalin termed the “useful idiot,” who like in a modern day Oedipus story is, without realizing it, trying to change the US into the enslaved society controlled by a few corrupt plutocrats that she mistakenly thinks exists now. She thinks she’s trying to free us from this state through her writings, but like the soccer player who gets confused and shoots for the wrong goal, she is actually working to create the enslaved society she despises. So, let’s take a fresh look at her arguments as well as A Bug’s Life and the lessons it teaches.
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The theme of A Bug’s Life is not anti-colonization
Ms. Cole states that A Bug’s Life is an anti-colonization film, which is incorrect. First of all, using this term in this way makes no sense. To colonize is to go to an area as a group and establish a community. One does not “colonize” people. One “colonizes” areas and land masses. For example, if we sent a group together to Mars, they would be “colonizing Mars.”
But she uses the term “colonize” as if it is an action people do to others, specifically to enslave other people:
“At its core, A Bug’s Life is a story of colonialism. The grasshoppers have colonized the ants (whose home, fittingly enough, is called an ant colony) through violence and force. They demand half of the food the ants collect without payment, and regularly threaten to kill leaders and members of the colony. As the grasshoppers are the villains, this anti-colonialism story serves as a fictional example of colonized groups overcoming their colonizers.”-Emily Cole, from The Nerdist
She states that the grasshoppers have “colonized” the ants, but she also states that the ants are a colony to begin with. It isn’t like they were all running around separately and then the grasshoppers formed them into a colony. They chose to be a colony (or actually with ants, are instinctively a colony) of which the grasshoppers just decided to take advantage. As far as I know, no one has ever been forced to go establish a community somewhere (ok, I’m sure some kids and spouses were made to move who didn’t particularly wish to go by a spouse, father, or mother who wanted to go join a new colony), so to use the verb in this way is incorrect.
Now, I know why she uses the verb in this incorrect way. I’m certain she picked up this incorrect usage from some liberal professor who has enjoyed the freedoms and opportunities to acquire wealth America provides but who hates America. These professors have chosen to use the term “colonize” in this manner as a prejudicial term for the way that America started from colonies that were established from Great Britain that then displaced the American Indians when they came to the New World as they had their settlements expand. Really this was just one group (the Indians) being invaded by another group (the Europeans), then being displaced when they lose the fight. This has happened several times in several places throughout human history. It happened regularly among the Indian tribes before the Europeans arrived and after. It has nothing to do with the fact that the settlers started as colonies, but some professors have chosen to say that they were “colonized,” creating a new meaning for the verb in doing so, just as a way to say America is bad.
But Ms. Cole doesn’t even use the term in this manner. She uses it to describe a group of grasshoppers who are using force and threats of violence to enslave a colony of ants. This would be like if some of the Indians started threatening the colonists and demand that they provide them with food and goods to avoid violence (which some of them actually did, from time-to-time). This isn’t colonization by any definition. It is just good old-fashioned tyranny and burglary.
So, the film is not anti-colonization, it’s anti-fascism. The story is about a group of individually weaker ants prayed upon by a group of individually stronger grasshoppers. The grasshoppers aren’t colonists or colonizers, they’re thugs and bandits. Similar to the stories told in The Seven Samurai or The Magnificent Seven (on which A Bug’s Life was actually based, along with Aesop’s fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper), the fascist threat comes from the outside. The story and the lesson it provides, however, could just as well be about a group of people being ruled from within by a fascist dictator or oligarchy.
The lesson is that weaker individuals, working in unison, can overcome a much stronger foe if they have sufficient numbers and all work together. This plays out in real life if you’ve ever seen a group of ants attack a grasshopper and then bring his dead corpse back to the anthill as food. It is also true that a group of people can overcome a dictator if they all work together in concert to overthrow him. Like the leader of the grasshoppers in A Bug’s Life, Hopper, dictators target individuals in the society with violence to keep others in line, knowing that if significant numbers of the others ever rose up, there is no way the dictator could stop them. North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, China, and Iran citizens could all be free today if they all rose up at once. The issue is coordinating their actions since if too few rise up, they’ll be slaughtered.
