Time to Take Back the Toilet: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

We’re not asking that using a public restroom be a pleasant experience, but are there ways to make it less miserable? That’s one of the questions we ask in our latest Freakonomics Radio episode, “Time to Take Back the Toilet.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

Public bathrooms are noisy, poorly designed, and often nonexistent. In this episode, we explore the history of the public restroom, the taboos that accompany it, and the public-health risks of paying too little attention to the lowly toilet. (In India, for instance, more households have phones than toilets.) Along the way, we learn about the design of public spaces and how their environments are shaped, particularly by sound. Read More »



The Troubled Cremation of Stevie the Cat: A Freakonomics Radio Rebroadcast

If there’s a death in your family and you choose to have your loved one cremated, wouldn’t you expect that the remains that are returned to you belong specifically to your beloved? Of course you would! Would you expect the same if the dearly departed happens to be the family pet? I suspect the answer is still yes. But in the fast-growing pet-cremation business, how do you know that the remains you’re getting back are indeed from your pet?

This week’s podcast is a rebroadcast of our episode called “The Troubled Cremation of Stevie the Cat.” Read More »



How to Fix a Broken High Schooler, in Four Easy Steps: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Our previous episode — “Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem?” — looked at the role of teacher skill in the education equation. But the education equation isn’t so simple — there are a lot of inputs, a lot of variables, a lot of question marks. Our conclusion: sure, it would be great to have a brilliant teacher in every classroom — but that still doesn’t guarantee that every student will be well-educated. Students have to want it; families have to want it. What is a teacher and a school system supposed to do if a lot of its students just don’t really care about school?

That brings us to this week’s episode, “How to Fix a Broken High Schooler, in Four Easy Steps.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

It’s about a program called Pathways to Education, which came out of a community health center in Regent Park,  a housing project in Toronto. You’ll hear from Carolyn Acker, who used to run the center: Read More »



Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast


We’ve all heard the depressing numbers: when compared to kids from other rich countries, U.S. students aren’t doing very well, especially in math, even though we spend more money per student than most other countries. So is the problem here as simple as adding two plus two? Is the problem here that our students aren’t getting very bright simply because … our teachers aren’t very bright?

That’s the question we ask in our latest Freakonomics Radio episode. It’s called “Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

The cast of characters:

+ Joel Klein, the former New York City schools chancellor (and head of the U.S. Dept. of Justice’s Antitrust Division) who now runs Amplify, a News Corp education-technology startup. Klein’s new book is Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools, which was so informative and impressive that I blurbed it. In its review of the book, Newsweek says that Klein “politely rips the status quo,” which is exactly right. Read More »



The Man Who Would Be Everything: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast


What is Boris Johnson?

A better question might be: what isn’t Boris Johnson? He is, inter alia, the Mayor of London; a prolific author, journalist and, as of this month, a biographer of Winston Churchill; a once and possibly future Member of Parliament; a potential future Prime Minister himself despite being a “self-styled joke” who occasionally gets stuck on a zip-line; an American by birth (and U.S. passport holder).

He is also, as you’ll hear in our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast, a painter of old cheese boxes, a collector of wooden tennis rackets, and a man who would inspire England’s national soccer team by copying how Saddam Hussein‘s son Uday reportedly inspired the Iraqi national team: “When they come back next time, we should just, you know, threaten to do something in the changing rooms of those guys unless they sharpen up.” Read More »



Why Do People Keep Having Children? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast


What are the factors that make a given person more or less likely to have children? How important are income, education, and optimism about the future? Is it true that “development is the best contraceptive,” as demographers like to say? And is the global population really going to double by the next century? (Probably not — in fact, one U.N. estimate finds that the population in 2100 could be lower than today.)

These are some of the questions we ask in this week’s episode, “Why Do People Keep Having Children?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) Read More »



Should the U.S. Merge With Mexico? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

There seem to be two global winds blowing in opposite directions: companies are merging like never before while nation-states from Spain to Iraq to the United Kingdom are threatening to break apart.

