Culture  The shadow of wealth

Margaret Atwood’s timely lecture explores debt and morality

A spry and jocular Margaret Atwood took the stage last night at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre to give the fourth of a five-part CBC Massey Lectures Series on debt, entitled Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. With an arid desert as her backdrop, Atwood played off the dramatic surroundings by lowering her husky voice for ominous words like “shadow” and “revenge.” Her voice was oddly engaging, a dry monotone – think MTV’s Daria – that worked well with her sarcastic remarks and comical asides.

The subject of the lecture series is a surprising, but timely departure from what one might expect from Canada’s foremost novelist. With the American economy on life-support, and the average household owing $12,000 in credit card debt, Atwood’s lectures are even more loaded.

Despite the number-crunching associations that the topic evokes, Atwood’s gift of story-telling brings to life a seemingly dry – not to mention depressing – subject. Atwood is refreshingly unbounded in her investigation. By drawing on unlikely sources from history, religion, literature, primatology, and even her own experiences as a child during the Depression, Atwood’s examples took on a scope as wide as the current financial crisis. Atwood locates debt within an imaginative construction shaped by human notions of fairness, revenge, and forgiveness. All this strives to get at a deeper understanding of why debt has been a prevalent motif in just about every society throughout the ages.

Moving from this, Atwood delves into the moral implications of the creditor-debtor pairing. Hypothetically, what is morally worse – borrowing money to feed your cocaine addiction or lending money to feed some else’s? As we have learned from Frannie May and Freddie Mac, a creditor can be just as reprehensible.

For students with a nagging debt problem, Atwood pragmatically examines possible courses of action taken from history: one, the “Try and Collect” method where one tries to outrun the creditor; two, the “Riot and Looting” method, where one tries to burn out the paper-trail and thus the evidence; and three, the “Kill the Creditor” method where one does exactly that.

Atwood subtly delves into moral debt without spelling out the obvious applications to debt in the developing world, American financial crises, and particularly global warming. While her lectures are highly entertaining, Atwood plays it safe by keeping her discussion largely in the realm of literature and culture. At times, she can be too subtle, failing to make the important and damning social commentaries that she alludes to.

In today’s society where the King Midas myth rings true and everything is ascribed a monetary value, Atwood makes us reflect on the moral questions underlying a society’s attitude toward money. She also points, ironically, to the insubstantial nature of a financial structure that is like air: you only notice it when something is wrong with the supply.

In an interview with The Daily, Atwood touches on values, creativity, and low-hanging fruit

McGill Daily: As you have shown in your lectures, debt seems to be a recurring motif in literature and culture. Why is this so? What seems to be fundamental about debt?

Margaret Atwood: It is one of those modules we have got built in, a sense of fairness. And if you have a sense of fairness you are going to have an estimation of whether you’ve been treated fairly or not, and if you haven’t been treated fairly, the other person owes you. That’s certainly how the monkeys behave, and how the chimpanzees behave, and how we’ve seemed to have behaved for a very long time now. Little kids start really early with “that’s not fair” and “his is bigger than mine” et cetera, et cetera. We do it all the time.

MD: While one may be tempted to say that debt is tied to the capitalist system, you show many examples where debt predates the capitalist system. Is debt exacerbated in a capitalist system?

MA: When too much of the wealth is in the hands of a few people it stops flowing and everything stagnates. It depends on how it is regulated. It is like a river, you can make it go here or there, depending on where you put the blocks. What happened this time is that it too unregulated so that “anything goes” became a modus operandi. So unless there are checks and balances, of course things are going to get unbalanced. It made unfair behaviour possible. People lost faith in the system and when people lose faith in the system, they don’t want to lend any money. They don’t want to lend money to anyone else, and then credit rises up.

MD: Do you currently see the Canadian government as being in an imbalance of debt particularly in relation to arts funding? For example, with a taxation system, does the government owe certain repayments to society?

MA: There is always a discussion going on about what we should get in return. And that’s what people largely argue about when they’re talking about all the stuff like, “Well, I want it to go to this.” “Well, I want to build roads.” “Well, I want to it to go to the arts.” It is endless. It goes on and on because people have different values. But there has never been a society without arts ever. Art is part of being human. Just one of those things built in. So it is not about whether there will be arts or not; it is whether society owes anything to the artistic community. That’s all it is about. You can’t actually stop there being art; that has never succeeded. Why? Because human beings are inherently creative. My thing about arts funding was that the comments made were simply insulting to everybody. They implied that somebody with a job of a certain kind did not have any curiosity, interest, or talent. And that’s just insulting. We’re not defined by our jobs.

MD: In your book, you ask why we are so open to present time advantage in exchange for future onerous payments. Why are humans so short-sighted? Is this a pessimistic view of human nature?

MA: If we don’t go for the hanging fruit we will be dead. It has to do with your body. If you don’t take in nourishment, you will die. So it is no good saying, “leave the low-hanging fruit until next year, and don’t eat anything until then because then you can save up.” We’re programmed to see a goodie and take a goodie. So it is very hard to resist that…. It’s an inclination that we have, because we have to eat and drink. We have to be taught “don’t take that candy, and don’t eat that, and save up your allowance.” All of that stuff has to be hammered into your brain because your inclination is to do the opposite.

MD: How do you think we can solve ballooning student debt?

MA: I don’t have a solution. Students borrow against their future and that’s in general a good investment, but in particular it won’t necessarily pay off. However, I wouldn’t counsel against it because an education, like a lot of other things, is an entrepreneurial thing to do. You’re speculating on the future and hoping that it will turn into something. Anyways, being educated is always better than not being educated.