Portrait: Economics with a human face

Respekt (Prague)

A former advisor to Václav Havel and a member of the Czech National Economic Council, the 35-year-old Prague man is the author of the international best-seller on the history of economics from the perspective of the Bible, myths and literature. His secret: a remarkable ability to sell himself along with his ideas.

It was October of 2009. The world-renowned Frankfurt Book Fair was in full swing, and the young Czech publisher Tomas Brandejs decided that he would make his splash in the publishing world right there and then. His first big publishing venture – Ekonomie dobra a zla, or The Economics of Good and Evil (Oxford University Press, 2011) by economist Tomáš Sedláček – had become an unexpected bestseller in the Czech Republic. The author himself made no secret of his desire to see his book in translation, and Brandejs told himself that this was a combination that he ought to run with.

And he aimed to run as high as he could: in Frankfurt he stopped by with his manuscript at the stand of the prestigious publisher of scientific literature, Oxford University Press. From his bag he pulled out a Czech copy of the book, added an envelope with an English translation of one chapter, a photograph of the author crisscrossing the streets of Prague on a bicycle, and told the publisher’s representative that he was offering a “national bestseller” from a promising young economist who had advised the famous president Václav Havel.

The ambition of the unknown Prague publisher to “aim as high as you can” proved to be right on target. Sedláček’s idea – to explore the history of economic thought from the Epic of Gilgamesh through Adam Smith to the current financial crisis – was one that had never occurred to any of his peers. Certainly, the fact that the extremely media-savvy Sedláček speaks with his masterful English to readers disgusted to the core with the world of financial speculation plays a key role. Still, he does bring them an extremely appealing title: “Economics with a human face.”

Three weeks after the Frankfurt visit, an excited Sedláček reported to Brandejs that the British publisher had been in touch. The book came out in the United States, Germany, Poland and France, selling tens of thousands of copies, and is being translated into ten other languages, including Chinese. Reviewers at prestigious foreign newspapers have been enthusiastic about the book, even while pointing out that the author could go into more depth in his work.

The launch coincided with the start of the crisis

Thanks to his legendary social contacts, Sedláček arranged for popular television moderator Jan Kraus, priest Tomáš Halík, and economist and presidential candidate Jan Svejnar to write blurbs for the book’s back cover. Even Václav Havel, whom Sedláček had advised at the age of 24, contributed a few lines.

Nonetheless, Sedláček had stage fright before its publication. At the time the author was far from being the celebrity he is today, and he entered the game with some doubts as to whether a reader would find a book on economic history at all interesting. Its publication, however, “happily” coincided with the onset of the economic crisis and the desire to learn what is behind it and how to get out of it.

At the start of this year The Economics of Good and Evil climbed into the top ten non-fiction bestsellers in the German-language market, while in Switzerland it was in first place. In Germany alone it has sold forty thousand copies.

For the U.S. publishers, two things were worth noting: the book had sold well in the Czech Republic, and Tomáš Sedláček came across as a “great communicator”. Americans, watching the videos of his performances at various conferences, also appreciated the impressive rhetorician who spoke clearly, used fresh metaphors and won his audiences over to his cause – all of which is readily viewable on videos posted to YouTube from Sedláček’s small lecture tour promoting the English edition of the book.

As if for the first time

Sedláček is able to get his theses across in a matter of just a few minutes – for example, on the harm that constant subsidies do to GDP growth – by referring to Old Testament stories or to Tolkien’s mythology. For those not interested in the Old Testament or in Tolkien, he adds his own and clearly frequent experience of ‘subsidising’ the good mood of the Friday party with alcohol, which is followed by the Saturday morning’s loss of energy in the form of a bruising hangover.

And even though he uses such figures of speech over and over again for each lecture, with only minor variations, he is capable of acting as if they had just occurred to him. “He has a unique talent in that,” says actor Lukáš Hejlík, who performs with Sedláček in a staged cabaret reading of The Economics of Good and Evil (which has already seen 130 performances in the Czech Republic, and in London, Bucharest and Luxembourg too).

Foreign reviewers, while praising Sedláček, also point out that his method has its limits. Süddeutsche Zeitung reviewer Peter Vogt, for example, shows that while Sedláček has a brilliant ability to put in a nutshell the development of economic thought and its transformation from a philosophical discipline oriented towards the “common good” into the hunt for a model for achieving the greatest profits, he no longer asks how this change came about.

Long-time Financial Times columnist Samuel Brittan sees it similarly: Sedláček , according to him, ought to try a few arguments to persuade readers who may not already be won over. All the same, “the book is still a compulsive read,” says Brittan.

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