What is the secret to coming out strong during uncertain times?
The French economist, professor, and author Jacques Sapir expresses his opinions regarding asking the right questions and making robust plans to succeed in economics, business, and life.
He offers a powerful message about diminishing inequalities to grow economies.
Derin Cag, the founder and editor-in-chief of Richtopia, has a deep conversation with the esteemed economist and even asks the strategic-thinker a joking question about what he would do if he was something like the king of the world. In his response, he hints at destroying Richtopia for even thinking of such a question! 😀
In times of competing world views, uncertainty, and over-ambition, Professor Sapir discusses what he would make of it all.
Does his theories have the potential to transform hearts and minds, or is he prophesying?
So, what does he want the world to know about him the most?
Discover all of this, and more, in this deep and dynamic question and answer interview below.
Jacques Sapir: Full Q&A Interview
1. What was life like growing up in Puteaux, France? And which experiences in your formative years inspired you the most?
If I was born (1954) in Puteaux, in Paris suburbs, that was because my father’s cousin was the director of the clinic. Actually, I spent all my childhood in Paris.
We lived first in a small two-story apartment and then in a big one where my father, a well-known psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, practiced. I went to a well-known high-school (Lycée Buffon), where I received a classical education and progressively switched to mathematics.
Among the most important experiences of my formative years, I would rank seeing some of my father’s friends, mostly former communists, members of the underground movement during World War II, even former members of “International Brigades” during the Spanish Civil War, talking to them, listening to them, trying to make the best of what they said.
There was also my grand-mother that I visited every weekend (to give my parents a break), who began to teach me the Russian language and gave me this close relation to Russian culture.
Then, of course, we can count the French May 1968 movement too, and my first trip to the Soviet Union in 1970 (I was 16 y-o), to perfect my knowledge of the language, from where I came back as a staunch anti-Stalinist but where I began to understand that things were much more complex, at least on the economic side than what was written both in the pro-Soviet and the anti-Soviet books and media.
That’s largely decided my career, as to the difference of some economists and French polemists writing about the Soviet System, I could read Soviet documents, understand Soviet debates. I got the taste to get at the real stuff.
2. As a pre-eminent economist, you are popular for your non-traditional and outside of the box style of thinking. What are some of the most unorthodox forecasts and theories you have for the next three decades?
I would not call my theories or my forecasts strictly speaking “unorthodox” but just minority, at least in France. Among forecasts (and I may be wrong) there are the unfolding of the European Union and the death of the Euro. There will be a trend toward de-globalization too (that was the title of a book I wrote 10 years ago).
Other economists included in Richtopia’s ranking, like Jo Stiglitz or Dani Rodrik, share some of the same ideas. I also think that we still have not seen all the consequences of Russia’s rebirth since 1998.
As a strict supporter of secularism and universalism, I am deeply concerned by the rise of communitarianism and of extremist political Islam in France.
3. What are the key lessons you want your students at EHESS-Paris to learn for their ultimate success in business and life?
First, it is not because something is said by a majority of people to be right that it is. Go and check it.
Second, facts are less important than processes from which facts are generated. Then concentrate on processes.
Third, never forget that rationality is a social construction and could, quite frequently, break down.
Fourth, probabilities are not actual life; radical uncertainty is.
Then work and work hard. That’s the ultimate key to success.
4. What excites you the most in the field of economics right now? And how do you anticipate things to play out by the 22nd century?
On theoretical matters, the combination between psychology and economics, and the creation of a non-standard information theory.
I think that with the massive use of computers and AI, the information pathology issue is to become a massive problem in years to come. I hope that we could re-write economics as a realist theory and an operational one.
5. Do you think we need to reimagine economic theories to be pandemic and technology proof?
No theory could be pandemic and technology proof. What we have to rebuild is an economic theory taking radical uncertainty seriously.
6. If you could only share one of your favourite quotes, which would it be?
If your attack is progressing well, it’s an ambush.
It applies in economics too…
7. How do you keep up with developments in your field?
Reading, reading, reading… I make maximal use of electronic libraries to keep informed. But, I use different State or official websites to add more data to what I get through e-libraries.
And then, I try (of course before the Covid-19) to go to the field as there is nothing like true fieldwork.
8. If you had the chance to travel back in time and spend a day with five people from history, who would they be? And what would you ask them?
Salluste or Gaius Sallustius Crispus (the Author of The Jugurtha’s War). I would discuss with him the reasons of the Roman Republic disorders, which are so close to the current disorders.
Jean Bodin (the father of the theory of sovereignty). I would ask him why he didn’t dare to publish his last book (Heptaplomeres) and how he linked sovereignty, legitimacy and secularism.
