Sunday, July 03, 2011

Tomas Sedlacek: The Economics of Good and Evil

Linda and I are taking a week of vacation. This morning I treated myself to a hard copy of the New York Times. In today's business section there's a review of Czech economist Tomas Sedlacek's Economics of Good and Evil : The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street. Thanks to the gift of a Kindle, I instant-ordered it for only $9.99.

The Foreward is by Vaclav Havel. Rather than being another dry book on economics, Sedlacek responds to meta-questions such as:
  • What is "economics?"
  • What is the meaning of economics?
  • Why are we so dependent on permanent growing of growth and growth of growing of growth?
Havel writes: "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?" (K, 1%)

Sedlacek looks at stories. He writes: "Man has always striven to make sense of the world around him. To this end he was helped by stories that make sense of his reality... One such story is the story of economics, which began a long time ago." (K, 2%)

The reason, says Sedlacek, for this book, is "to look for economic thought in ancient myths and, vice versa, to look for myths in today's economics." (K, 2%)

Stories have power. We live in, as Brian Wicker said, a "story-shaped world." Grand narratives, understood as worldviews (either fictive or non-fictive), form the lenses through which we experience and interpret "reality." "Economic theory" is thus best understood in terms of its own situatedness within a story. My own work in metaphor theory stands behind my appreciation of these ideas.

"Economists should believe in the power of stories." (Ib.) Contemporary economists Robert Shiller and George Akerlof have said that "the human mind is built to think in terms of narratives... in turn, much of human motivation comes from living through a story of our lives, a story that we tell to ourselves and that creates a framework of our motivation... Great leaders are foremost creators of stories." (In. Ib. Sedlacek quotes from Shiller and Akerlof's Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism. Check out the glowing blurbs at the book's amazon page. This looks so interesting!)

Quoting from Shiller and Akerlof, Sedlacek writes: "myths (our grand stories, narratives) are 'revelations, here and now, of what is always and forever.' Or, in other words, myths are what 'never happened, but always are.'" Sedlacek adds: "owever, our modern economic theories based on rigorous modeling are nothing more than these metanarratives retold in different (mathematical?) language). So it is necessary to learn this story from the beginning - in a broad sense, for one will never become a good economist, who is only an economist." (K, 2%; See also Robert Nelson, Economics As Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond)

"All of economics is, in the end, economics of good and evil. It is the telling the stories by people of people to people. even the most sophisticated mathematical model is, de facto, a story, a parable, our effort to (rationally) grasp the world around us." Disputes in economics are really battles between stories and various metanarratives.

This kind of metanarrative talk is more East European than British-American. It's about the unavoidability of metaphysical thinking and the need for the Big Picture. I'm looking forward to reading through it!