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Tomáš Sedláček s Danielou Tollingerovou

Tomáš Sedláček: In my case it’s hard to tell whether I’m working or having fun

24. 11. 2021

Dear listeners, you are listening to another episode of the De Facto podcast, the podcast of the Faculty of Social Sciences of Charles University, we are here again with an interview with a successful graduate, Tomáš Sedláček, an economist, philosopher and also a teacher. How does he manage all of that together? That’s what we’re going to talk about now. Hello.

Hello. Thank you so much for inviting me to my beloved alma mater.

So what is all you do, I’ve singled out you being economist, philosopher, teacher. What do you consider to be your main area of interest?

I have so many fields of interest, which is nice on the one hand, but on the other hand you realize how many things you don’t understand from so many angles. Everything is connected to everything, and we have full hands to find the bottom of a single field. On the one hand, the scope of these interests is very nice, I enjoy searching for similarities between individual fields, looking for maybe a common language, paradoxes, scrutinizing things from many angles simultaneously. At the same time, once you plunge yourself into depressions, they are also deeper, because you’re looking at them also from more angles than just one.

How do you earn your living, what is your main source of income? Or is it all interconnected again?

It’s connected. In my case, it’s hard to tell whether I’m working or having fun, and I think that’s the best thing that can happen to a person. About six years ago I was in the cinema and I felt a little bit guilty and a voice was telling me I should be working. And the other voice, the more reasonable one, said – you are working. We are here to look around and to know how not to be fachidiots. I don’t really make a distinction between Star Wars and the Bible and the inflation targeting of ČNB. Not that they’re the same thing, but they’re made of the same fictional dough. Whatever I’m looking at, I’m thinking about how it fits or doesn’t fit. So my job is to try to attach an economic story to current events so that it has a beginning and an end. That’s how classical economics started out in the hands of Adam Smith and Descartes, it was some kind of reflection on what society would look like when social processes have taken place and have been used up.

And do you communicate this to the people through your articles?

Articles, lectures, books. Books are very difficult for me to write because I’m not very systematic, so I have about 3 of 80% finished, so it will be 800 pages in total, maybe more. I consider the books to be my main mission. Any writer, or even a student, who writes a longer piece of writing that has a story, realizes how they pull that story like a spider web out of nothing. The story of Little Red Riding Hood wasn’t pulled out of anything, and similarly economics. This is all made from a very fine thread and it’s easy to make mistakes there and the process of writing a book is automatically so deep in itself that one will hopefully find one’s own mistakes there. Facing such a huge volume of material it’s hard not to get into some internal contradiction.

And would you describe yourself as a writer, or rather as a writing economist, a philosopher?

That’s a good question, I’m most in my element when I’m lecturing, debating, when I can talk to live people, and I most enjoy having a diverse audience. I once experienced this at the Diplomatic Academy, where there were both cleaning ladies and ambassadors. Speaking about the EU in a way that doesn’t bore or upset anyone, that’s what I enjoy. I enjoy lecturing, I have to force myself to write. I don’t know what it is in a person, more people writing for a living experience it. I’m a graphomaniac, for example, when I get down to it I write an awful lot, but to get down to it is like a legion of little demons, who in the form of all sorts of things keep me away from the most important work for me, which is simply writing. Everything else is just a distraction from writing.

So how do you start, what makes you sit down and say – now I’m going to write.

The only thing that works for me is deadlines and seclusion. Concentration camps, a place where you can concentrate. My colleague Radek Špicar from FSV has said that Cambridge is a concentration camp, there’s no fun there, it’s made for good studying environment and you have to write. What students experience at university is exceptional precisely because they have time to concentrate on one single thing. That’s why I encourage everyone not to work if possible, and if there is even a slight chance, to study multiple universities at the same time.

Could you tell us more about your work at the Castle? How old were you? How did you get there?

I was recommended to the Castle by Professor Mlčoch, the dean at the time, when he received a call from Pavel Fischer, who was unknown at the time, saying that they needed someone to replace Tomáš Jelínek, who was going to become the director of the Jewish Community. The professor recommended me, and I somehow misunderstood and thought it was the Fischer travel agency, not the office of the president – Pavel Fischer. So I turned it down at first, saying that I needed to concentrate on something else and that I wanted to pursue an academic career and not advise a travel agency. At the Castle I was mainly in charge of President Havel’s economic agenda, which was the EU accession, the possible adoption of the Euro. The Securities Commission at that time fell also under the competence of the President. Appointing new members of the Bank Board and generally commenting on the economic situation of the Czech Republic and the meetings.

So can you say that maybe you already excelled at school when you were recommended like that? They wouldn’t have recommended just anyone.