Adam Smith, to ask him if the “invisible hand” was really the importation in economics of a religious notion.
Alfred Marshall, to ask him why he thought that psychology was even more important than economics.
John Maynard Keynes, to ask him why he didn’t develop the microeconomic equivalent of his macro-theory.
9. In a post-colonialist world, how can formally conflicting countries work together to mutually grow the world’s economy? And how does the world community prevent high levels of human suffering from reoccurring?
It is not an economic problem but a political one. The sovereignty of each country matters. If we accept that, then we understand the need to adjust flows, especially capital flows, to respect the sovereignty of countries.
Economic development can only be achieved on the basis of a free coordination of the interests of each country.
Any attempt to impose a world order, or simply an economic order, which does not respect this principle can only lead to revolts and wars, and then more and more suffering.
10. Why is it important for people in both the private and public sectors to consider the planet, ethics, and human rights before making any economic decisions?
The question of respect for human rights, political rights, as well as social rights is central in decision-making.
If we think that it is only the sum of profits that counts, then we will produce growing inequalities, which will ultimately undermine the development process.
Likewise, whenever an economic decision has to be taken, the volume of non-recyclable waste and CO2 must be taken into account.
Otherwise, we will make the earth unlivable, whether through the distributional conflicts that will be generated or by the effects of production on the soil, on water and finally on global climate disorder.
11. How will you make economic theory relevant to post-pandemic times?
The Covid-19 pandemic did not suppress the economy. But it submitted the economy to the development of the pandemic.
Uncertainty created by the pandemic and in Europe by the probable return of the pandemic is constraining the economy. That’s obvious when you look at saving and consuming behaviour for households, and investment behaviour for companies.
How do we integrate the radical uncertainty Covid-19 or any other virus created in economic thinking?
What kind of institutional framework could help us to overcome radical uncertainty generated constraints?
This is one of the major challenges for a post-pandemic economic theory.
12. Please summarise your life in 3 words.
Work, persistence, resilience.
13. In which ways could individuals, organizations, and nations succeed, despite an ever-more uncertain future?
Individuals and households must be able to make plans, and for that to project themselves into the future. They, therefore, need security (health but also social) and predictability.
States must also be able to project themselves into the future. They, therefore, need to strengthen their forecasting capacities. They also need flexibility in their reactions.
This is one of the reasons I condemned the agreement on the European recovery plan. This plan is associated with too many constraints, which will limit the freedom of action of states.
It would have been much more effective, and much more respectful of the sovereignty of States, to let them react to the concrete problems facing them (Italy’s problems are not those of Germany which are not those of France), and to allow the European Central Bank to directly buy back the debt generated by these reactions.
States, therefore, need better forecasting capacities and more freedom of action.
Business organizations, companies, just like households and States, need predictability. They need a solvent market too. It is necessary here to distinguish the large company, with its own organizational means and its long-term investments, and the small and medium-sized company, which is much more dependent on its immediate solvency. These small and medium-sized businesses are in desperate need of immediate solvent demand to survive.
Large companies, on the other hand, need predictability in their investments. They need to be imaginative for the future. They also need State guidance, as in a situation where uncertainty is high, the market is unable to provide this kind of guidance, to tell them what overall direction they need to take. This is why companies need the state to clearly commit to these directions and provide the elements of solvent demand that will support activity in these directions.
This implies that states will have to put in place institutions ensuring both predictability, security – even if it is only relative security – and guidance.
Specific institutions are therefore necessary to promote this guidance and predictability. This is why the idea of the new French government to recreate the “Commissariat Général au Plan”, if it is not reduced to a simple communication effect, seems to me to be judicious here.
14. Here’s one for a laugh: If you were hypothetically forced into becoming the President of the World, with dictatorial powers for a term, which changes would you make to grow the economy and help increase people’s wealth? And would you bring back democracy at any point?
I really hate this idea. I think that I would spare no effort to destroy the institutional network, which made this idea possible.
But, if I could give advice to power to be at the global level, it would be to ensure a fair and equal level of education for all and fair access to natural resources and capital.
15. Last, what is the one thing you want everyone to know about Professor Jacques Sapir?
I sincerely believe that the citizen and the professor go hand in hand, but that research in economics must be freed, as much as possible, from the different ideologies in which we all believe, at one level or another.
One last point here. My father, born in Moscow, was brought up in Poland and came to France in 1933 to study medicine. His family was dispersed by the events of the 20th century throughout Europe. My mother was born in Nice, in Provence, of Piedmontese ancestry. No one feels more European than me. But no one should confuse any institution – like the European Union – with Europe.