Exclusive Interview with Tomas Sedlacek: What do fetishes have to do with economics?
The “fetishizing” of economics has resulted in a perpetual cycle of unfulfilled desire and debt and a “post coitum depression”, says Tomas Sedlacek. He is the Czech economist and bestselling author of The Economics of Good and Evil (2011), internationally renowned for challenging assumptions and radically rethinking and humanizing economics. Chief macroeconomic strategist at ČSOB and former economic advisor to President Vaclav Havel, he describes economics as a cultural phenomenon which cannot be free of ethics.
What is wrong with our economic values today?
There are a huge number of values in economics, some of which are bad – such as egoism, the belief that the markets are self-governing and that consumerism will deliver us into the “promised land”. In the absence of higher, traditional values in society – such as a belief in human decency, humility and openness – economic values dominate.
I am of course an economist and I have nothing against economics, capital markets or wealth. However, the problem occurs when economic values are the only values you see. Even the biggest virtue, if overdone, becomes a vice. We have fetishized the economy, to the point that we expect it to do everything for us. We expected it to solve problems of inequality, to give our lives meaning and even some kind of spirituality. These are things the economy will never do.
There is a crisis of faith in capitalism in the West. Is there a serious risk of being too dissatisfied with the system?
Yes. This is why I call it a post coitum depression crisis. Capitalism gave us everything that we could have possibly imagined and now we are depressed as a result. A very common trigger for clinical depressions in medicine is the fulfilment of dreams, leaving the patient with no reason to go on living.
We believe there is some god of economics that guides us into the future – the un-orchestrated orchestrator, as I call it. We blame the system. However, we don’t know what we want capitalism to be replaced with. We should decide we want a fairer system, based on equality and stability. Then as a society, work on making it so. However, there is a perpetual obsession with growth – everyone wants more and more.
Everyone complains capitalism, the EU or the economy didn’t give us enough, but what if the opposite is true? What if the EU gave us everything that it promised – which was peace and trade? The problem with Europe is that we have no new dreams to dream. This is the perfect definition of a post coitum depression.
Tomas Sedlacek says:
We have fetishized the economy, to the point that we expect it to do everything for us.
You have said we are treating our economy for depression, but that it is actually in a state of manic depression. How should we be medicating?
Anti-depressants are not sufficient. You need to prescribe mood stabilizers. The moment our economies become manic, we need budget surpluses, not deficits, with which we slow down the economy a little bit, in order to pay back our debts. We must have a safety net, in case of another crisis. This means low or negative budget debt, in order to give the government some space to maneuver. In terms of monetary policy, this means higher interest rates, to slow down the manic investment sprees, which are also accompanying these manic periods.
Philosophically speaking, we should come to terms with the fact that the total wealth in Western society is sufficient. The economy has given us far more than we could have imagined 10 years ago. We have tensions in society because we are not distributing wealth fairly. We blame the economy, rather than blaming our societies and ourselves.
Is redemption possible? Can we really get off the treadmill and find the harmony of equilibrium?
I think that, for the first time in mankind’s history, we have openly realized that the winning strategy that we used in the past – aggression towards our neighbors and our planet – is no longer feasible. After years of hard labor, we could finally get back to what we had pre-industrialization, as John Maynard Keynes predicted in Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. Technology, robots and AI, will work in our stead. Human labor will become extremely lightweight, pleasant and creative and also much more individualized.
What role will the economy play in this Utopia?
When everyone is affluent and no longer has to obsess about their survival, we can do away with the economy. It will have fulfilled its role and we can focus on the pleasures of other values. There is pleasure in wealth, but we are now at a point where we have over-grazed it. The economy has been proven to be an inefficient way to make people happy.