“Economy is more human than you would think”, explains the young Czech scholar, also author of the bestseller Economics of Good and Evil
A tall, large guy, with messy long, curly red hair, he can be spotted going round Prague on a bicycle, in a sports jacket with a shoulder bag. He is known as a big fan of pop culture, Pulp Fiction and Lord of the Rings, always with a joke ready and a quick smile. It may not fit the description you would expect of the Chief Macroeconomic Strategist at ČSOB, the first Czech bank, but this is Tomáš Sedláček, an unorthodox economist in many respects.
By the age of 24 he was already Václav Havel’s adviser, starting a brilliant career which has been applauded even in the USA, becoming the author of a book translated in 14 languages and sold everywhere to great acclaim, the story of which ended up in European theatres. An all-round character, and enfant prodige of modern economy and popular storytellers.
Having been born in 1977, son of an employee of Československé Státní Aerolinie, he spent his childhood in Northern Europe, in Finland and Denmark before returning to his homeland when it was changing itself. Once he finished secondary school, on his history and philosophy interests, the time arrived for his economic studies at Charles IV University.
“Economics, or let’s say philosophy of economics, is what I found my heart for”. He explains. “How old myths work with the new ones, how it can be practical and how – as in life – a lot of it must not be practical. My luck was I always had great teachers. Economics was for me freedom to go in most diverging directions of study and thinking”.
He was aged 24 when he got his degree in 2001, the turning point of his life. An important phone call arrived at the Economy faculty from Pavel Fischer, the head of the political department of the presidential office, who wanted to speak to the faculty’s dean in order to ask him for the name of a young economist suited to being an adviser in the castle, and bring fresh energy to Havel’s second mandate. The dean thought of Sedláček, who initially considered refusing, believing that Fischer was the name of a known tour operator, and the opportunity didn’t entice him. When hearing his superior delicately state that “it would not be very polite to turn down the President”, the eyes of Tomáš open widely and this career started there.
“He had a curious mind, the like of which you see in some young students”. He said about Havel. “I have not met him on the first working day, but two weeks later. I was of course very nervous, but that fell away from the first conversation. My first job was the biggest honour I could imagine work-wise”.
After the end of Havel’s mandate, he worked for the Minister of Finance of Bohuslav Sobotka. In 2006 he admitted to being tired of a working environment which was “too politicized”, and he returned to academic economy, taking advantage of his scholarship at Yale University.
He consequently flew to America and displayed his gifts as a an economist: Yale Economic Review ranked him as one of the “young guns”, I.e. one of the five best young economic minds. However, to the detriment of the name, a young gun aims at mediation: “Economics was, for a while, a dismal science. Now it carries both overly optimistic tunes on one hand and armageddonial tenaces at other hand. The role of an economist is to work against these tendencies: to show hope when mood is down and to point to resting when the economy is overheated”.
He returned to Prague before reaching the age of 30, with a golden CV and did not remain unnoticed. Čsob (Československá obchodní banka hired him in the position of Chief Macroeconomic Strategist, a role he has maintained today.
Despite this, for Tomáš Sedláček, the role of a clerk, however prestigious, was a bit restrictive. He had a book in mind, which he had been preparing for years since he was a student: a book on economic philosophy in history, or rather in the history “of people told to people by people”, in poems, in tales, and why not, also in holy texts. He would express these ideas over dozens of sleepless nights around the piles of books on his desk, which we imagine were interrupted by popcorn and Hollywood films.
In 2009 the young publisher Tomáš Brandejs, of 65.pole, realized the power of Sedláček’s book, which in the meantime had taken form and a title: “Ekonomie dobra a zla”, that is “Economics of Good and Evil”. The publisher understood that even young economist’s ability to communicate went far beyond academic limits: even the most complex concepts are simplified, without being trivialized. Sedláček can also boast an exceptional sponsor, a preface from Václav Havel.
All things considered, Brandejs, had bet on a winning horse: the book became a leader in book sales in the Czech republic. A (perhaps) unexpected success.
“I suppose the secret is I never seriously intended it as a book. I was working on my own dilemmas, my own questions, riddles that I saw around me in a society – and also in me. I had no idea that such questions would interest many more people”.
He chose a smooth flowing register for the book, with mainstream culture references, from American cinema to bestselling fiction.
The basis of all the research of economic thinking ranged from the first ever poem written by humanity, four millenniums: the saga of Gilgamesh, who was King of an ancient city of Mesopotamia, Semi-God of the search for immortality.
Starting off from here, already a tricky task, the text explores the great narrative works of our civilization, he sifts through the Old Testament without prejudice and the fantasy saga of Lord of The Rings, with a clear common thread: that economy is a question of choice between good and evil, and it has always been told this way. In short for Sedláček, there is no need to have a wallet to discuss it, economy reminds him of Xenophon, it exists even with empty pockets!
At stake are ethics, to paraphrase the book, mathematical formulas, functions and statistic are only the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface, there is a huge stock of cultural and philosophical content, that is the history of Economics of good and evil.
With this image Brandejs was quite sure of himself, when at the 2009 Frankfurt book festival, he presented a chapter of the book and a photo of Tomáš on his bicycle, to the stand of Oxford University Press, offering them a great opportunity. It proved to be one which the English publishing house could not refuse.
Afterwards, publications in other languages followed (14 in total). In Italy it was Garzanti who immediately acquired the rights, enabling it to continue the infinite success.
The great acknowledgment arrived last October at the Frankfurt festival, where the German edition was awarded “Best economic book of 2012”.
Surrounding the triumphant parade however, it must be said that the work does not lack its critics. It is essentially an ambitious work , and some economists have accused Sedláček of letting his narrative flow while losing sight of the scientific method, as well as assumptions often lacking clarifications, and lacking clear backing.
Nevertheless, nobody dares to deny his facts – fundamental at least for the publishing: the text fascinates and intrigues people. This is even to the extent of rising above the printed pages and entering theatres, as a story, a genuine theatrical work, and also successful.
The communicative ability of Sedláček does not lead to embarrassment in the spotlight, as his fluent English enables him to perform a tour in European theatres. In Prague, he will be sold out even in Národní Divadlo.
Ultimately, the message the young economist wants to get across to his readers is simple, and perhaps gratifying: economics is more human than one thinks.
So who then, has dehumanized it?
“It was the effort to make economics to be studied like physics. But in physics we deal with dead objects, so if you take the method that is very successful in physics and apply it to economics, you get a dead representation, a dead image. an image in which people are rational mathematical modules constantly increasing their feeling of utility. Thus we got a zombie – a dead body without the soul”.
In short, we need “an economy with a human face”, a label which many have pinned on the work of Mr Sedláček, who however does not mind even if he claims: “I would not want to change the face, that can be easily done with a mask. I prefer to talk of the soul or heart of economic. That is something that needs a change”.
End of the chat. However, a final wave was hard to avoid: any economic predictions for Prague?
“I don’t know. Nobody knows the future and least of all perhaps economists. I only have two basic visions: either we here in Europe stick together and help each other in hard times (although it may not be “economic” or “efficient”) or we dismantle the most successful peace and economic project in the history of Europe. Europe was a very brutal and bloody continent, let us not forget. If we survive this together, nothing will break us apart. If we crumble now, we will never be able to put it together for many generations”.
The word of a young gun.
by Giuseppe Picheca