What if the United States bucked the trend of nation-states and instead went the way of companies? What if, for instance, the U.S. decided to merge with Mexico? Welcome to Amexico, with a population of nearly half a billion people and the best hamburgers and enchiladas in the world. Is this as crazy as it sounds? That’s the question we explore in our latest Freakonomics Radio episode, “Should the U.S. Merge With Mexico?” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) Read More »



What Can Vampires Teach Us About Economics? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast


Do vampires employ an optimal strategy in choosing their mates? Would a zombie invasion help create jobs? And what would happen if vampires didn’t have to attack humans to get blood?

These are some of the pressing questions we ask in this week’s episode, “What Can Vampires Teach Us About Economics?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

It was inspired by a book called Economics of the Undead: Zombies, Vampires, and the Dismal Science a collection of 23 scholarly essays edited by the economists Glen Whitman and James Dow. Read More »



Why Family and Business Don’t Mix: A New Marketplace Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics on Marketplace podcast is called “Why Family and Business Don’t Mix.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript.) It’s based on a recent paper by Alberto Alesina and Paola Giuliano called “Family Ties.” It argues that strong family ties bring a lot of benefits, but  may also depress economic activity:

We study the role of the most primitive institution in society: the family. Its organization and relationship between generations shape values formation, economic outcomes and influences national institutions. We use a measure of family ties, constructed from the World Values Survey, to review and extend the literature on the effect of family ties on economic behavior and economic attitudes. We show that strong family ties are negatively correlated with generalized trust; they imply more household production and less participation in the labor market of women, young adult and elderly. They are correlated with lower interest and participation in political activities and prefer labor market regulation and welfare systems based upon the family rather than the market or the government. Strong family ties may interfere with activities leading to faster growth, but they may provide relief from stress, support to family members and increased wellbeing. We argue that the value regarding the strength of family relationships are very persistent over time, more so than institutions like labor market regulation or welfare systems.

Read More »



Baby, You Can Program My Car: A New Marketplace Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “Baby, You Can Program My Car.” Yes, it’s about driverless vehicles. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript here.)  

I recently had the good fortune to go for a ridealong in a self-driving Cadillac SRX4 with three of the engineers responsible for making it go: Raj Rajkumar, John Dolan, and Jarrod Snider, all key players in the General Motors-Carnegie Mellon Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab. We rode around a large track that the university has built on the site of an abandoned steel plant in Pittsburgh.

What was most remarkable, to me at least, was how unremarkable it felt to ride in a vehicle that no one was steering or braking. In other words, it felt normal — not like a science experiment or a rocket ride — and, as amazing a feat of engineering as a driverless car is, I also realized how much of the technology to go driverless already exists in the modern cars we’ve been driving for years (cameras, sensors, automation, etc.).  Read More »



It’s Crowded at the Top: A New Marketplace Podcast

Our latest podcast, “Crowded at the Top,” presents a surprising explanation for why the U.S. unemployment rate is still relatively high. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript.)

It features a conversation with the University of British Columbia economist Paul Beaudry, one of the authors (along with David Green and Benjamin Sand) of a new paper called “The Great Reversal in the Demand for Skill and Cognitive Tasks“: Read More »



Help Wanted. No Smokers Need Apply: A New Marketplace Podcast

Our latest podcast is called “Help Wanted. No Smokers Need Apply.”  (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript.)

In many states (21, to be precise), it is perfectly legal for an employer to not hire someone who smokes. This might seem understandable, given that health insurance is often coupled to employment, and since healthcare risks and costs are increasingly pooled. And so: if employers can exclude smokers, should they also be able to weed out junk-food lovers or motorcyclists — or perhaps anyone who wants to have a baby? Read More »



The Tax Man Nudgeth: A New Marketplace Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “The Tax Man Nudgeth.”  (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript.)

The U.S. tax code is almost universally seen as onerous and overly complicated. There is always talk in Washington about serious reform — Michigan Reps. Dave Camp (R.) and Sander Levin (D.) are currently working on it — but, Washington being Washington, we probably shouldn’t hold our breath.

So in this podcast we decided to take a look at the tax code we’re stuck with for now and see if there are some improvements, however marginal, that are worth thinking about. We start by discussing the “tax gap,” the huge portion of taxes that simply go uncollected for a variety of reasons. We once wrote about a clever man who helped close the gap a bit. In this episode, former White House economist Austan Goolsbee tells us why the government doesn’t try too hard to collect tax on all the cash that sloshes around the economy.

