A stand-up economist’s joy trickles down to the rest of us
Perhaps it say something that there are more jokes about economists than there are jokes made by them. But then there’s Yoram Bauman, a genuine stand-up economist based in Seattle. His goals in life, claims his website, “are to spread joy to the world through economics comedy; to reform economics education; and to implement carbon pricing.”
And as he told the American Economic Association in 2009, “People always ask if I’m afraid of bombing when I do standup comedy… I always feel like I have to remind them I teach introductory microeconomics—at eight o’ clock in the morning.” If you want a treat for the middle of your day, go on YouTube and check out his video, Mankiw’s Ten Principles of Economics Translated, which is absolutely hilarious. His specialty is environmental economics, but he gets asked a lot about macroeconomics and how to “fix” the economy. “Mostly I parry those questions.” He often gets asked about the stock market. “I guess what economists can say about the stock market is that you should invest in index funds. So that’s a valuable piece of information, but it’s not like we have secret inside knowledge of what stocks to buy or is there going to be a stock market crash or not.
“So I disappoint people for the most part,” he deadpans.
But life’s not a complete giggle-fest. Bauman is committed to the concept of a revenue-neutral carbon tax, and the book he co-authored in 1998 with Alan Durning of the Sightline Institute, Tax Shift, helped inspire adoption of such a tax in British Columbia. More recently, the initiative he’s leading for a revenue-neutral carbon tax appears to be gathering political steam in his home state of Washington.
His work even led to an interesting run-in with Washington Post columnist George Will. This was back when Bauman was still teaching at a Lakeside High School in Seattle, and Will happened to visit Bauman’s economics class, where they wound up talking about climate change (Will believes human behavior isn’t the main cause). Bauman asked him if he would support replacing part of the U.S. payroll tax with a carbon tax.
“And he said he was all for it, because he hates the payroll tax. And at the time, unemployment was eight percent, and it’s still too high in my view, and I hate the payroll tax…” Bauman asked Will what he thought about agreeing with Democrat Al Gore, the darling of the environmentalist movement, on this specific issue. “An idea should not be held responsible for the people who believe in it,” replied Will.
As for Bauman, he hasn’t done too shabby with how he spreads ideas in entertaining formats. His books co-authored with Grady Klein, The Cartoon Introduction to Economics (they put out two volumes) and The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change are “doing great” and have been translated into 14 languages. “They’re not like Sarah Palin’s books where nobody buys her books anymore.”
It all seems to prove that some old jokes aren’t funny because they’re true after all, like the one about how economists are people who are too smart for their own good and not smart enough for anyone else’s. Consider that Bauman’s fourth tome will be a cartoon book on calculus. And if somebody, anybody, can make calculus engaging and interesting (please, God)…
“There are plenty of books out there for people who love math about calculus,” says Bauman. “We wanted to write a book about calculus for people who don’t love math… And that was kind of the way the econ books were, too.”
Copyright 2015 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of Corporate Risk Canada magazine