Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth

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Payback: Debt and the shadow side of wealth by Margaret Atwood

Reviewed by Christopher Richards

Margaret Atwood’s book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, is fascinating. Her list of glittering prizes is long. The reader is treated to a mature voice, a voice of wisdom, and playfulness. In other words, she knows how to tell a good story.

Debtors and creditors are joined at the hip. Debt and credit are two weights on opposite sides of a scale. They’re always in balance.

Our sense of fairness is ingrained in our cells. Primate communities, like ours, are hierarchical and cooperative. Atwood cites a study where when one monkey gets a prized grape; the others don’t. Pandemonium ensues. The monkeys throw stones at the grape recipient. Atwood imagines them as trades’ union workers carrying a sign: Management Grape Dispensing Unfair.

Her wit and wisdom illuminate this delightful and meandering story.  We visit ancient Egyptian culture. These people were early spiritual accountants. After death, the soul is weighed against the feather. Debt and credit must balance the scales. Debts must be paid. And for those who have transgressed, rather nasty things are in store.

Christianity, says Atwood, rests upon spiritual debt and repayment. Throughout human existence, human sacrifice has been a prominent feature. In biblical times, the firstborn was seen as belonging to God, so Abraham shows no surprise on being asked to kill his only son.

This is a scrupulously researched book. The Antinomian Heresy is where some people identify themselves as “elect.” Normal moral conduct does not apply. The rich can pay to have their sins expunged.

Debt is a sin, and sins can be traded.  Sin-Eaters are the poor and desperate. They eat food passed to them over the coffin of an unrepentant sinner. This practice has persisted into living memory.

And then there is the Devil in his kaleidoscopic incarnations. He is in charge of the ultimate debt collections agency.

A bargain with the Devil has been a recurring theme throughout history. It may not be surprising that the Devil is a lawyer.  And when it comes to everyday life, who understands the loan agreement small print?

The accounts must be kept in balance. When Genghis Khan invaded, he killed the rich but saved the scribes. He needed them to run his empire’s bureaucracy.

We visit plague-ridden Europe. Disease helped destroy the feudal system. There is a lesson here for us today. Populations have been kept in balance by war, famine, and disease. When the population dwindles, labor becomes more valued: wages rise. People eat better and have more surviving children. The survivors multiply and drive down the price of labor beyond the level of sustainability. Famine again culls the population, and the cycle starts over. Life comes into balance.

Margaret Atwood tells her story with wit and imagination.

This book is a glowing example of how to write with humor about a serious subject.

Disclaimer: Christopher Richards is a business book ghostwriter and has no affiliation with the author or publisher of this book.