You’ll also hear from Dan Ariely, who has an idea for turning the act of paying taxes into a somewhat more satisfying civic duty. Read More »



How Money Is March Madness? A New Marketplace Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “How Money Is March Madness?”  (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

The gist: the annual NCAA basketball tournament grabs a lot of eyeballs, but turning them into dollars hasn’t always been easy — even when the “talent” is playing for free.

Last year, March Madness reportedly earned its highest TV ratings in 18 years. This year’s Super Bowl, meanwhile, was the third most-watched broadcast in TV history (behind two earlier Super Bowls), despite (or because of?) an electrical blackout. Interestingly — to me, at least — these two premier TV sporting events are sold very differently: the Super Bowl rotates annually among one of three networks while the NCAA is in the midst of a 14-year contract with CBS and Turner Sports. How does that difference affect ad revenue? Read More »



When Is a Negative a Positive? A New Marketplace Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “When Is a Negative a Positive?”  (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

So when is a negative a positive? When the negative is feedback. We focus on a clever research project by Ayelet Fishbach of the University of Chicago and Stacey Finkelstein at Columbia. It argues that positive feedback certainly has its role — especially when someone isn’t yet fully invested in a new project or job — but if it’s improvement you’re after, then going negative is where it’s at:

FISHBACH: The more a person is committed to a goal — and by that I mean the more someone thinks that they absolutely have to do it, they like doing it, it’s important for them to do it — the more negative compared with positive feedback will be efficient.

Read More »



The Downside of More Miles Per Gallon: A New Marketplace Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “The Downside of More Miles Per Gallon.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

The gist: the Federal gas tax is a primary source of infrastructure funding but, politically, it has proven a hard tax to increase. Furthermore, because the tax is a fixed amount (18.4 cents per gallon) rather than a percentage, gas-tax revenues don’t rise even when gas prices do — as has been happening lately.

Even worse, as modern cars travel further on a gallon of gas (good news, right?), they contribute even less money for the roads they travel. And cars are going to get even more fuel-efficient.

So what’s to be done? Some politicians want to get rid of gas taxes in favor of an increased sales tax — which, Eric Morris argues, is a bad idea, since it shifts the burden to non-drivers. Read More »



Should Tipping Be Banned?

Season 4, Episode 5

The practice of tipping is one of the most irrational, un-economic behaviors we engage in. It’s not in our economic best-interest to tip; essentially we do it because it’s a social norm — a nicety. In this episode of Freakonomics Radio, Stephen Dubner looks at why we tip, what kinds of things can nudge tips upward, and what’s wrong with tipping overall. In the end, we wonder whether or not the practice of tipping should be eliminated altogether. Research shows that African American waiters make less in tips than people of other races, so tipping is a discriminatory practice. Later in the hour: if your parent has the gene for Huntington’s disease you have a 50% chance of getting it yourself. Huntington’s is a debilitating fatal disorder. People can do genetic testing to see if they will fall ill, yet only 5% of people choose to do so. Stephen Dubner talks to University of Chicago economist Emily Oster about her research on Huntington’s genetic testing, and the value of not knowing your fate.



The Cobra Effect

Season 4, Episode 4

If you want to get rid of a nasty invasive pest, it might seem sensible to offer a bounty as a reward. But the problem is: nothing backfires quite like a bounty. In this episode of Freakonomics Radio, we look at bounties on snakes in Delhi, India; rats in Hanoi, Vietnam; and feral pigs in Fort Benning, Georgia. In each case, bounty seekers came up with creative ways to maximize their payoff – and pest populations grew. Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt talk about how incentives don’t always work out the way we expect them to. Later in the hour, if you want to write a book about Winston Churchill, you are going to have to pay. The Churchill estate is intensely protective of Sir Winston’s copyright, so much so that if you write a book about him, you are likely to go into the red. Stephen Dubner talks about who owns words, and what it will cost you to write a book about Churchill.



