Debt: What we Owe and to Whom really matters

I just finished the first read of a terrific book by one of Canada’s national treasures, Margaret Atwood, called Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.

As the back page says:

Payback is not about practical debt management or high finance, although it does touch upon these subjects. Rather, it is an investigation into the idea of debt as an ancient and central motif in religion, literature, and the structure of human societies.

By investigating how debt has informed our thinking from pre-literate times to the present day, Atwood shows that the idea what we owe one another – in other words, “debt” – is built into the human imagination and is one of its most dynamic metaphors.

“These are not lectures about how to get out of debt; rather, they’re about the debtor/creditor twinship in the broadest sense – from human sacrifice to pawnshops to revenge. In this light, what we owe and how we pay is a feature of all human societies, and profoundly shapes our shared values and our cultures.”


Her timing could not have been better considering the international debt crisis and her perspective is breathtaking.

I believe the debtor/creditor relationship is central to understanding franchising.

Payback raises some interesting perspectives. In franchising:

  • the selling cycle trades on a universal human fairness gene (and then its post-sale inversion/betrayal),
  • good faith provisions may achieve justice theoretically but usually only breeds revenge and heavier chains,
  • some debts are not money debts (moral debts, imbalances in the right order of things),
  • a cornerstone provision of franchise law (non-compete) fundamentally breaks ancient Hebrew laws that are reflected in modern bankruptcy protection (Halakha law: do not to take away a man’s means of livelihood),
  • franchisors are as imprisoned as franchisees are indentured (Scrooge was a creditor, see Jacob Marley),
  • the Big Lie will be forever broken by a female acting as if she were a lawyer who, after unsuccessfully appealing for mercy, finds the condition not present in all franchise agreements that makes them unenforceable (ie. a pound of flesh but without any spilt blood, Portia),
  • deceit-based system managers many times recoil from women because justice is a lady with a sword and balance (Iustitia), and
  • franchising has evolved for mom-and-pop investors into a Faustian bargain (deal with the devil): you will be tricked into ransoming an unknown person’s freedom in order to get 10% of their investment back (30 coins of silver bargain in exchange for their silence: confidentiality agreements).

If this sounds like fun, you’re in luck.

Payback is an extension of the CBC Massey Lecture Series. You’re able to hear Atwood read her lecture on CBC Radio One’s program Ideas on November 10 to 14th at 9:05 pm eastern.

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