The economy is on a lot of people’s minds as Canadian newspapers warn of recession and the United States deals with its subprime mortgage problem. And so this might be the perfect time to read Margaret Atwood’s new book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. Consisting of five essays, each presented during this year’s Massey Lectures, Atwood provides a discursive overview of the history of debt, lending and borrowing, fairness, and its related concepts.
Their common source, Atwood begins, is in our genes. We are fortunate enough to come equipped with a basic sense of fairness and, when it’s violated, the feeling that someone is in debt and must do one thing or another to redeem themselves. By way of illustration, she discusses the capuchin monkeys who, in one experiment, were taught to trade pebbles for cucumber slices. They were perfectly happy with this rate of exchange. But, when one monkey received a grape (a much more desirable commodity) in exchange for a pebble, the rest of them revolted. They even refused to co-operate in future transactions, throwing their pebbles out in fits of rage. They appeared to have an innate sense of what was fair and of how things should be.
From here, she surveys literary and theological discussions of debt. She notes — with special emphasis — that the Lord’s Prayer reads “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” and that in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, the word for “debt” and for “sin” are the same. The once-sinful man, Ebenezer Scrooge, is then given a good hearing. This is a man who made his fortune by lending money with high interest rates and who then retained every penny – at the expense of the well-being of others.
In the end Atwood resolves the mystery of debt, saying everything must in the end come from Nature. Everything, Atwood says, is either taken or traded. The goods to be traded must first be taken from somewhere; and the goods taken can only come from Nature. Atwood describes a scenario starring a revamped version of Scrooge, named “Scrooge Nouveau”, and set in a world of rapidly depleting resources. It is a world in which its most intelligent inhabitants (that’s us, by the way) have consumed goods beyond their needs at costs exceeding their means. We have, that is, purchased large parts of our globe on credit with high interest rates that we must one day face. Atwood’s implied imperative throughout the text: we’d be better off if we recognized this now and worked to strike a genuine balance between our only creditor, Nature, and its debtor, us.