SPIEGEL Interview with Tomas Sedlacek 'Greed is the Beginning of Everything'

In a SPIEGEL interview, Czech economist Tomas Sedlacek discusses morality in the current crisis and why he believes an economic policy that only pursues growth will always lead to debt. Those who don't know how to handle it, he argues, end up in a medieval debtor's prison, as the Greeks are experiencing today.  

In his bestseller "Economics of Good and Evil," first published in the Czech Republic in 2009, 35-year-old academic and political advisor Tomáš Sedláček defied the boundaries and stereotypes of his profession by exposing the roots of the economy in the cultural history of mankind.

From 2001 to 2003, Sedláček was an economic advisor to then Czech President Vaclav Havel, who valued his "new view on the problems of the contemporary world, one unburdened by four decades of the totalitarian Communist regime." Until 2006, Sedláček advised the Czech finance minister in a dispute over the consolidation of the budget, as well as the reform of the country's tax, pension and healthcare systems.

In the introduction to Sedláček's book, Havel wrote that most politicians "consciously or unconsciously accept and spread the Marxist thesis of the economic base and the spiritual superstructure." Sedláček, however, turns this hierarchy on its head on his philosophical journey through cultural and economic history. For him, all of economics ultimately revolves around the question of how we ought to live. The Yale Economic Review described him as one of the promising "five hot minds in economics."

Today, Sedláček is the chief macroeconomic strategist at the major Czech bank SOB, a member of the National Economic Council and a lecturer at Charles University in Prague. The German edition of his book was on the SPIEGEL bestseller list for weeks after it was published in February. The book was turned into a very successful play in Prague, which translates the author's parables and arguments into dialogue and engages the audience. An English translation of the book was published by Oxford University Press in July.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Sedláček, in Oliver Stone's 1987 film "Wall Street," the fictional tycoon Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, pronounces the provocative motto of neoliberalism: "Greed is Good." Has the crisis in financial capitalism reduced greed to what it was once before, one of the seven deadly sins?

Sedláček: Gekko succeeds with his greed, but then he falls victim to it. Mankind's oldest stories tell us that greed is always Janus-faced. It is an engine of progress, but it's also the cause of our collapse. Being constantly dissatisfied and always wanting more seems to be an innate natural phenomenon, forming the heart of our civilization. The original sin of the first human couple in the Garden of Eden was the result of greed.

SPIEGEL: Not of temptation and curiosity?

Sedláček: Desire and curiosity are sisters. The snake merely awakened a desire in Eve that was already dormant inside of her. According to Genesis, the forbidden tree was a feast for the eyes.

SPIEGEL: Just like the suggestive images of modern advertising.

Sedláček: Eve and Adam grab the opportunity and eat the fruit. The original sin has the character of excessive, unnecessary consumption. It is not of a sexual nature. A desire for something she doesn't need is awakened in Eve. The living conditions in paradise were complete, and yet everything God had given the two wasn't enough. In this sense, greed isn't just at the birthplace of theoretical economics, but also at the beginning of our history. Greed is the beginning of everything.

SPIEGEL: So evil is the result of insatiability?

Sedláček: The demands of people are a curse of the gods. In Greek mythology, the story of Pandora, the first woman, who opens her jar out of curiosity, thereby releasing poverty, hunger and disease into the world, tells the same story as the Bible. In Babylonian culture, the Gilgamesh epic shows how desire rips man out of the harmony of nature.

SPIEGEL: Does the human species define itself by its existential dissatisfaction?

Sedláček: The saturation point, like the end of history, is never achieved. Consumption works like a drug. Enough is always just beyond the horizon. The Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek put it this way: "Desire's raison d'être is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire."

SPIEGEL: Which is why life is ultimately a Sisyphean task?

Sedláček: The economics of equilibrium are doomed to failure. Eve's desire -- in economic terms, her demand -- will never subside. And Adams's offer to toil by the sweat of his brow will never be enough. In the film "Fight Club," based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, the protagonist Tyler Durden says to his nameless friend, who despises his profession in the auto industry: We work at jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. That is the expulsion from Paradise, transferred to the modern age.