What does it teach about collectivism?
While the ants are, in fact, a colony, they act nothing like an American colony or the country that formed from those colonies. American colonists desired to rid themselves of English control and choose their own destiny, resulting in the American Revolution and War of 1812. By contrast, ants both in real life and in A Bug’s Life do what they’re told by their instincts (and by the Queen in A Bug’s Life) and do what is best for the colony regardless of their personal desires. They act like a collective, which is the ideal state to Ms. Cole, but as we see in both A Bug’s Life and in the case of the Indian tribes in America, this is not an ideal structure for security and prosperity.
“Once the ants take down the capitalist grasshoppers, they create a socialist society. The ants then control the means of production and live in harmony.”-Emily Cole, from The Nerdist
But wait, the ants started in what Ms. Cole believed to be the ideal state as a socialist collective. In fact, they are a perfect socialist collective, the kind that could never be realized in human populations because most people would never so blindly put the collective before themselves. But now they find themselves at the start of the movie under the control of this group of evil grasshoppers (who are a violent gang of thugs, not capitalists). They aren’t living in bliss and harmony. Instead, because of poor leadership and a lack of initiative of any of the ants to change things, they have found themselves slaves. And while we assume the ants went on as a free colony after they rid themselves of the grasshoppers in “happy ever after” Disney style, the truth is they were most likely to have ended up under the dominance of a group of cockroaches or something else because they wouldn’t advance as a society. Without technological innovation, eventually they would be targets to be taken over by some bigger, badder bugs.
And this presents another important lesson from A Bug’s Life lost on Ms. Cole: Leaders of a socialist collective are usually chosen due to factors such as political influence, longevity, or heredity, not capability. Because their queen was ineffective and weak, and since she was resistant to technological innovation, they were easily overtaken when a stronger outside group came along. As a result, the ants are left to toil year after year for the grasshoppers. The queen then just wanted to follow the status quo because she was worried about being squished. She didn’t think outside the box and realize that the colony can overcome the grasshoppers if they all fight together.
In a capitalist society, people who perform the best rise to the top. Ms. Cole characterizes President Trump, a proven capitalist who has built a large empire of hotels, casinos, and resorts as a wanna-be fascist (without saying his name in a Happy Potteresque fashion):
“It doesn’t take eight eyes to see that Hopper is only a hop, skip, and a jump away from a certain orange wannabe fascist. They both share a reputation for exploitative capitalism and bigotry towards anyone who isn’t a part of their groups. The only big difference between the two is that Hopper has more legs.”-Emily Cole, from The Nerdist
and then is hopeful about the Biden Presidency:
“This rally cry gives the ants courage to fight for a more autonomous world for themselves and future generations. And if this recent Presidential election is any indication, we seem to be heading in the right direction.”-Emily Cole, from The Nerdist
But really, look at the track records of both men both before and during their Presidencies. Donald Trump has certainly had his share of failures (my father lost $10,000 in the 1980’s when he bought some of Trump’s “Trump Taj” bonds), but he has also had great successes and has employed thousands of people and served millions of customers. He is a master at negotiations and was able to use his negotiation skills to improve our trade deals with Mexico and to get NATO nations to start to live up to their agreements on defense funding. Also, despite leftists constantly saying he was a dictator in the making, he never restricted the rights of anyone. Contrast this with Biden dictating anyone who would not get vaccinated be fired from his job.
