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

For stand-up economist Yoram Bauman, getting laughs out of the financial situation is his business. Even during these hard times, business is good.

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.”

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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