SPIEGEL: And yet man always comes back to the dream of escaping the treadmill and finding the harmony of equilibrium. The memory of the paradise we have lost isn't extinguished.

Sedláček: Progress or satisfaction, that's the anthropological dilemma of the human condition. You can't have both. People are riding a dangerous animal. There seem to be two ways to reduce the discrepancy between desire and satisfaction, demand and supply. One can expand the supply of goods and the purchasing power needed to acquire them. That's the hedonistic program, which we have chosen since the days of the Greeks and Romans, but which threatens to fall apart in the debt crisis. The monetization of our society has strengthened the illusion that all the things we desire are within our reach.

SPIEGEL: In contrast, saving, rigorism and moderation are now the words of the day.

Sedláček: That's precisely the opposite program: that of the ancient Stoics. Demand is to be reduced so that it corresponds to supply. The Stoics had to spend their entire lives learning to limit their needs. Diogenes in the barrel was convinced that the less he had, the freer he was.

SPIEGEL: Except that he would hardly be an accepted role model today.

Sedláček: That was probably never the case, but his philosophical message is certainly modern. Diogenes is the prototype of the critique of civilization and technology.

SPIEGEL: A preacher of the limits of growth, which the Club of Rome also tried to establish, albeit unsuccessfully, in 1972.

Sedláček: The equation "more is better" doesn't add up anymore. This makes Diogenes a contemporary. The moment in which we realize that science and technology are ambivalent marks the end of modernity. After all, the Club of Rome was concerned with responsibility for the future of mankind.

SPIEGEL: It's easy to increase consumption, but decreasing it is much more difficult to do. Doesn't the uneven distribution of wealth also propel the wheel of desire, based on the motto that I want what others have?

Sedláček: Yes, the social ladder becomes sticky on the way down. The view of economists is that each individual seeks to maximize his benefit. The only problem with this is that we cannot precisely define what the optimal benefit is for us. We don't know what we want. That's why we need comparisons, examples and suggestion. Try imagining an object of your desire, a beautiful woman, for example. It doesn't work as an abstract idea, because the imagined image in your head is volatile. You need a photo, a description, a model. Someone has to tell you what you think is so great that you find it irresistible -- society, neighbors and colleagues, but also the advertising and entertainment industry, ads, films and books. All desires that exceed our basic biological needs are determined by culture. We want to live as if we were actors portraying ourselves.

SPIEGEL: The debts of Western countries haven't grown in the last 30 or 40 years as a result of need, but of abundance.

Sedláček: Aristotle, the philosopher of the golden mean, viewed excess as man's greatest weakness. He believed that one could only avoid excess through moderation.

SPIEGEL: Sure, but what's the right measure? Economists preach growth as the sole remedy. Is economic activity like riding a bike -- if you don't pedal you'll fall over?

Sedláček: I believe that the economy is more like walking: You can stand still without falling over. This reflects the idea of a Sabbath economy. God rested on the seventh day, after he had created the world, not because he was tired, but because he felt that what he had created was good. According to biblical custom, the fields were to be left fallow once every seven years, and debts were forgiven after 49 years. There's a saying that the good is the enemy of the better. It's correct the other way around: The best -- or chasing it -- is the worst enemy of the good.


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Jonathan Chiswell jones 02/06/2016
1. Ethics and economics
The English 19th century writer John Ruskin pointed out that economics was based on a false premise- namely that man does not have a soul. He went on to show that economists have a theory of price, but no theory of value. This distinction is the place where ethics enter into any theory of human behaviour or of ways in which society can be organised. It is good to read that at least one economist is thinking about the purpose of economics and more broadly, of life itself. This question of purpose, or of meaning, cannot be answered by economics. Values are inseparable from our lives, both as individuals, and of the collective.
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