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Tickling the Money Bone

The annual meeting of the American Economic Association might not seem like the best place to go for a laugh. But at the organization’s 2009 gathering, Yoram Bauman, a skinny, bespectacled young economist from Seattle, had his fellow academics practically rolling in the aisles.

“Shortly before the election, I did a gig in Wichita,” he told them. “And a woman joined me at the dinner table, and the first thing out of her mouth was that if Obama was elected president, she was afraid that in five years she would be wearing a burqa. So after the election, I sent her a catalog! And I sent her a note, and the note said, ‘I’m not trying to rub it in, but the economy needs you to buy a burqa now!’”

Given the opprobrium that has rained down on the economic profession in the wake of the financial crisis, Bauman’s wisecrack was a welcome bit of gallows humor for his much abused audience. But Bauman wasn’t just leading with a joke, as the old speechmaking dictum would have him do. Rather, Bauman, who bills himself as the world’s first “standup economist,” was opening the first-ever comedy session —an event he had organized himself — at the annual academic gathering.

Economics and comedy might seem to most people like polar opposites, but Bauman has made a career for himself by putting together the two seemingly strange bedfellows. Since getting his doctorate in environmental economics from the University of Washington in 2003, he has made it his mission to “spread joy through economics comedy.” Bauman’s YouTube videos, which show him performing at comedy clubs and universities around the country, have gotten more than 1.5 million views, and he has recently written a book, “The Cartoon Introduction to Economics: Volume One: Microeconomics” (Hill & Wang), with Grady Klein as illustrator.

Bauman first realized that his academic pursuits could be the stuff of standup comedy in graduate school, when he wrote a parody of the 10 principles in N. Gregory Mankiw’s influential textbook, “Principles of Economics.” Mankiw’s observation that “people respond to incentives,” Bauman quipped, is essentially saying that “people are motivated by motives,” while the notion that “trade can make everyone better off” can just as easily mean that “trade can make everyone worse off.” The last three principles, which deal with the field of macroeconomics, he labeled simply, “blah blah blah.”

“I wrote that just to blow off steam, ’cause that’s the sort of thing you do in graduate school,” Bauman recalled. “It really just started as a kind of a hobby and something fun to do.” Before long, however, Bauman was performing his parody onstage, and soon he began showing up at open mic nights at the Seattle club Comedy Underground. Nowadays, his performance of “Principles of Economics, Translated” is one of his most popular YouTube videos, with more than 700,000 views.

Since he started doing standup, Bauman has expanded his repertoire to include material more accessible to a general audience. But he has also realized that economics jokes are a valuable specialty in the cutthroat world of comedy. “The challenge of making money in comedy is differentiating yourself from other people who are also funny, because there are lots of funny people in the world,” he said. “So the economics thing is kind of my niche.”

While Bauman reserves his more recondite witticisms for economists-only audiences, there are plenty of jokes that are comprehensible to someone without an advanced degree. “A lot of my jokes have layers on them, where if you don’t know any economics you’ll still laugh at the first stage of the joke, but if you know some economics then you’ll laugh because you get the joke on a deeper level,” he said. At a show in 2007 at Carolines on Broadway, a New York City comedy club, he related how his father told him he could never be a standup economist because “there’s no demand.”

“I said, ‘Don’t worry, Dad, I’m a supply-side economist,’” Bauman countered. “I just stand up and let the jokes trickle down!” Riffing on Jeff Foxworthy’s “You might be a redneck if…” routine, Bauman noted, “You might be an economist if you’ve ever tried to pick someone up in a bank,” and, “You might be an economist if you’re an expert on money and you dress like a flood victim.”

Despite all the fooling around, Bauman also has his own positions on serious economic issues. In 1998 he co-authored a book with Alan Thein Durning called “Tax Shift” (Northwest Environment Watch) that advocated replacing much of America’s current tax system with a carbon tax, a position he also puts forward in “The Cartoon Introduction to Economics.” In essence, he explains, this would mean shifting the tax burden: Instead of being on things we want more of, such as income, it would go to things we want less of, such as pollution.

“I don’t think you’ll find any disagreement from any economists anywhere in the world about the idea of replacing our current tax system, or part of our current tax system, with something like a carbon tax. It’s an idea that has some challenges politically, but in terms of the academics and the theory, it’s as rock solid as anything in economics,” he said.

Regardless of where you come down on such weighty issues, however, it seems like everyone could benefit from lightening the mood. And if push comes to shove, we can always adopt Bauman’s “value-laden, assumption-laden, nicely inter-temporal, largely linear approximation integrated model of climate and the economy.” Have trouble remembering all that? Don’t worry — you can just call it “Vanilla Ice” for short.

Ezra Glinter is the books editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture.

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