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Question the questions for right answers

Have you people read the book ‘Freakonomics’, written by two economists Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner? It helps if you have not. For, I intend to explore in detailed depth over the next two small paragraphs the compact contents of the book which I have figured out by the dint of timeless hours that I spent looking at its cover and the puffy blurb.

From what I can gather, the authors, using complex financial data that are generally compiled by researchers who specialise in statistics that have no real connection with common people, prove with conviction that economics, no matter how racily it is written, will bore you off your pants off. This is the power of economics ever since the first economist put pen to paper. This rationale explains why the world economy is in a moribund state now.

As ever, I am just kidding. Freakonomics is indeed a best-seller and tries to unravel the complex economic realities and compulsions that lie under our every action. The theories are good enough to explain many things in life, except perhaps about why we watch T Rajendhar’s movies and why he continues to figure in this column.

The book has become a cult hit of sorts because it throws up some intriguing questions and tries to answer them. The first salvo itself is explosive: ‘What do schoolteachers and Sumo wrestlers have in common?’ If you think that this is an easy query as both a Sumo wrestling bout and an academic class by any teacher becomes a bore after two minutes, then you are wrong. The two brilliant economists using complex charts and their own expertise in understanding statistics over the course of 32-odd pages of dense prose and denser numbers, clinch the real connection: Both teachers and Sumo wrestlers cheat. Whoa! We didn’t know this all along!

As it goes, the book asks many such questions. One such is: ‘Do parents really matter?’ Another gem is: ‘How can your name affect how well you do in life?’ Let me clarify, the subject here is economics and not nameology.

Anyway, the authors make it clear that to understand the real truth that lies beneath layers of assumptions and misplaced conventional wisdom, one has to ask the right questions. The learned economists that Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner are sure seem to have asked the right questions before they set out to write this seminal work: What per cent of the royalty do we get to share?

Oops, there I go again. The point is such works of great economic understanding don’t get to be written in India is because we have lost the art of questioning. I base my theory on the incontrovertible evidences that my tribe —- journalists —— in general and numerous other people in the media have been providing for several decades now.

As Exhibit A I produce any random news story that involves a top actor in the movie of a popular director. So, say if Vikram is acting under Manirathnam, journalists like me, use our hard-earned experience to pose the most challenging of queries, which is: ‘How does it feel to act under a professional like Manirathnam?’ It is a poser that we scribes, after asking it zillion times, have figured out is a toughie. So we continue to ask every Tom, Dick and whatishisname and elicit an answer that no one could have imagined. So Vikram will say —— reader alert: stay ready for a surprise here —- ‘It is a great honour to be part of Manirathnam’s project’. And it goes on with anybody working with, say, Kamal Haasan. How does it feel to be part of a Kamal Haasan venture, who, (journalists will helpfully add in parenthesis) has been involved in the task of taking Tamil cinema to world cinema, as if Tamil cinema is something of a dog to be taken for a walk till Hollywood. And we media personnel, naturally and rightfully, think that we are smarter than the rest of the society.

TV journos, in comparison to their print brethren, are very innovative, provided you are ready to stretch ‘innovative’ to mean ‘stupid’ . Their opening gambit is, no matter whether it happens to be Abhinav Bindra’s Olympic gold medal or yet another massacre through a bomb blast,—- what is the mood out there? This question is okay only if the intention is to clear the throat. But talk to any TV journalist he or she will act as if they are the next best thing on earth after Albert Einstein.

Then there is the faux chattiness and cultivated glib of the songs show hosts, who, I think, have been programmed for life to pose this stunner: ‘Aprum, life eppdi poi kittu Irukku’. Even if you were to take a TV and radio DJs to a cemetery, the first thing he or she will deem fit to ask around is this. Mind you, they get paid in lakhs for precisely this and are naturally a huge hit at happening parties, where they perform the intellectually stimulating activity of posing for photos with the most expressive thing in the frame being the wall behind.

But I think the time has now come to ask the right questions and come up with the Indian equivalent of Freakonomics. The only question is who will come up with the right and seminal questions like, what do karate teachers and non-vegetarian eateries have in common (they both give you the chops . You figure that out for yourself, while I busy myself with the tough task of designing the cover of thebook, which needless to say, is titled Crankonomics — a racy guide in economics to sleeping.

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