An economist walks into a bar.
Yoram Bauman, a self-professed “stand-up economist,” sat in the Fremont brew pub Brouwer’s, explaining why the opening line of this story sets the stage for humor.
“There are strong stereotypes about economists,” Bauman said over a plate of fries and a cider beer. “Economists are money-grubbing and hyper-rational, and sometimes you destroy the world.”
He said this creates an opportunity for humor: “You can do comedy about anything where there are strong stereotypes.”
Bauman’s routine, which he performs at corporate events and educational institutions around the world, revolves around poking fun, in equal measures, at the economy and economists.
“Economists are people who are against the death penalty because it’s too expensive,” he jokes.
And although there are many stereotypes of economists that he himself embodies (he’s a lanky, bespectacled man who gets very excited when discussing carbon taxes), there are also those he rejects.
For one, Bauman is no money-grubber. (What kind of money-grubbing economist has a day job as a comedian?) He understands how illusory currency can be.
One of his routines is about joss paper, also known as ghost money, which is burned during some Chinese religious ceremonies to send money to ancestors who have passed away.
“This burning of joss paper is actually massively increasing the money supply in the afterworld,” leading to hyperinflation in hell, he joked in January while performing at the American Economic Association’s Humor Session (which he actually started years ago).
At the bar, to underscore his point, Bauman took out his iPhone and launched an app that let him set fire to fake currency. He laughed as notes burned with every flick of his finger.
One of Bauman’s goals in performing economic comedy is to educate people.
“There’s a strong human desire to understand what people are laughing about,” he said. “Does it get people more interested in economics? I think the answer is yes. Then they can educate themselves.”
To this end, he has co-authored two volumes of “The Cartoon Introduction to Economics,” books that explain the basic concepts of microeconomics and macroeconomics in easily understood comic form.
Bauman is also working on a book titled “The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change,” for which he has set up a Kickstarter campaign to cover the cost of publication.
“For our next project, we’ve been invited by the good folks at Island Press [a nonprofit publisher] to create a ‘Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change’ that will cover the science, impacts, and policy of global warming,” his Kickstarter campaign description reads. “As we did with the econ cartoon books, we want to take a tough subject — one that enrages some people and bores others — and make a fun and accessible cartoon book that everybody can relate to and learn from.”
Bauman is well on his way to achieving his goal of raising $20,000.
The new book highlights Bauman’s passion for addressing climate change. Bauman is active as a researcher in the field of environmental economics. He taught for several years at the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment and currently serves as a carbon tax fellow at Seattle’s Sightline Institute, a nonprofit research center concentrating in environmental policy.
Carbon taxes are taxes on fossil fuel consumption with the aim of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and Bauman supports them. He particularly favors revenue-neutral carbon taxes, by which the revenue raised is used to reduce other existing taxes.
Trying to get a carbon tax passed in Washington state has been an uphill battle.
“People are cynical about change,” Bauman said. “People are cynical about government in general.”
But there have been some recent successes.
Last month, the state approved Senate Bill 5802, requested by Gov. Jay Inslee to study ways to achieve Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions targets — reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.
The bill refers indirectly to the carbon tax that Bauman is championing by mentioning other areas that are experimenting with such a tax: “The evaluation must include a review of comprehensive greenhouse gas emission reduction programs being implemented in other states and countries, including a review of reduction strategies being implemented in the Pacific Northwest, on the West Coast, in neighboring provinces in Canada and in other regions of the country.”
The study will be completed by October.
Bauman is hopeful about the eventual passage of a carbon tax, even if it is taking much longer than he expected.
“When I started off [championing the carbon tax], I was like, ‘This will take a couple of years and then I’ll do it, and then I’ll move on to something else,’” he says with a laugh. “And now, I’m like, ‘I’ll probably spend the rest of my life doing this.’”
And maybe then, after the carbon tax has been passed, he’ll move on to curbing hyperinflation in hell.