How Did “Freakonomics” Get Its Name? (Ep. 108)

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This week’s podcast is another installment of “FREAK-quently Asked Questions,” in which Levitt and Dubner field queries from readers and listeners. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player in the post. You can also read the transcript here; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

They talk about their most embarrassing mistakes, whether ladies’-night discounts constitute unfair price discrimination, and how to drive like an economist.

Plus, Levitt remembers his late sister, Linda, who came up with the title for Freakonomics. In a conversation a few years ago, she explained:

LINDA LEVITT JINES: So I’m on vacation, and Steve hands me a sheaf of papers and he tells me, “I’ve written a book. I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of money for doing it. I’m feeling a little guilty, because really all that’s going to happen is it’s going to end up on the remainder tables of college bookstores across America. So to make me feel a little less guilty, let’s give this book a chance. If you could take your creative powers and give it a really imaginative name, I could sleep at night.” So of course I was happy to do that. And I was happy to read the manuscript, which I thought was very good. And pretty much the minute I was done reading it, the name Freakonomics came to me. When Steve called me to see if I had anything, and I said, “I’ve got a few things, but I’ll tell you the leader is Freakonomics.” He said, “That is brilliant, thank you.” I said, “Oh, it’s alright, it only took me ten minutes.”

You’ll also hear a few of the book titles that — thankfully — didn’t make it onto the cover (E-Ray Vision, anyone?).


Comedy to me is telling a story and getting an audience to relate to your feelings with a surprise twist or humorous interjection. So with the Bill Gates retelling, you [Levitt] nailed it.

Simon Dunphy

The thing about driverless cars is that, while they're being tested they will tend to be much more dangerous than they would be if everyone used a driverless car. Once you can make sure that driverless cars can avoid one-car crashes really well, the two-car crash could immediately be taken care of because, presumably, every driverless car could know where every other driverless car is, and, more importantly, what it plans on doing next. Interesting thought though; driverless cars might experience diminishing marginal danger.

Fact Unicorn

Google has proven that driverless cars (even in their infancy) are FAR safer than human-controlled vehicles.

"The car has traversed San Francisco's Lombard Street, famed for its steep hairpin turns and through city traffic. The vehicles have driven over the Golden Gate Bridge and on the Pacific Coast Highway, and have circled Lake Tahoe.[3] The system drives at the speed limit it has stored on its maps and maintains its distance from other vehicles using its system of sensors. The system provides an override that allows a human driver to take control of the car by stepping on the brake or turning the wheel, similar to cruise control systems already found in many cars today.[2]

In August 2011, a human-controlled Google driverless car was involved in the project's first crash near Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA. Google has stated that the car was being driven manually at the time of the accident.[9] A second incident involved a Google driverless car being rear-ended while stopped at a stoplight.[10]

In August 2012, the team announced that they have completed over 300,000 autonomous-driving miles accident-free, typically have about a dozen cars on the road at any given time, and are starting to test them with single drivers instead of in pairs.[11] Three U.S. states have passed laws permitting driverless cars as of September 2012: Nevada, Florida and California."



In this podcast, you welcomed self-driving cars as soon as tomorrow. However, self-driving cars will put many, many thousands of people out of work including taxi drivers, truck drivers, delivery drivers and messengers, bus drivers, valets, etc., etc. Can our economy afford that technology? It will also open up many legal questions, such as whether someone is liable for the actions of their driverless car, including times when no humans are on board. There are many more aspects of driverless cars that should be explored more thoroughly in a future podcast.


Why should driverless cars be different than any other technology. Consider for instance on-line banking. In the old days, to pay say my electric bill someone had to drive out here, and read the meter. Back at the office a clerk would manually transcribe that reading, print a bill on paper, and mail it. The mail carrier would drive all the way back out here to put the envelope in my mailbox. I'd write a check and put it in the envelope (more wasted paper!), the mail carrier would pick it up and deliver it to the power company, where another clerk would open the envelope and enter the check. Then the checks would be taken to the bank, where another clerk would post the money to the power company's account. The checks would then be sorted and sent to the issuing bank, where the money'd finally be deducted from my account.

Nowadays I just log into the power company's web site, click on "Pay Bill", a few electrons get shuffled around, and I'm done. No wasted paper, no burned gas (well, the meter's read electronically, though the mail carrier still drops by with my daily allotment of junk mail), no people doing boring repetitive jobs... So why's this ok, and the elimination of boring, repetitive driving jobs not?



I think you misunderstood. I dont disagree with you. I wasn't arguing against driverless cars. I am eager for them to come. I was pointing out that there are many more aspects of the driverless cars that are quite interesting. I was surprised that the discussion of them only focused on safety. I'd love to hear their thoughts on those other interesting questions.


A great podcast. Touching. Very effective use of the musical samples.

Could you please share with me the artist/album/song/date of the music in the show? I'm sure the artists wouldn't mind the pub. I looked everywhere on the site for a list but found none. Don't you have to credit them?




Found it! --> Audio Transcript!

Great show! Bye!


I so appreciated your comments on your son Andrew. I lost someone very close to me and hardly anyone would bring it up. I yearned to talk about him and remember his memories but I think people were to afraid to bring him up. I think you nailed it on this subject. I loved hearing I wasn't alone in that thought process. Thank you so much for sharing that information about yourself.


I so agree with Lisa. Actually, as you were telling stories about your sister, I was thinking about how much joy I could hear in your voice! I lost my dad to cancer less than two years ago, and I feel like he's right with me whenever I talk about him. It's been one of the most important lessons I learned from his death- people do want the opportunity to talk about their loved ones when they're gone. I react to others' loss differently now. My sympathies on the loss of both Linda and Andrew.

joe genius

You know, one can simply use the search engine with the website you are buying from and coupon code. It works most of the time for at least 10 percent i have found if you know how to look.


Please let me know the name of the song you played at the very beginning of this episode.
I saw a woman walking in the park early morning while I was listening and it was a perfect background music!! It was fun and comical to see the women walking to the song. It released my stress of intense working week. Thanks in advance.


Scroll up till you see the 'Audio Transcript' link which will take you to the transcript which includes links for the musical interludes.


Thanks a bunch!


just heard this podcast. You mentioned about getting annoyed when there is a "coupon code" space and you don't have one. If its something you want but don't really need search for coupon codes for that item or send an email to the company for current coupon codes. I've gotten responses from emailing the websites directly.

Pablo Velarde

Didn't you hear? DRIVERLESS CAR WAS INVENTED YEARS AGO. Is called public transport.You can read in a train while it takes you anywhere. watch TV comfortably seated in a plane or a bus.
Believe me guys, I have tried it plenty of times and it's great!!!!
( oh, yes, you can get to the very door of your house in a bus or a train.....well, nothing's perfect guys, and trying to make things perfect that way it's costing us the earth- literally)