Tuesday, December 1, 2015

9th Canadian Challenge - 10th Review - Payback

Margaret Atwood's Payback (or really Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth) is a printed version of her Massey lecture series from 2008.  There are 5 chapters, each corresponding to one roughly hour-long lecture.  Naturally, this also comes as an audio book, though I don't know whether they simply recorded the lectures (most likely) or had her re-record them after she did a bit more editing.  I have not checked out the audio version from the library as of yet, but I plan to do so soon.*

These lectures are vintage Atwood, covering different aspects of debt (moral as well as financial) and drawing on a wide range of sources.  She spends much of one lecture considering the idea of selling one's soul and how Dickens largely inverted the Faust legend in A Christmas Carol.  In general, she focuses on how ancient civilizations realized that debt that is so high that one cannot escape it (nor one's children either) is unproductive so there would be periodic debt holidays.  While this expunging of debt is still a feature of modern bankruptcy laws, there are a number of ways this principle is being eroded, perhaps most perniciously in the U.S. with its relatively new rules that student debt should survive bankruptcy.  Atwood is even-handed enough to point out that under any system, there are ne'er-do-wells that try to cheat their lenders (and sometimes even get a positive thrill out of doing so), drawing on real-world examples as well as Thackeray's Becky Sharp.  (Note to self, I really need to read this, and if all goes well, I should get to Vanity Fair by the end of 2016.)

The essays cover quite a bit of ground and are interesting and informative.  I did think she could have gone just a bit deeper into the potlatch culture of the Pacific Northwest where rivals tried to drive each other into debt through extravagant gift-giving.  Also, she references The Gift by Lewis Hyde but not the earlier The Gift by Marcel Mauss (which is certainly worth a quick read).  Hyde's book is more useful to her overall argument, however, as it is more tied into examples of the financial system, specifically about how usury (money-lending) used to be prohibited to Christians and Muslims but not Jews, which was the primary reason Jews were so successful at banking in Europe and bankrolled many emperors and popes.  Obviously, by the late 20th Century almost all prohibitions against usury were lifted in the Christian world at least.  In this interview, Atwood talks about some of the concerns she had and still has related to how humans have overtaxed their economic and environmental systems and are just sort of waiting around for the big payback when it all comes due.

I would recommend the first four chapters with no reservations but feel it is only fair to warn you that the last chapter (on environmental "debt") is a bit of a litmus test -- readers will either embrace it or be really turned off.  There are two strands of environmental thought -- with only a minority of environmentalists being optimistic and most being far more pessimistic about humans ever cleaning up their act and the planet.  At least in my view, Atwood is deeply pessimistic and yet perhaps secretly gleeful about the payback that is going to strike all those that ignored the warnings of the environmentalists (just call her Madame Cassandra).  That is certainly how I read the last chapter, which is the most divisive in the book.  If one does not like being hectored by environmentalists (and particularly if one is on the fence about global warming** and humanity's role in adding to the problem), then this chapter will be a total turn-off.  On the other hand, it reads a lot like preaching to the choir for those who believe we are nearing environmental collapse.  I thought it just a bit too strident, but I can't deny that we are very likely heading into a very painful period of payback, though of course, as Atwood herself notes, the costs will be unevenly distributed and those who suffer the most are the poorest to begin with.  On the whole Canada is likely to benefit from global warming, at least in contrast to many other nations.

* Edit (12/12): I've had a chance to listen to the lectures on CD, and they are the original lectures, which makes sense.  One bonus is that at the end of each lecture, there was a question and answer period, which has been edited down to 6-9 minutes per CD.  I assume that none of this back and forth made it into the printed version of the lectures, unless she put something in the footnotes.  So not only do you get a bit of Atwood actually interacting with the audience (presumably a very adoring crowd) but they will have edited out anyone who stands up and gives a thesis in the form of a question, which is all too common when interacting with intellectuals.

** I should hasten to add that if one really is a climate change denier, one probably would not be reading Atwood in the first place, though I suppose stranger things have happened.  I am firmly with the pessimists who think we already have passed the point of no return, despite all the good intentions on display in Paris this week.

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