Economist Tomáš Sedláček: A positive look at the coronavirus crisis

Tomáš Sedláček (Foto: Jana Přinosilová, Archiv des Tschechischen Rundfunks)

The economy should be put in neutral gear and people should take a break. That is the key recommendation of Czech economist Tomáš Sedláček for the coming weeks. He is the author of the much-celebrated bestseller Economics of Good and Evil, was the youngest advisor to the former Czech President Václav Havel and is a member of several prestigious international institutions. (Tomáš Sedláček spoke to Vít Pohanka about the impact the crisis has already had on our use of digital technology):

Tomáš Sedláček | Photo: Jana Přinosilová,  Czech Radio
„We are now forced to take the final step: we have been nudged to make greater use of the digital world. But one advantage that nobody realized is that this digital landscape is also very healthy because it happens to be sterile.“

Thus, this standstill, when we are banned form travelling and should restrict our movement even within our country is another kick into the virtual world of the Internet:

„In the past two decades, we have created a world that is not yet home, but a habitable place. We can spend most of our working hours in this digital world, we can find a lot of entertainment there. Also, and this applies especially to young people, we can spend a lot of our social life, there.“

These days, more people work from home than ever before. Could this crisis be the decisive impulse for the change of patterns of how our economy works, how we divide work?

„Yes, that is the opinion of many people: nothing changes us and our society better than a crisis. And this seems to be the kind of crisis from which we could emerge transformed.“

Tomáš Sedláček has an interesting metaphor which was inspired by a biology lesson of his 13-year-old son. He was learning about crabs who, unlike vertebrates, do not have an inside skeleton, but outside supportive hard structure: exoskeleton.

„Mankind has developed a sort of exoskeleton, too: we have put our ethics into external institutions. One no longer has to take care of the elderly because we have the pension systems that carry that moral responsibility. We do not have to educate our kids ourselves since we have schools as a reliable institution that has taken over.

This exoskeleton has many advantages, it protects us as a shield.“ The problem comes, however, when the inside grows and is too big for it. When a crab has to crawl out of its exoskeleton to grow a bigger one, it is quite vulnerable for a time. And human society is going through a similar process. Tomáš Sedláček believes that eventually, it will make us stronger:

„We will be better as a society. We will be able to speak more wisely, look at each other and care for each other better. We will become a more planetary civilization, that can withstand a halt like this. Luckily, our economy is rich enough to be able to take this.“

Czechs tend to be pessimistic. Not just as an economist, Tomáš Sedláček deviates from this prevailing habit of seeing problems as insurmountable obstacles, reflecting on them as challenges that will eventually make us better and stronger. He is trying to see the silver lining of this crisis. Before it started people were complaining of how hectic their lives are, how they do not have the time to stop ad think, how little time they have to spend with their children, how we are burnt out:

“And now look! We have stopped and somehow it is possible. Not without a cost, but it is possible. The same applies for our economy which is sort of overconsumed and especially the environment. Remember what Greta Thunberg wanted. She wanted the economy to slow down, this must be her dream come true manifold when it comes to the economy. We have halted all unnecessary operations. We did not do it for the environment, but to save lives.”

This could also help to heal at least some of the divisions we have been experiencing all over the world.

“I have had so many seminars and sessions about the divided society, Russia against America, Americans against Americans,Czechs against Czechs, Europeans against Europeans. Now, all these petty arguments have been forced into the background and we have become united, again.”

That is why Tomáš Sedláček is an optimist:

“If we are able to learn, and I believe we are, we should come out of this crisis wiser, more educated, more knowledgeable, more united. Of course, we first have to devise political programs to take care of the people who have been hit. But I hope and pray that this is going to happen.”