|For anyone with even the slightest interest in economics the name Tomáš Sedláček should be more than familiar. His is a story that has been repeated numerous times; becoming economic advisor to President Václav Havel aged 24 while still studying at Charles University, credited as one of the ‘five hot minds in economics’ by the Yale Economic Review, being appointed Chief Macroeconomic Strategist at ČSOB, releasing a Czech bestseller, returning to lecture at Charles University and doing a thousand other things. It’s the kind of life that, despite only being 36, could easily be imagined as a Hollywood biopic in the future. |
His distinctive light ginger curls and beard make him easy to spot in the cafe where we meet, as does the fact that he’s demonstrating one of his other well-known interests, his bicycle (a unicycle today). It’s not bicycles we’re here to discuss but his recent work that includes releasing another book, continuing to travel the world (not by bicycle) and engaging in various debates. He recently returned from the World Economic Forum in Abu Dhabi which highlighted some positive aspects in the field and showed a movement towards Renaissance is also becoming popular.
“The economy which serves us or whom we serve, which is probably more appropriate, treats some people nice and others not and this is being recognised as a problem,” says Tomáš. “It is being recognised that the markets are not divine. There was a huge belief that everything is fallible but markets are divine. We now learn markets are human; ‘human so human!’ to quote Nietzsche. Markets are not
divine nor omniscient, not perfectly super rational, not even self regulatory or only composed of the sunny side up.
“Like cars they break down every so often, like everything human, such as computers which are designed to be perfect using binary, we can’t predict when they will crash or freeze. So even when a system is one hundred per cent robust, why are we surprised when a complex society comes to a freeze?”
There are few, if any, things created by mankind that run perfectly so it should have been expected a system like the economic market would run into trouble at some point. Tomáš Sedláček is seen as something of an innovator, taking a different approach to looking at economics which was laid down in his first book ‘Economics of Good and Evil’. That book sparked wide debate and became a bestseller in the Czech Republic and other countries as well, as it examined economics in a new light. Coming out after the global financial crisis certainly did it no harm.
“I think it was something hanging in the air and my luck was that I was working on the book since my Bachelor’s years. It was a result of 12 years work and when it was published happened to be the right time when people were interested in the ideas. In order to understand economics you have to understand a lot of things, everything is interconnected yet the main method of economics is reductionism. So in my work I am trying to go against this and reconnect econ as wide as possible.”
His theories encompass more than just maths and history into them and one of the books he’s currently working on, and evidently most excited about, takes its inspiration from a book some would say is becoming less and less influential in the world; the Bible. In it he combines the book of Job, one of his favourite books on philosophy, with economics and admits even though two other books he’s working on have deadlines and this doesn’t, whenever he has a free evening it is this he will work on.
The latest book released, ‘(R)evolutionary economics: Of systems and men’ with anthropologist David Graeber, is the second in a series after his collaboration with Canadian mathematician and philosopher David Orrell on ‘The Dusk of Homo Economicus’ with two more in the pipeline. As Tomáš spends a lot of time travelling for universities, debates and all sorts of conferences, he meets and talks with plenty of interesting people. This, he explains, is how these books came about.
The books follow a dialogue structure, not a dispute, with Tomáš and his collaborators sitting down to debate at length matters close to their heart. He sees them as more of a constructive debate on each other’s works, and while the latest with David Graeber, ‘(R)evolutionary economics’ is currently only available in Czech it should soon be out in German and maybe English.
“Our first books came out the same month and I was regretful his didn’t come out before as it would have strengthened many of my arguments,” he continues. “We met in Munich and had a four hour debate. I am trying to breathe soul back into economics but he says ‘let’s kill the zombie and start anew.’ The third book is with a wonderful Dutch thinker, writer and journalist Joris Luyendijk who is studying stock exchange but using the same method used to study tribes in Africa, so looking at rituals etc. The fourth book is with Joseph Fogl, a very well known German literature expert who is now moving to study economics and teaches a cross of Shakespeare and economics. I’m going in the opposite direction, from economics to literature, so we met in the middle, so to speak.”
Speaking of Shakespeare, another achievement that can be added to Tomáš’s extensive CV is that of providing theatre inspiration, as his debut book ‘Economics of Good and Evil’ was turned into not just a theatre piece but a highly successful one. After receiving an e-mail out of the blue from Lukas Hejlik, an actor and director who turns books into plays every month, asking if he could do the same to ‘Economics of Good and Evil’, Tomáš didn’t really see how it would work. However, he let them adapt the 300 word book into an hour long performance and was roped into playing a role in it himself and taking part in debates afterwards, usually lasting an extra hour.
“On one hand I was afraid of a serious, boring lecture-like reading from a book, and on the other hand afraid of a chanson cabaret. But they got it right: exactly in the middle, creating a wonderful and intelligent theatre piece which we travelled to many European cities and played it over a hundred times in the Czech Republic. So I spent much more time in theatres than banks but my bank embraced it and invited clients to go see it rather than the classic golf and wine tastings. The debates afterwards were different from talks and conferences too, as the theatre atmosphere plays its role and theatre opens a whole new platform reaching an entirely new audience which would never come to a lecture or conference on economics. That is exactly what I love.”
Being appointed economic advisor to President Havel back in 2001 opened the door to politics and introduced Tomáš Sedláček to a lot of people outside of economics for the first time. In these turbulent times for Czech politics, he appears to be stepping back from a lot of his previous political influence though.
“I was involved with almost every political body as when someone democratically elected asked for advice I would give it to them, except extreme right or left wing, or people I find personally revolting, those I don’t talk to. I don’t think politics is for everybody, for example it’s not for me. It requires a lot from a person, they have to be clever, well read, full of fresh ideas, have a lot of fire in them and yet be endowed with huge patience because everything takes years. I don’t possess all these qualities. I have spent more than ten years serving this republic and everything I have suggested is well-documented so there is no point repeating it for the 64th time.
“This is a great country and I am a big patriot but not a nationalist, and I keep returning and always will. For example this is a mid-sized nation but we have Škoda, Kafka, Havel, make great beer and other countries around us don’t have this. We are not lazy people either, name one other country that spends Sundays watching political debates, it is quite rare.”
As to the future, Tomáš would like to spend more time in Prague but a lot of his job involves travelling, something many would be envious of. A hope for a brighter, more caring future for economics and the wider world is his other big wish. Much like we learn from past mistakes in history, hopefully the good seen in tackling the financial crisis will be remembered and furthered as everybody moves on.
“I don’t want to leave this country much as I have become a tourist in my own town. I am grateful to the hordes of tourists who point out to us residents how beautiful Prague is. As much as they slow us down, they make us view our town with wondering and new eyes. And my hopes? This is the first crisis in European history in which, rather than blame and fight each other, we helped each other. I hope these tendencies continue.”
Previous interviews with Tomáš Sedláček on PragueConnect.cz:
Economics and the Good, the Evil, and the Transformation
Economics and the Good, the Evil, and the Transformation Part 2
Tomáš Sedláček (1977) is a Chief Macro-economic Strategist at ČSOB. He served as a non-political expert advisor to the First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance of the Czech Republic, with special responsibility over fiscal consolidation and the reform of the tax, pension, and healthcare systems. He also served as an economic advisor then-president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel.
By Graham Matthews