Thursday, October 1, 2020

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth

Margaret Atwood's Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth was a surprise.  Atwood decided to deliver her 2008 Massey Lecture on debt because it was a topic she was curious about but knew very little.  But rather than talking about debt in a personal finance sense, she takes a very literary look at debt through human history.

Atwood starts by examining the human (and indeed primate) innate sense of fairness.  Debt couldn't exist without this (for who would lend money without it - you would never be paid back).  She then moves into a discussion of how debt has been considered sinful (both for the person in debt and the person lending the money), and how people have gotten around various moral quandaries (such as Christians, who weren't allowed to charge interest amongst themselves, using other religious groups such as Jews to get around this stipulation).  She also goes on to examine the shadow side of debt (and how some debts are moral in nature, and can be satisfied in blood rather than money).  Her third chapter, Debt as Plot, was very interesting: she looked at how culturally the idea of debt has changed; where once it was considered sinful to be frivolously blowing wealth on things, by the time Charles Dickens was writing Scrooge, capitalism had firmly taken root and so it was a sin to be miserly and not spending your money).  

Her final chapter took a bit of an unexpected turn though; she examined what a modern day Scrooge might look like, and tied everything back to the debt humanity's progress now owes Mother Nature (this definitely reminded me of A Short History of Progress...)

Even though the final chapter in some ways felt like a departure from her main topic, I quite enjoyed reading Payback; it is a fairly quick and very interesting read.  I liked Atwood's conversational tone (it seemed rather frivoulous at times, which strangely suited the work as a whole). 

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