Joe Biden, if you exclude his alleged time as a lifeguard at a Delaware pool dealing with Cornpop the gansta, has spent his entire life in politics and has done very little for anyone except Joe Biden. Trump clearly is better suited to be a chief executive, as seen in comparing the record of his four years that saw energy independence, plentiful jobs, a secure southern border, relative peace in the world and even Arab states and Israel signing peace agreements in the Middle East to Biden’s record after just a year with Americans being left behind in a disastrous pull-out from Afghanistan that has set women and girls back there 1000 years, record high gasoline and energy prices as we beg violent oligarchies for oil and gas, a large percentage of the US population who does not want to work, decades-high inflation, and the threat of WWIII. Of course I have the advantage of looking back where Ms. Cole was looking forward, but one does need to admit that things were considerably better under President Trump than they are now. Clearly leadership ability matters, and capitalism promotes strong leaders. Socialism does not. With capitalism, the most capable rise to the top. With socialism, the politically connected rule.
Capitalism also rewards and encourages finding new ways to do things and technical advances where socialism encourages following existing procedures. There is no reward for doing something better or faster, so people just do what they’re told and nothing more. Everyone is working for the weekend because work is a worthless pursuit. If you can find a new, better way in a capitalist economy, you get rewarded. So many are doing just that all the time.
Jeffery Bezos was a bad example to pick
In Ms. Cole’s interpretation, the grasshoppers are greedy capitalist overlords, the kind of people that she believes run the United States economy. She thinks that in the US these individuals are chosen from birth to be the rulers and no one from the common class can every become a grasshopper, though they are told that they can in what she mocks as the Ant-merican Dream, which she claims is false. Instead she claims it is a lie used by the grasshoppers to make some of the ants help them oppress the other ants:
“Those who believe in that dream for themselves don’t work together with the rest of the ants to create a society in which everyone can thrive. Instead, they find the most marginalized ants and do the grasshoppers’ job of keeping them down. They never seem to understand that the grasshoppers have created a system in which no ant will ever become a grasshopper if possible.”-Emily Cole, from The Nerdist
Using the story as an analogy to the American capitalist system, she picks Jeff Bezos as an example grasshopper in our world.
“Through a 2020 economic lens, A Bug’s Life is also a story of capitalism vs. socialism. Under their current way of life, the ants are the working class, and give up most of the food they collect to the grasshoppers, or the private owners. Hopper, the leader of the grasshoppers, is basically just a creepier, crawlier version of Jeff Bezos.”-Emily Cole, from The Nerdist
First of all, this can be a lesson for Jeff Bezos who raised the average salary of Amazon workers above $16 to try to placate leftist socialists like Ms. Cole. Here he has done what was asked and paid his tribute to the socialists, yet he still gets demonized. He raises salaries to be a “good guy” to the Fight for Fifteen” crowd, but he still gets compared to an evil villain insect. Nothing will be good enough for them because they are using him to gain power and money for themselves. They vilify him so that others will give them power.
Secondly, Jeff Bezos is a very poor choice for Ms. Cole to use to prove her point that people cannot rise up and be leaders in the economy under the American Dream. A simple search for information on Jeff Bezos would have revealed that he is a perhaps the quintessential example of an ant who became a grasshopper. (Not that I would agree with her that Jeff Bezos or others deserve the designation as corrupt greedy overlords. Here I’m just saying they are wealthy people in charge of large companies when I use the term, “grasshopper.”) We learn from Wikipedia that he actually started out from very humble, disadvantaged conditions and used the opportunities presented by the American capitalist system to rise to enormous wealth.
Jeff Bezos was born to a teenaged girl who had yet to graduate high school, which the statistics will tell you often leads to poverty, and a 19 year-old father. Luckily for him, after somehow finishing high school then attending night school with infant in tow, his mother was able to marry a man who became and engineer for Exxon and was able to provide at least a middle class life to young Jeff. And before you say that his adopted father must have been wealthy, he himself was a Cuban immigrant, meaning he probably had very little when he came here but was a beneficiary of the American dream as well, just to be able to become an engineer and lead the lifestyle he did. In Cuba, a socialist country, he would have had no such opportunity.
