What did we do to make cows live longer and kill vultures off sooner? a podcaster asks by way of introducing himself. Answer: you’ll be surprised at the things antibiotics do to living creatures – and dead ones. The Seen And The Unseen, a weekly podcast that makes its debut next Tuesday, will address politics, economics, and behavioural science by talking to some of India’s top nerds, through the prism of the unpredictable and unconsidered effects of human actions and policy.
The podcaster is Amit Varma, whom you may know as the Sunday Times Of India’s limerick czar. (Sample: “A minister who was farsighted / Said, ‘Men must not get too excited. / I would like to ban skirts / Jail any woman that flirts, / Ban all women,’ he said, delighted.”) His recent writing, especially his columns critical of demonetization, has probably been all over your Facebook and Twitter timelines too, so you already have some idea of his modus operandi – that story about Mao and the sparrows is all about the horrors of unintended consequences.
Over the years, Amit has been one of India’s best-known writers on libertarianism; run a popular blog, India Uncut; been a columnist for several leading papers (and managing editor of Cricinfo); learned to play poker professionally; and written a bestselling novel. He’s also the reason many Indians know who a 19th century French economist named Frédéric Bastiat is. Bastiat is “one of my personal heroes – the other is George Orwell.”
The Seen And The Unseen, a weekly podcast that makes its debut next Tuesday, will address politics, economics, and behavioural science by talking to some of India’s top nerds.
“Have you ever witnessed the anger of the good shopkeeper, James B., when his careless son happened to break a square of glass?” Bastiat asked his readers in 1850. Many economists – and nosy Frenchmen – would console Monsieur B. by reminding him that if no glass were ever broken, glaziers would be out of business. Yet James B’s precious six francs go into repairing a window when he might have used the money to repair his shoes, or “add a book to his library.” It would be a dull sort of economist, Bastiat implied, who didn’t take the unseen effects of the broken window into account.
“He basically used it as a way to explain opportunity cost,” says Amit, whose podcast doffs its hat to the title of this Bastiat essay, “That Which Is Seen And That Which Is Unseen.” On any given day, “you might open the newspaper and find five things that can be explained using this prism. It’s also a good way to critique government policy, since most policy makers don’t understand it at all.”
The Seen And The Unseen will spend 20 minutes each week looking at political economy, “and soon, more about neuroscience and behavioural science” with expert guests. An early episode will focus on demonetization, but Amit’s writing and his subjects won’t overlap much otherwise.
“The subjects aren’t really my core subjects,” he says. “My policy is to get guests smarter than I am, and have them do most of the talking.” The first episode will tackle agriculture policy with data and policy experts Pavan Srinath and Karthik Shashidhar. Future episodes will deal with rent control and zoning laws; education and the profit motive; surge pricing and Uber, and more.
Will there be limericks? “I hadn’t intended any, but I can put some in just for bpb,” Amit promises generously as we say goodbye. We’re happy to start: There is a man named Amit Varma / With views as spicy as shawarma / He’s cashing in his chips / With a smile on his lips / And winning enough to buy rubies from Burma.
Getting there: For subscriptions and updates to the podcast, see http://www.seenunseen.in/.
Correction: An earlier version of this story implied that the first episode would be (only) about minimum support price in agriculture.
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