Book Review
Title: "Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street"
Author: Tomas Sedlacek
Publisher: Oxford, 2011; 368 pages; $27.95

Many consumers hear the word "economics" and their brain immediately associates the word "math," which is dreaded in some circles. Cue eye-twitching, fetal-position curling, and so forth. I won’t get into the unfortunate reasons behind Americans’ hate-hate relationship with math — just suffice it to say that it is a relationship that could use some therapy.

This creates a real problem when it comes to understanding the global, national and even local economies, and the individual markets that comprise them (from real estate to oil to employment and the stock market), a problem that trickles down and impedes our ability to make wise decisions when it comes to our personal finances.

Fortunately, of late, a number of learned economists have begun to experiment with integrating this "dismal science" of economics with other schools of thought that are less dry, less math-centric, and seem more human, like psychology (which, when married with economics, has produced the fledgling, flourishing field of behavioral economics).

And even more fortunately for the average consumer, in his "Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street," Czech economist Tomas Sedlacek has taken this academic trend one giant step further, creating what some are calling "humanomics," a rather striking rethink of economics from a math-based science to a human-based cultural phenomenon along which we can understand and track the entire evolution of human civilization.

Given the surprisingly recent acknowledgment by economists that humans do not, in fact, behave rationally in their economic and financial lives, Sedlacek’s novel angle of veering outside of science and math and other predictive and analytics models to find and explore economics in sources ranging from the Talmud to the Fight Club is sensible. It also happens to be fascinating.

"Good and Evil" is organized in two parts: Part I explores ancient "myths, religion, theology, philosophy and science," finding economic history and stories therein, while Part II does the reverse, looking at what Sedlacek deems the "blasphemous thoughts" — the weak moments and flawed theorems of modern economies and economics, culling therefrom essential archetypes he links back to other ancient stories.

In fact, story is a theme of "Good and Evil." Throughout, Sedlacek uses the power of story to call out economics for telling normative stories in mathematical language (meaning that they try to project with numbers how things "should be") and instead illustrates through stories the truth, the reality of human economics behavior — how things actually are. This turns what is, at its core, an economic history, into an adventure across the ages.

And I mean a lot of ages — "Good and Evil" starts with a thorough examination of the economic principle of human relationships’ interference with human efficiency as set forth in the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian text that is the oldest written story in human history at more than 4,000 years old. Throughout, Sedlacek cites the work and words of Plato, Jesus, C.S. Lewis, Carl Jung, Stanley Kubrick and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne’s character in "The Matrix") with equal ease, facility and significance.

The (surprisingly) modern predilection — voracity, even — for economic growth, growth and more growth? More money, more things, and so forth? Sedlacek traces it to its Old Testament roots.

In the final analysis, "Good and Evil" explores such surprisingly economic subject matter as the good and evil inherent in our physical bodies; the core differences between humans and animals; freedom; bondage; greed; philanthropy; social contracts and safety nets; debt; wealth and prosperity — all through the lens of stories, characters and theories modern and ancient.

Sedlacek is no total rogue, though; he uses his unconventional sources to underscore the need for method in understanding economics, and to issue a call for human, story-driven, historical inspiration for those methods applied.

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