This is where Jeff Bezos started. He even worked at McDonald’s as a fry cook in high school, just one of the ants, but he didn’t just stay at that job. It is true that Jeff Bezos went to Princeton, but this wasn’t because of some connections his parents had or a secret society. He went because he is very smart, worked hard through school, and earned the grades to make it in. And he wasn’t given a cushy job like Chelsea Clinton was right out of school because of his name or his parent’s connections because he had neither of these. He graduated with an electrical engineering and computer science degree and then went to work for some Wall Street firms who recruited him because he was smart and had worked hard.
And that wasn’t the end of the story. He didn’t just go to work at 8 AM, do what he was told to do until 5, and then head home each day. While travelling across the country on a road trip, he came up with the idea for an online bookstore, did the hard work of developing the concept and raising funding, did some of the coding or hired the right people, then opened the online bookstore.
Then he marketed the idea. I still remember listening to commercials on the radio in the Bay Area with Jeffery Bezos personally describing this huge bookstore at Amazon.com of which no one had heard at the time. He then worked for what I’m sure was a lot more than 40 hours per week building the company, expanding into other lines, coming up with and then implementing good ideas, making it through the dotcom bust and building things back from the dust, and then starting other companies when Amazon got big and boring for him. He came from very humble beginnings and is now the second richest person in the world. I’d say that’s an ant who became a grasshopper.
Note some things about his story: 1. He was very smart and had a lot of capability. 2. He got an education and gained skills in areas that were useful for improving his life. 3. He didn’t just go to a job each day, do what he was told, and then go home. He used creativity and initiative to go far beyond where he could have gotten if he’d stayed at McDonalds or even in a job on Wall Street. 4. He also worked hard. But he didn’t just work hard laying bricks or sweeping floors – he worked hard on things that pushed him towards his goals. He worked hard doing the right things to become wealthy. He might lay bricks or sweep floors, but it was a stepping stone, not the summit of his life.
The truth is, it’s very hard to find examples of people from very wealthy families who continued to be a grasshopper and lead multi-billion dollar empires. Some remain wealthy because of their parents who do things like set up a trust fund, but most blow that wealth within their generation. Others decide they don’t want to be involved in the family business and just go on to lead normal lives, ending the family wealth story. It is true that Donald Trump had a rich father and that gave him the opportunity to stay wealthy and become even more wealthy, but he also had siblings who never went on to have the kind of wealth Donald Trump does despite starting from the same place. Donald Trump started out ahead, but then went even farther ahead through his own actions and choices.
There are very few families that stay wealthy for two generations. The number of third generation wealthy families are even fewer than the number of second generation. Even among those that remain wealthy, very, very few remain in leadership positions in the economy. Do you look at the business journals and see Carnegies, Hearsts, and Rockefellers running things? No, you see Gates, Bezos, and Buffett. Almost everyone Ms. Cole would characterize as a grasshopper today was an ant in high school, and many started in worse shape than she probably did. I’m sure there are a few examples of families she could find who have had a few generations of wealth, but there are a lot more examples of people starting from nothing or a middle class background and becoming powerful leaders of industry through their own work. Most of the examples of those who got there through family connections are families highly involved in politics like the Clintons, Kennedys, or Bushes.
Capitalism is not Fascist, but socialism tends to invite Fascism
Ms. Cole sees American capitalism as a fascist oligarchy and socialism as the path to a fair, happy society, but history and existing examples do not bear this out. Places that have practiced capitalism for a long time, such as the United States, pre-Chinese Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and Canada have seen the creation of thousands of wealthy people and strong middle classes. Even working class and poor people in these areas have a standard of living well above areas of the world with monarchies and other economic systems. Clearly letting people choose what they want to do and be able to keep what they produce is a good system for producing wealth, enough wealth to help out those who are unable to produce for themselves.
