Payback examines the burden of debt

It’s <em>Payback</em> time, as author and lecturer Margaret Atwood talks about bailouts, bank refusals, and Occupy Wall Street.

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      PARK CITY, UTAH—Debt. Such a tiny word for such a big problem. In the news, our finance minister tells us we’re facing a potential crisis of household debt. In 2008’s nonfiction Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood asked us to consider a more cosmic notion of debt: what happens when people don’t pay their debts, or can’t pay their debts, or won’t pay their debts. What if the debt, by its very nature, cannot be repaid with money?

      The book’s text was from Atwood’s Massey Lecture earlier that year. (The Massey Lectures are an annual series of five talks delivered by a distinguished intellectual in cities across Canada.) Payback is also the title of a new documentary produced by the National Film Board and directed by Jennifer Baichwal, of Manufactured Landscapes fame.

      It’s January 2012, and Atwood is at the Sundance Film Festival to talk about the lecture, the book, and the documentary her ideas inspired, which is premiering here at the festival. In other words, she’s here to talk about debt—not in the purely fiscal sense—but, rather, where the notion comes from and what happens when it goes very wrong. It’s obvious she’s been talking about this for quite some time, and once we’ve passed the usual pleasantries, she dives right into lecture mode, which I’m happy about because she’s a wee bit intimidating and has given the subject a hell of a lot more thought than I ever have.

      “Money, that’s a really late thing in human history,” she begins. “But the platform on which debit and credit are based is on fairness; kids start kicking in on that pretty early. Even dogs: if you’re patting this dog on the head, the other dog will push up and want to be patted on the head too, because the other one has. Social animals are reciprocal in that way. They trade favours; they help each other, or not. And they remember who helped them. Unless a child grows up in a situation where there is no fairness, they pick up the idea that things should be fair. And that’s where we get the scales, the balance, the debt and credit. I gave you a cookie last time, you should give me one this time.

      “It plays out in different ways in different cultures, depending on what is valued in that culture,” she adds. “And there’s always some idea that good should be returned with good. And, on the other hand, evil should be returned with evil, because otherwise, things will get out of control.”

      Payback posits that what’s wrong in our society is that good isn’t necessarily being returned with good, and evil isn’t necessarily being returned with evil on a grand scale. But although Atwood draws from history and analogy to make her point (she makes great use of Charles Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge character in the book), Baichwal finds examples of this imbalance in the current, everyday world. Migrant tomato workers are being abused and underpaid for backbreaking work. BP is using chemical dispersants to hide the effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, causing immeasurable damage to the ocean ecosystem. Prisoners are sitting in jails for crimes that may or may not suit the punishment. An Albanian family is imprisoned in their home for fear of death over a blood feud with a neighbour they wronged.

      To augment these stories, Baichwal draws from the wisdom of not only Atwood but also some of the world’s leading thinkers (writer and activist Raj Patel, UBC professor William Rees) and some surprising sources, like former media mogul Conrad Black, who argues that he was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for diverting company funds into his own pocket. Was he greedy? Sure. Guilty of what he claims are legal activities? It depends upon how you look at it.

      It’s not exactly a feel-good movie, but as Atwood points out, we’re not exactly living in a feel-good world. “You know, with a book like that, there are about 1,000 scenarios that she [Baichwal] could have come up with,” she says, and she mentions a story she heard while doing a panel discussion at the film festival. “The man leading the panel kicked off by telling the story of this family, who’d done all the right American things, and then they lost their house because the guy lost his job. They had asked the bank, which had just been bailed out in a massive way, to give them a better interest rate so they could keep their house, and the bank refused to do it. So the bank had been forgiven and then refused to forgive. That’s the kind of story that drives people apeshit.”

      Atwood continues to raise examples of this kind of inequity, from the French Revolution to the financial decline of ancient Athens. Her knowledge of history’s mistakes is staggering, and her point is clear: we haven’t learned any lessons from the past, and if we don’t make changes now, it will be our undoing as a society. “Where’s the part where the rules are the same for everybody? That old idea of equal chance, it’s just gone out the window. And that’s why Occupy Wall Street got so much traction, and that’s why they’ll be back.

      “I think in America, it’s the violation of the American dream, the feeling that that whole idea has been betrayed by too few people with too much power,” she says. “And so when the ordinary person who works hard and believes what they’ve been told finds out that they have been lied to, it makes them angry. You get it with the Tea Party—that’s one version of it—and you get it with Occupy Wall Street, which is another version. I think it’s by now a bit of a mistake to divide the things into left and right. Because I think that sense of outrage is coming from the same place. And the powers that be should tremble when those forces unite.”

      Watch the trailer for Payback.