I think they made a mistake. I even asked Pavel Fischer after my trial period if they had anyone better, that I still had milk running down my chin. The ink didn’t dry on my diplomas yet. And he said, yeah, Tomáš, some milk does run down your chin, but at least it’s fresh milk. I made up for that lack of experience, of which I was acutely aware, by simply calling around all the economists. And they gave me their take on the subject, and then I pieced together a picture of what the economic community probably thought. So that’s the way I did it, I didn’t put my own opinion out there because who cares what some student’s opinion is. What I was used to from Denmark was that they teach a little bit differently, at the International Baccalaureate, it’s something in between high school and a bachelor’s degree, they really teach people to think scientifically already. There wasn’t a lot of lecturing, you’d come to an economics class and the professor would sit there until the students started arguing about something. I didn’t understand what was going on at all, I thought it was terribly liberal and demented, I was used to Austro-Hungarian schooling. And only after two weeks did I realise that they all had read everything at home and then came ready to that precious lesson, and they just argued with their professor. So then you have intellectual enemies in that class, which is the best thing that can happen to you because you have the greatest motivation to win over the others intellectually, and that’s good competition. So we had our arguments there and then we started an economics club in 1999, which I guess is still active today. The idea of that club was that once in two weeks we would meet as students and someone would comment on the state of communism in the Czech Republic among young kids, I would talk about Thomas Aquinas, Zdeněk Kudrna would talk about market regulation and Adam Geršl would talk about monetary policy. And that was just between us, that was the so-called little E-club. And then there was the big E-club and that’s where we invited guests, academic staff. The original idea was that there would be no lectures, but that we would read their works at home and then we would discuss. So that’s something I’m proud of, I think that’s the thing that may have brought me to the attention of Professor Mlčoch later on, but it was most probably because I was a teaching assistant in ethics in economics.

Could we take an inventory of your education?

I’ll be happy to take inventory, I hope I get it right. I would start with primary school because my Mum home-schooled me, as in Finland there was no other option but to go to a Russian school, which my parents refused to do. So I learned Finnish in the streets and my Mum taught me how to read, write, count and the trinomial. In 1986 we returned to the Czech Republic, and I graduated from a Czech communist school. That was hard for me. I remember the first time I was in the classroom, I got scared when everybody turned the page at the same time, because I had never heard that sound before. When thirty people turn a page at the same time, it’s like a thunderstorm to those who don’t know it. Or the way we had to walk in pairs and hold hands and eat disgusting food in school canteens and drink teas and everything was grey. So the only thing that was nice about that period here was the Velvet Revolution, which to this day is for me the greatest public political experience I’ve ever had. Then I found a hiking and scout troop here where we played Indians, but otherwise the school was terrible. It’s a miracle I made it through at all. And then I went to Jaroslav Seifert High School. And it was great there, I learned a lot of things and made friends I still have today. And then we moved to Denmark, so the Danish school, I was there for a year like a refugee, they taught me to read and write again when I was sixteen. I didn’t actually realize it until a few years ago that I was in a class with refugees there. I still remember my wonderful Kurdish friends who were castrated at the age of fifteen and then explained with their hands, their feet, what had happened to them when they hadn’t been able to sit in a chair for a week.

Did you go to Denmark with your parents as a whole family?

My dad worked for Czechoslovak Airlines, so the whole family followed him. And eventually, after a year at a Danish school, I managed to get into a British Catholic school where there were nuns and we went to church on Thursdays and it was a strong Catholic school. I was a Protestant at the time, so one morning there I pinned the Ten Commandments onto the church door, underlined the first three, and like Luther, I complained about the debauchery of the Catholic Church. Anyway, the education was great and then I went on to the International Baccalaureate, it’s a system I recommend to everybody very highly, it was the hardest study. Then I decided to come back to the Czech Republic. I had even met Professor Mlčoch here at the Faculty of Social Sciences before I was a student, so I had asked him what it was and wasn’t like here. Well, I did my bachelor’s degree here, my master’s degree, a small doctorate, then I taught here for a few years, I was praised by the deans and got A-grades and Hlávka awards and God knows what else. And then everything got stuck on the big doctorate, when my colleagues kicked me out like a little dog. I said I am willing to argue that the work is mediocre, but it’s really not worse than mediocre and asked them to show me the errors that I’m willing to fix them. None of that happened. I guess it may be a good thing I got kicked out because I used that negative energy at the time because I wanted to say – I’ll show you and I’ll have it released. And it came out in Oxford in 21 or 22 translations.

Everything worked out in the end.

Yeah, I defended it two years later and got a verbal commendation that this is exactly how they would like students to develop. I take it positively, I’m not bitter, on the contrary I see it as a great thing that happened to me and it gave me so much energy. And now I’m glad that I at least wrote one book like that, my career is a little bit the other way around. I was supposed to be an advisor to the president at the end of my career, just as one is supposed to write a book at the end of one’s career where one mercifully summarizes all the knowledge that one has gained throughout one’s lifetime, and for me it happens a little bit backwards. It’s like something out of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Thank you so much for being our guest. I would say that you are actually a good example for the listeners, for the study applicants, that even if the path is sometimes like a bumpy road, it can be successfully completed.

I have even read somewhere that I’ve become the patron saint of all the expelled students, so I’m kind of happy about it and I salute everybody for it and say – don’t give up.

Thank you.

Thank you.