Spite Happens

Season 4, Episode 3

This episode of Freakonomics Radio explores our surprising propensity for spite. We discover the gruesome etymology of the phrase “cut off your nose to spite your face” (it involves Medieval nuns cutting off their noses to preserve their chastity). Stephen Dubner and economist Benedikt Herrmann talk about so-called “money-burning” lab experiments, in which people often choose to take money away from other participants – even when it means giving up some of their own cash. Also: why do we take pleasure in harming others? So much so that we’re willing to harm ourselves in the process? The answer may lie in our biology: Freakonomics Radio producer Katherine Wells talks with biologist E. O. Wilson about whether spite exists in nature. Later in the hour, we head to Bogota, Colombia, where the mayor used unconventional methods to bring order to the city: he hired mimes to mimic and embarrass people who were violating traffic laws — and it worked. Then, Stephen Dubner talks to Robert Cialdini, best known for his research on the psychology of persuasion, about how peer pressure, and good old fashioned shame, can greatly affect the way people behave.  



How Much Does Your Name Matter?

Season 4, Episode 2

When Harvard professor Latanya Sweeney Googled her name one day, she noticed something strange: an ad for a background check website came up in the results, with the heading: “Latanya Sweeney, Arrested?” But she had never been arrested, and neither had the only other Latanya Sweeney in the U.S. So why did the ad suggest so? Thousands of Google searches later, Sweeney discovered that Googling traditionally black names is more likely to produce an ad suggestive of a criminal background. Why? In this episode of Freakonomics Radio, Stephen Dubner investigates the latest research on names. Steve Levitt talks about his groundbreaking research on names, economic status, and race. And University of Chicago economist Eric Oliver explains why a baby named “Cody” is more likely to belong to conservative parents, and why another named “Esme” was probably born to a pair of liberals.



Women Are Not Men

Season 4, Episode 1

Women are different from men, by a lot, in some key areas. For example, data show that women don’t: drown, compete as hard, get struck by lightning, use the Internet, edit Wikipedia, engage in delinquent behavior, or file patents as much as men do – and these are just some of the examples. Another way women are different from men? They have made significant economic gains and yet they are less happy now than they were 30 years ago. So, how do we explain this paradox? In this episode of Freakonomics Radio, Stephen Dubner looks at some of the ways that women are not men. Later in the hour, Dubner talks to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker about his research on the history of violence. Pinker has a surprising and counterintuitive thesis: violence has declined and the world is a much more peaceful place than it has ever been.



Legacy of a Jerk

Season 3, Episode 5

Since the beginning of civilization, human waste has been considered worthless at best and quite often dangerous. What if it turns out we were wrong? In this episode of Freakonomics Radio, host Stephen Dubner explores the power of poop, focusing on an experimental procedure called a fecal transplant (some call it a “transpoosion”), which may offer promising results not only for intestinal problems but also obesity and neurological disorders.  We’ll talk to two doctors at the vanguard of this procedure and a patient who says it changed his life. Read More »



Freakonomics Goes to College

Season 3, Episode 4

Is a college diploma really worth the paper it’s printed on? In this episode of Freakonomics Radio, host Stephen Dubner breaks down the costs and benefits of going to college, especially during an economy that’s leaving a lot of people un- and underemployed. The data say that college graduates make a lot more money in the long run and enjoy a host of other benefits as well.  But does that justify the time and money? We’ll hear from economists David Card, Betsey Stevenson, and Justin Wolfers, as well as former Bush adviser Karl Rove, who made it to the White House without a college degree. Amherst College president Biddy Martin describes what an education provides beyond facts and figures, while Steve Levitt wonders if the students he teaches at the University of Chicago are actually learning anything.  Finally, a former FBI agent tells us about the very robust market for fake diplomas. Read More »



The Truth Is Out There…Isn’t It?

Season 3, Episode 3

Until not so long ago, chicken feet were essentially waste material.  Now they provide enough money to keep U.S. chicken producers in the black — by exporting 300,000 metric tons of chicken “paws” to China and Hong Kong each year. In the first part of this hour-long episode of Freakonomics Radio, host Stephen Dubner explores this and other examples of weird recycling. We hear the story of a Cleveland non-profit called MedWish, which ships unused or outdated hospital equipment to hospitals in poor countries around the world. We also hear Intellectual Ventures founder Nathan Myhrvold describe a new nuclear-power reactor that runs on radioactive waste. Read More »