Words of Wisdom from Margaret Atwood: Debt Not Just a Four-Letter Word
Margaret Atwood on the cover of the March 2009 issue of Zoomer magazine. Photo: Bryan Adams
Who do you owe? Who owes you? How do you pay? These reciprocal relationships — the ower, the owed — are much older than money. Here, we throw back to our cover story by Margaret Atwood from the March 2009 issue.
“Margaret,” said Sam, my next-door neighbour, as I was out sweeping autumn leaves off the sidewalk. “You should be careful about letting people see you with that broom!”
“Why is that, Sam?” I asked.
“Don’t you know they call you the Wicked Witch of the Annex?” said Sam.
After wondering whether I should afflict Sam with scabies or a bumper crop of warts, I reflected on my witchy image.
In the fall of 2008, just as the financial meltdown hit the globe, I came out with a book called Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. People started looking at me in a funny way, as if I’d known something in advance that other people didn’t know — or, worse, as if I’d somehow caused the whole mess myself. Then they began asking me what would happen next. Whose fault was this boiling cauldron of negative indicators, anyway? Why did it happen, and why wasn’t anyone minding the shop? Where could they pick up some tips for the stock market? Surely I could look into my crystal ball and tell them the answers.
“Lend a hand,” went the Brownie motto we learned as kids. Were we taught we’d get that hand back? Not exactly, though if we cast our bread upon the waters — said the Bible — it would be returned to us many fold and not just as a few soggy bits of baked wheat. The negative side of the borrowing and lending balance is our anger when we’re cheated and our feeling that, if we haven’t been paid back, “payback” in the sense of revenge should follow. Without rules and penalties, the whole system — like any other system, including sports and children’s games — will fall apart.
Part of my interest in this subject came from reading novels — especially 19th-century novels, written in a period when the boom-and-bust cycles of manufacturing and no-holds-barred capitalism were a new and frightening phenomenon and when financial speculation ruined many.
Underneath those familiar stories of love and romance and petticoats, there are always financial underpinnings — who’s got money, who’s making it and how, and who’s lost it. Such matters were of special interest to female writers and readers: with only a limited earning capacity, if any, women needed to think twice before marriage, and part of that thinking had to do with the proposed groom’s income. We find Mrs. Bennett of Pride and Prejudice both comical and crass when she shows undue delight over Mr. Darcy’s whopping fortune but, in fact, everyone in the book is calculating everyone else’s net worth most of the time.
“Will the current financial crisis change our behaviour?” I’ve been asked many times. “Will we become less greedy?” “In the short run,” I say, “our greed will of necessity be diminished. We’ll even use the words ‘our’ and ‘we’ instead of ‘mine’ and ‘me’ because we’ll realize we’re all in this together.”
“Is there good debt and bad debt?” I’m asked by college students, hoping their student loans will count as good. And they are good, insofar as they may help the student to climb the ladder in the future. But the truth is that bad debt is debt you can’t pay, and it’s bad because it hurts other people, who then can’t pay in their turn. “When will the financial system function well again?” I’m asked. “When our trust in its fairness and honesty is re-established,” I say.
“But how can I teach my children about fairness?” asked one young mother. “Treat them fairly, “ I said. “because fairness, like debt and credit, always has two participants. Fairness is in the relationship between them. There isn’t any other way.”
Originally published in March 2009