Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street

Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street

Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street

Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street

Synopsis

Tomas Sedlacek has shaken the study of economics as few ever have. Named one of the "Young Guns" and one of the "five hot minds in economics" by the Yale Economic Review, he serves on the National Economic Council in Prague, where his provocative writing has achieved bestseller status. How has he done it? By arguing a simple, almost heretical proposition: economics is ultimately about good and evil.

In The Economics of Good and Evil, Sedlacek radically rethinks his field, challenging our assumptions about the world. Economics is touted as a science, a value-free mathematical inquiry, he writes, but it's actually a cultural phenomenon, a product of our civilization. It began within philosophy--Adam Smith himself not only wrote The Wealth of Nations, but also The Theory of Moral Sentiments--and economics, as Sedlacek shows, is woven out of history, myth, religion, and ethics. "Even the most sophisticated mathematical model," Sedlacek writes, "is, de facto, a story, a parable, our effort to (rationally) grasp the world around us." Economics not only describes the world, but establishes normative standards, identifying ideal conditions. Science, he claims, is a system of beliefs to which we are committed. To grasp the beliefs underlying economics, he breaks out of the field's confines with a tour de force exploration of economic thinking, broadly defined, over the millennia. He ranges from the epic of Gilgamesh and the Old Testament to the emergence of Christianity, from Descartes and Adam Smith to the consumerism in Fight Club. Throughout, he asks searching meta-economic questions: What is the meaning and the point of economics? Can we do ethically all that we can do technically? Does it pay to be good?

Placing the wisdom of philosophers and poets over strict mathematical models of human behavior, Sedlacek's groundbreaking work promises to change the way we calculate economic value.

Excerpt

Václav Havel

I had the opportunity to read Tomas Sedlacek’s book before it was published in the Czech Republic in 2009 under the same title, and it was obvious that it was an unconventional view on a scientific discipline that—as the general belief has it—is exceptionally dull. Of course I was taken with the book, and I was curious about the kind of interest it would provoke in other readers. To the surprise of both the author and publisher, it immediately drew so much attention in the Czech Republic that it became a bestseller within a few weeks, and both experts and the general public were talking about it. By coincidence, Tomas Sedlacek was at that time also a member of the Czech government’s National Economic Council, which, in its behavior as well as its views on long-term goals, stood in sharp contrast to the quarrelsome political environment, which usually doesn’t think further than the next election.

Instead of self-confident and self-centered answers, the author humbly asks fundamental questions: What is economics? What is its meaning? Where does this new religion, as it is sometimes called, come from? What are its possibilities and its limitations and borders, if there are any? Why are we so dependent on permanent growing of growth and growth of growing of growth? Where did the idea of progress come from, and where is it leading us? Why are so many economic debates accompanied by obsession and fanaticism? All of this must occur to a thoughtful person, but only rarely do the answers come from economists themselves.

The majority of our political parties act with a narrow materialistic focus when, in their programs, they present the economy and finance first; only then, somewhere at the end, do we find culture as something pasted on or as a libation for a couple of madmen. Whether they are on the right or left, most of them—consciously or unconsciously—accept and spread the Marxist thesis of the economic base and the spiritual superstructure.

It may all be related to how economics as a scientific discipline frequently tends to be mistaken for mere accounting. But what good is accounting when much of what jointly shapes our lives is difficult to calculate or is completely incalculable? I wonder what such an economist-accountant . . .

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