Who can you trust?

Learning to believe in banks

Marketplace Staff Oct 17, 2008
Who can you trust?

Learning to believe in banks

Marketplace Staff Oct 17, 2008


Tess Vigeland: When you think of debt, the first thing you might picture is a bill — from your credit card company, your mortgage company, the electric company. But Margaret Atwood, the Booker Award-winning author and poet, sees revenge, salvation and epic sagas of history.

Her new book “Payback” is a fascinating look at why we owe and who we pay, from running up a tab at the bar to bargaining for our eternal souls.

Atwood says she began thinking and writing about debt three years ago, well before the current crisis.

Margaret Atwood: I came to it originally through literature because the 19th-century novel which I at one point studied has a lot of money themes in it. It was the age in which capitalism was really expanding and also from my own childhood with parents who had come through the depression and the war, money was one of those things — the other two being sex and religion — that you were not supposed to discuss at the dinner table. So everything that children are told not to discuss, of course, they become very curious about.

Vigeland: Given all the literary references that you talk about in the book where there is just this constant cycle throughout civilization of credit and debt, what do you think about predictions that this time we will change our habits?

Atwood: Cackle, cackle, cackle. Halloween is coming… OK, first of all, the whole idea of debt and credit, you know, borrowing and lending, is based on a very fundamental human thing and that is the sense of fairness. And the other thing is trust. If you cannot trust that the other side will be fair, that is that you have a chance of getting repaid, you will not lend your money and that of course causes credit to dry up because currency only means something when it’s flowing — when the currency is occurant.

Vigeland: Do you wonder at all if we’ve gone beyond the point of bothering to think about fairness? Do we either assume it is fair or do we assume it’s not but engage in it anyway?

Atwood: One or the other, but a positive way of looking at debt and credit is that it’s a glue that holds society together. I lend to you, you lend to him, he lends to her, somebody starts a business, somebody buys a house. When credit dries up completely you have a Scrooge situation in which Scrooge has a lot of money but he does nothing with it; he just sits on it.

Vigeland: The title of one of your chapters is “Debt as plot,” the idea that every line of debt has a story behind it…

Atwood: You bet.

Vigeland: When the story is written about this era, what will the plot line be?

Atwood: Well, I think that there’s going to be a lot of digging about with metaphorical shovels before we get to the metaphorical bottom of all of this. So when the story is written, it’s going to be how did that bubble get going? What kind of substructure permitted this to happen? Who was not minding the shop? And there have been a number of them: the South Sea Bubble, the dot-com bubble. It’s when things inflate much beyond the capacity of whatever is propping them up to actually make good on the promises that they’re holding out.

Vigeland: I wonder if you wouldn’t mind reading a couple of sentences for me from the beginning of the book where you pose a question that seems to have led you into writing the book itself and then I’ll ask you to answer that question. It’s page 6.

Atwood: OK, here we go: ‘I knew from fairy tales such as “Peter Pan” that if you ceased to believe in fairies, they would drop dead. If I stopped believing in banks, would they too expire? The adult view was that fairies were unreal and banks were real, but was that true?’

Vigeland: And did you find an answer?

Atwood: The answer is that money and banks and all of these kinds of institutions that we have built up, they’re all human inventions. Money is really just a sort of Monopoly token. It’s not good for anything: you can’t wear it, you can’t eat it, you can’t smoke it. Similarly with banks. Part of our belief in banks is that they’re safe. If we stop believing they’re safe, the bank actually vanishes because nobody will do business with it or put money into it. Wouldn’t you say that’s true?

Vigeland: I would.

Atwood: Good! We agree.

Vigeland: Margaret Atwood, it’s been such a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so much.

Atwood: And let us hope we all regain some kind of faith and trust based on something solid pretty soon.

Vigeland: Margaret Atwood is the author most recently of “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.”

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