Of Guffaws and GDPs: PopMatters Talks to Yoram Bauman, Standup Economist

Times are tough all over. With unemployment high and a tenuous economic recovery scraping by mostly by the grace of low interest rates and happy thoughts, one would think it would be pretty difficult to get a laugh out of the current economic situation. But for stand-up economist Yoram Bauman, doing just that is his business, and even during these hard times, business is good.

Bauman graduated with a Ph.D. in economics from Washington University back in 2003. He has since found himself working jobs typical of someone with a degree such as his, whether as a professor, a consultant or an academic journal editor. Unlike most of his former classmates, however, Bauman moonlights as a comedian, regularly performing stand-up in front of college, business, non-profit and open-mic audiences around the United States. What started as a one-off parody essay published during grad-school led to a live performance of that piece (a humorous riff on Greg Mankiw’s ten principles of economics) at an American Association for the Advancement of Science convention, and subsequently to gigs in comedy clubs, auditoriums and conference rooms across his country.

Bauman posits a couple of reasons for his act’s ability to thrive in the most trying economic times since the Great Depression. “One, people are more interested in economics,” Bauman points out. “And two, they’re looking for something to laugh about.” The way Bauman picks his targets probably doesn’t hurt either. Macroeconomic trends and theories, which tend to be the butt of most of his jokes, carry with them a certain natural absurdity that lends itself surprisingly well to comedy – so long as one isn’t inclined to take them too seriously. “One thing I do is make fun of macroeconomics, and the fact that there’s all this disagreement in the field, and that’s something that people can relate to.”

In his act, Bauman manages to deftly combine two occupations that are notoriously difficult on their own—stand-up comedy and economic theory. While anyone who has tried it will attest that standing in front of a microphone and making a room full of strangers laugh is even harder than it sounds, Bauman attests that economic theory is harder still. That’s because while economics is more often thought of as a scientific endeavor, comedy has a much better laboratory. “With standup, you get instant feedback” explains Bauman. “You go to a club and try a new joke and the joke either works or it doesn’t work, and you figure it out soon enough. But in economic theory, especially if you’re talking about short term macro-stuff — and this is why we have all these debates about the stimulus package — it’s a lot harder to get feedback.”

The tools for testing whether you’re doing the right thing or the wrong thing in the world of macro-economic theory — tools that would allow for true experimentation in the field — simply don’t exist. “We never know and never will know what the world would be like if we hadn’t bailed out AIG, if we hadn’t passed the stimulus package,” Bauman points out. “That’s a source of tremendous uncertainty, which makes economic theory very hard because you can’t do these tests to figure out if our theories are working.” The up-side for Bauman, of course, is that this makes economic theory a pretty ripe target for anyone interested in poking fun at it.

But in blending his take on heady subjects like macroeconomic theory with a dose of irreverence not common in the field, does Bauman run the risk of not being taken seriously as an academic? He doesn’t feel that way, asserting that his comedy work makes him more effective in his work as an instructor. “The position I have now is more of a teaching position, and obviously doing comedy fits in with communicating and teaching,” Bauman says. “I think there are a lot of economists who value that, who see my videos and see that they’re funny, but there’s also substance to it, and they can use it in their classes, so they appreciate that.”

Bauman has recently brought both the academic and comedic ends of his act to the printed page. With the help of cartoonist Grady Klein, Bauman has been tapped to pen The Cartoon Guide to Microeconomics, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – a textbook on microeconomic theory that wouldn’t look out of place in the funny pages. “It was super fun, I had a great time with it,” Bauman says. “I would draft up something… here’s page one, and here’s the image, and here’s the narrator text, and here are some ideas for what we could do, and I would do that for a chapter and send that to Grady, and he would send it back and say ‘Here’s what doesn’t make sense to me.’” This vetting process ended up being key for Bauman, ensuring that he could keep the book readable for people who were picking it up as a primer. “[Klein] could apply a kind of beginner’s mind to it, so that was great, as well as his skills as an illustrator,” Bauman says. “It was a lot of fun and a really great collaboration.”

While it makes him a more effective communicator and teacher, his comedy work does distract from another facet of the lives of most economists, restricting the time he can devote to his own original research. “You get what you pay for – people can’t be experts at everything, so you have to think about what you’re going to spend your time on,” Bauman reminds me, in what could be a bullet point from an Econ 101 textbook. “Those are the challenges people face – there’s a time budget constraint. You get to choose how to parcel out your time, and I certainly run into that as well. The time I spend doing comedy means less time I can spend doing other things.” All that said, Bauman’s still not exactly a slouch when it comes to producing genuine academic material. “I study climate change as an economist…I’m pretty careful with my words in my work, and I do my research in those areas, I think people respect my academic output for what it is, even though it’s not on a scale of something you’d find if I was doing full-time academic work.”

As a specialist in environmental economics, what does Bauman think the oft-touted prospect of a new ‘green economy’ with the potential to simultaneously create new jobs and improve energy efficiency? Will the idea eventually live up to its promise? “I think it will be slow,” Bauman says, pragmatically. “The challenge that a lot of clean energy faces is that it is expensive. We’re very good at digging coal out of the ground and putting it into a boiler and lighting it on fire, and if you’re not going to account for the environmental costs, then you’ve got all these new technologies that are going to be forced to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. And that’s very hard.” The answer, Bauman suggests, lies in correcting the currently low price of carbon emissions to account for environmental costs. “Right now, energy is cheap, and dirty energy is very cheap, and a lot of the green jobs that people are talking about are really going to need a kick in the pants to get them started,” Bauman says, recalling in spirit one of the most basic tenets of both micro and macro economic thought: incentives are everything. “If energy prices are going up, then you’re a little more inclined to trade in your Hummer for a more fuel efficient car…or to hire someone in a green job to insulate your house or do a home energy audit, or do any of these things that people talk about when they talk about green jobs. That’s what we need, but we need a price signal to help kick that into high gear.”

If and when these solutions do kick into high gear, what does an environmental economist think they will look like? “Well, the great thing about being an economist is I don’t have to answer that question,” Bauman demurs. “We should have a carbon price and then let the market figure it out. If you look at the past, there was a time when everyone was crazy about fuel cells, and fuel cell powered cars, and that turned out to be more of a challenge than a lot of people thought. So not being an expert, I hesitate to say that some solution is my favorite solution.” If this sounds like refusing to bet a horse in perhaps the most important race of our times, it’s not. Bauman is simply picking a favorite the way most economists pick their favorites – by letting the rest of us figure out what works best. “My favorite solution is to let the market figure it out,” says Bauman. “And the market isn’t going to figure it out unless we give it appropriate signals to guide it, and that’s where carbon pricing comes in.”