By contrast, the areas that have become socialist see people who are the most desperate. In places like North Korea and Venezuela people are starving regularly. In the USSR people would spend most of their time waiting in bread lines and meat lines. I felt a bit like they must have felt in the USSR early in the pandemic when I went to the grocery store and saw the toilet paper cleaned out. I remember hearing stories of a lack of toilet paper in the USSR and have often marveled at the number of choices and styles we have in the US under our capitalist system. Socialist countries also tend to have ruthless dictators and thugs in charge, just the kind of society seen in A Bugs Life where the grasshoppers force the ants to work through force and then collect far more than their share of the goods produced. Hopper wasn’t Jeff Bezos or Donald Trump. He was Stalin or Pol Pot and the other grasshoppers were the Bolsheviks or the Kumar Rouge.
And it is not hard to see why capitalism creates wealth and socialism at its best creates a very spartan life. With capitalism, people are rewarded for meeting the needs of others. This puts the incentive on people to spend their time producing useful things and in doing so, creating wealth for themselves. Do something for someone else, they do something for you or give you money (an IOU for something you want). Come up with an idea that helps a lot of people and they reward you in proportion, each giving you what they think what you provided was worth to them. You become wealthy because you help a lot of people and collect a little bit from each.
With socialism, the best you can do is get your basic needs met since you get the same as everyone else regardless of how hard you work, so most people only do as much as is needed to produce what they need. If they can, they do less than enough to produce what they consume and then profit off the work of others since that’s how you “win” with socialism. With capitalism, people may work extra hours since they get rewarded. With socialism, few people even do much during the hours they are at work.
You are also much more likely to see fascism and the enslaved society seen in A Bugs Life if you create a socialist society than you do with capitalism. With capitalism, you collect most of the proceeds from your work and then choose how you will use it, sending away some as tax. With socialism, everything gets put into a big pot and then is distributed by a few people. It is really easy for those few people to use their control over the huge pot to gain wealth and power. It is also easy to steal from the pot and pay off others to help you using money from the pot.
Many people think that they can make socialism work if they just get the right people in charge, but having a big pot with all of those goods attracts the kind of people who would want to abuse the power provided by controlling that pot. Think of what people would do to get a million dollars, then think about what it would be like to control a trillion dollars. Certainly capitalism creates rich, powerful people, but most of those people needed to have the skills and the initiative to create that wealth and power. With socialism, all you need to do is have the political connections to get control of distribution, then you can use your control over it to stay in power forever. Note that we are into our third generation of tyrants in North Korea even though none of the leaders have been particularly skillful at running the country.
With socialism, you work and work until you die
The oddest aspect of Ms. Cole’s piece is that she sees this socialist collective as some sort of wonderland where everyone is happy. She thinks the society created by capitalism is intolerable slavery.
“Through a 2020 economic lens, A Bug’s Life is also a story of capitalism vs. socialism. Under their current way of life, the ants are the working class, and give up most of the food they collect to the grasshoppers, or the private owners. Hopper, the leader of the grasshoppers, is basically just a creepier, crawlier version of Jeff Bezos. Their entire way of life revolves around working for the grasshoppers. There is no room for innovation, and every ant just works until they, well, die.”-Emily Cole, from The Nerdist
Now, if I had to guess, I’m betting Ms. Cole might have written this while sitting at a Starbucks sipping on a 1300 calorie concoction that she was able to customize nine ways to Sunday. She fails to see how good her life really is and all of the luxuries she can have despite the relatively small amount of effort she puts forth to get them. If she were to put a bit more effort, maybe take a few risks and make some good choices (like working to ramp up her income instead of making the minimum needed to not need to pay on her student loans), she could have things substantially better. Obviously this is assuming a lot and I know nothing about Ms. Cole’s life, but there are a lot of people just like I describe, living lives requiring little effort on their parts that would make the average North Korean jealous, but who spend their time criticizing the capitalist system and fantasizing about how great things would be under socialism.
