[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/10/07/bank.crisis.jpg]Margaret Atwood
Author, The Handmaid's Tale
Unless we value fairness, reciprocity, and honest dealing, and the concept of balances - for debt and credit depend on them - and unless we are able to trust our systems, we would not be able to have debt and credit - no one would lend, because there would be no expectation of ever getting paid back.
What caused the massive financial mess we are in comes back ultimately to these concepts. The rules were too loose, fairness and honest dealing were violated, the balance was upset. We must now restore trust so people will take their pennies out of the sock under the mattress where they are now inclined to store them.
In my part of the world we have a ritual interchange that goes like this:
First person: "Lovely weather we're having."
Second person: "We'll pay for it later."
My part of the world being Canada, where there is a great deal of weather, we always do pay for it later. One person has commented, "That's not Canadian, it's just Presbyterian." Nevertheless, it's a widespread saying among us.
What this ritual interchange reveals is a larger habit of thinking about the more enjoyable things in life: They're only on loan or acquired on credit, and sooner or later the date when they must be paid for will roll around. It's pay-up time. Or payback time, supposing that you haven't paid up.
In any case, the time when whatever is on one side of the balance is weighed against whatever is on the other side - whether it's your heart, your soul or your debts - and the final reckoning is made.
The financial world has recently been shaken as a result of the collapse of a debt pyramid involving something called "subprime mortgages" - a pyramid scheme that most people don't grasp very well, but that boils down to the fact that some large financial institutions peddled mortgages to people who could not possibly pay the monthly rates and then put this snake-oil debt into cardboard boxes with impressive labels on them and sold them to institutions and hedge funds that thought they were worth something.
A friend of mine from the United States writes: "I used to have three banks and a mortgage company. Bank number one bought the other two and is now trying hard to buy the mortgage company, which is bankrupt, only it was revealed this morning that the last bank standing is also in serious trouble.
Editor's note: Canadian writer Margaret Atwood is the author of more than 35 books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Her novels include "The Handmaid's Tale" and "The Blind Assassin," which won the Booker Prize in 2000. Her new book, published this week by House of Anansi Press, is "Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth." Atwood says the book "is not a practical guide about how to get out of debt. Instead it examines the underpinnings of the whole structure - why we human beings have such a thing as a debt-credit system in the first place."
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