I started thinking about the subject of debt for a number of reasons...

I started thinking about the subject of debt for a number of reasons, but among them was my puzzlement over a turn of phrase  -one you don’t hear very often any more, although you still do hear it. “He’s paid his debt to society”, it used to be said. “Crime does not pay”, we also used to say, optimistically thinking this meant that crime does not ultimately reward the criminal; whereas it might mean instead –pessimistically-  that Crime skips town and stiffs you for his bills, the rotten deadbeat.

In the lurid, trashy 1940s  crime comics I read as a kid, crime didn’t pay. In these moral though gruesome narratives, the criminals committed many noir deeds, usually in the glare of a single unshaded light bulb or two cone shaped car headlights, but they always got caught in the end. “The jig’s up”, someone would say, leading to more puzzlement for me –what was a jig?-  was it an Irish dance, and if so, what did its being up or down signify? – or else they got splattered against a wall in a burst of red and yellow machine-gun fire, emitting cries of “Arrgh”. However, if arrested rather than terminated, they were made to pay in another sense of the term: they had to do something called “paying for their crimes”.

This phrase suggests a crime supermarket in which you can browse among the various crimes on offer and select those you want to do, take them to the checkout counter, render your cash or credit card –more for bigger crimes, less for smaller ones-  and then merrily go out and commit them. The equivalent of this crime supermarket has actually existed in the past –the Catholic Church once sold indulgences, whereby you paid after completing the bad act, rather than before; and the same sort of thing is still available under various names-  Hells Angels, the Mafia, and many another crime-for-hire enterprise. I’m told the terms are half down and half on delivery. But that isn’t what paying for your crimes is usually thought to mean.

Similarly, “paying your debt to society” didn’t often mean a fine. Instead it meant an execution or a jail term. Let’s ponder this in the light of everything we’ve said about the debtor and the creditor as joined-at-the-hip twins balanced on the two sides of a scale, with equilibrium arriving when all debts are paid. If the person being executed or jailed is the debtor who’s thought to owe something to somebody, and if that creditor is society, in what way does society benefit from the execution or the incarceration?  It certainly doesn’t profit financially, since it costs a bundle to put people on trial and then lock them up, or cut off their heads, or disembowel them, or burn them at the stake, or electrify them so that smoke comes out of their ears, and so forth. So there must be some other kind of payment intended.


Fuente: Payback. Margaret Atwood. Anansi. Toronto. 2008.


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