Tomas Sedlacek speaking in Groningen

Tomáš Sedláček (1977) (henceforth without accents) will be giving the 32nd Van der Leeuw lecture in Groningen, November 7 2014. The title of the lecture isEconomics as an Unorchestrated Orchestrator“. This reminds of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand or modern-day recourse to The Great Divinator of “the financial markets”. Since the lecture is held in the Groninger Martini church the religious notion that God himself creates order comes to mind as well. In this RSA video Sedlacek refers to economics as the modern religion indeed. However, his lecture in Groningen will be refereed only by professor Barbara Baarsma (1969), CEO of SEO in Amsterdam.

Actually, the Foundation that organizes the lecture has as its main purpose to use that church for other cultural or social events rather than the dwindling religious services. Especially when the heating costs in November must be bridged before the uptake around Christmas, it is useful to organise some event to get people into the building. Since the building concerns a church, they found a theologian to name the lecture series after, even though Gerardus van der Leeuw (1890-1950) isn’t so remarkable compared to other Groningers Daniel Bernoulli (mathematician), Johan Huizinga (historian), Heike Kamerlingh Onnes (discoverer of superconductivity) or Hendrik Willem Mesdag (painter). Every human being is important and should be remembered however, so we can only hope that more cities take the opportunity to dedicate their lectures to those who are in danger of being forgotten especially when the weather turns cold.

Announcement 32nd Van der Leeuw Lezing (Source: screenshot website)

Announcement 32nd Van der Leeuw Lezing (Source: screenshot website)

That Sedlacek gives the lecture fits the confusion of location and purpose. Sedlacek does history and philosophy but uses the label of economics. Listeners in a church and partaking in a non-religious event should not mind another and lesser distortion. Unless we have returned to the historical situation that everything is religion anyway.

Sedlacek is known internationally for his 2011 book Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street, see this review by Samuel Brittan in the FT. The book is his thesis that was rejected by the Charles University, and his website mentions that he is still registered there as a Ph.D. student. I haven’t read that book but have read some reviews and watched also this video recorded in Amsterdam June 11 2013.

I know about Evil, since I wrote about the pure evil of the basic income. I know about Good since I wrote The simple mathematics of Jesus (2012). I know about Economics, see the About page. I still don’t know whether Sedlacek’s book is good or evil but it doesn’t look like economics to me, whatever Deirdre McCloskey says about it. A term used is “meta-economics” but that might be comparable to sociology perhaps. I settle for “history and philosophy while trying to focus on economic thought”.

The publisher “describes” the book as:

“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.

[Comment by TC: Surely, since economics is not about good and evil, it is ground-shaking to turn economics into theology indeed. Doing so is not heretical but quite fitting in church. It is quite a miracle: to be at an economics department, stop doing economics, but convince other people that you are still doing economics. As people can believe that Jesus walked on water, they can also believe that you are doing economics. The same miracle was performed by mathematicians who said that they were doing economics but in fact continued doing mathematics.]

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.

[Comment by TC: Economics as a science ought to be value-free, but its application is in society and thus its application is immersed in values. Yes, there have been and still are many influences on the development on economic thought, but that does not take away that former distinction.]

“Even the most sophisticated mathematical model,” Sedlacek writes, “is, de facto, a story, a parable, our effort to (rationally) grasp the world around us.”

[Comment by TC: There is nothing new in this, that a mathematical model can be seen as a story or parable – except that it would tend to be consistent and more precise. So what is the point ? Can philosophy be set equal to mathematics, since both are “just stories” ?]

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?

[Comment by TC: (1) Economics does not establish normative standards. Economics enlightens such choices. Check e.g. Pareto Optimality: Economic models don’t impose this but elucidate the notion. (2) The latter quoted questions are useful for the talk between an economic scientist and a policy maker. (3) The inner value of economics lies in increased knowledge, as for any science. Like pure number theory in mathematics. (4) The outer value of economics lies in its application. Like using number theory for cryptography for secure bank accounts.]

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.”

[Comment by TC: If philosophers and poets can do without bread and butter, they can be excluded from the economic calculation, and we indeed have something novel. Overall though, economics was developed to get away from those unscientific story-tellers.]

Sedlacek in Dutch VPRO "Tegenlicht" program, June 11 2013 (Source: screenshot)

Sedlacek in Dutch VPRO “Tegenlicht” program, June 11 2013 (Source: screenshot)

Let us conclude with the following points:

  1. Dutch VPRO and professor Baarsma do not report about the censorship of economic science by the directorate of the Dutch Central Planning Bureau since 1990.
  2. Dutch VPRO and professor Baarsma do pay attention to Tomas Sedlacek’s story that isn’t economics and that is at points unscientific.
  3. We can enjoy various points in Sedlacek’s tale. The history of economic thought and its precursors is interesting and it would require a worse author to destroy this. For example the analogy between Christianity and the calculation of sin and redemption is nice. Hopefully he included the invention of Purgatory for the collectors of interest too. But the book should be rewritten before it can be advised.
  4. Check my books DRGTPE and SMOJ referred to above, for the full story on getting an Economic Supreme Court, for a better orchestra.

PM. Since Sedlacek is from the Czech Republic and advised Vaclav Havel, he might take an interest in the point that my analysis in 1990 originated from the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and was targetted at handling the economic fall out, see this text. The history of Eastern Europe and Russia would have looked quite different when the directorate of the Dutch CPB had respected science – or others in the surrounding had made a correction.

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