But look at the life in a socialist collective. Look at the ants. Even after they throw off the grasshopper overlords and get to keep all of the food they collect, the best they can hope for is to collect food all day and receive a small portion of the food they collect. They will never run up a savings, never be able to invest and generate a passive income, and in retirement they will be dependent upon the work of others in the colony for their basic needs to be met. (Actually, they’ll probably be left to die when they can no longer work, perhaps becoming some of the food for the colony themselves.) It is the socialist collective paradise Ms. Cole is trying to bring about that really is the place where everyone except a privileged few work at menial tasks until they die. It isn’t like socialism is the path to wealth. It is the path to assured poverty
With capitalism, anyone with a good idea that meets the needs of a lot of people, some skills, the willingness to do what is needed to implement the idea, and a bit of luck (and the harder you work and the better your choices the more luck you’ll have) can rise to extraordinary heights, most upper middle class but a precious few as high as Jeff Bezos. Most people who think the system is rigged against them don’t put in the effort, take the chances, and make the good choices. But even if one doesn’t want to work that hard and take those kinds of risks, anyone can take a little of the money they make at their job and start putting it away in investments. Just put away the money a lot of people spend on eating out, cigarettes, and alcohol each year and use it to buy some mutual funds for 20 to 30 years and you can generate the income you need to replace your income from work. You can become financially independent. I show you exactly how to do it, complete with flow charts, in FIREd by Fifty.
But let’s say that you don’t want to be an entrepreneur and don’t even want to invest some of your money so that you can augment your income in the future. Just having a free enterprise system where there are a number of employers all competing creates an opportunity you would never find in a collectivist society. Instead of thinking about it as a job you’re doing for “the man,” think of it for what it is: employers selling ways for you to make money without you doing a lot of the work you’d need to do if you were on your own. They are providing the service of doing all of the legwork for you in exchange for a small cut of what you make.
Just think of the average hourly worker. He can roll out of bed an hour before his shift, put on appropriate clothes, walk in the door and clock in, do what he is asked for 8 hours (including a couple of paid breaks in the middle) and go home with money in his pocket equal to most of what he produced that day by being at that job. He doesn’t need to think about what to produce, how to produce it, how to find customers and market, how to build a brand, how to get the needed supplies and equipment, how to buy things and realize gains to save on taxes, how the schedule people, how to meet payroll during slow times, or any of the many other decisions the owners of that business need to make. He just gives up a small amount of what he receives to compensate the business for the service they are providing for him. He makes $12 per hour, the business makes $1 per hour. They just make more than the worker since they provide this opportunity to 1000 workers per hour.
Because of free enterprise and competition for employees, if he isn’t being paid a large enough percentage of what he makes, he can likely find a different employer who will pay him more. If he is truly underpaid and no one is paying more, he should be able to start his own business and make more. If he is not able to make more on his own than he can working for someone else, he is probably being paid the value of his production. If he is treated badly, he can work somewhere else. Free enterprise is about having choices and competition making everything, including labor, find the optimal price.
The socialist system may make everyone equal, but it makes everyone poor. Capitalism isn’t perfect and constant work is needed to keep markets open and lots of competition to make it work best, but it really is the best path people have to get out of the ant race. We’ve seen places like America and Hong Kong flourish under capitalism. Even China has seen its economy grow substantially once it allowed people to make more of their own economic choices and keep a lot more of the money they make. Meanwhile, in less than five years we saw Venezuela go from a thriving economy that exported food to a socialist nightmare where everyone except for the wealthy elite are starving once the people chose a socialist leader. Note that they voted to put socialism in, but now they will need to shoot to get out.
Proponents of socialism will say that it has never been tried the right way and that if you did, it would work great. But they fail to see that it will never work well in the real world because that would require that everyone is honest and selfless, but in the real world some people are dishonest and selfish. When you put everything in the hand of a few people, you attract people who will want to use the system to steal and enrich themselves and will do whatever is needed to become the people in charge of handing out the resources. With capitalism, wealth is spread out and the only way to get wealth is to do something and act in a way that will make people want to trade with you. It works well even if people are greedy. And it rewards honest people far more than dishonest ones.
Socialism will never work in the real world in a substantially big population. Capitalism has and will, because capitalism rewards people who produce things and think of the needs of other people. Even greedy people.
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