Yoram Bauman is what happens when economics meets comedy. Development Roast caught up with the friendly, engaging, and enthusiastic Stand-Up Economist himself to find out more about the latest out-of-the-box projects from the man who makes economics fun.
Blending the academic expertise of an environmental economist at the University of Washington (UW) with the sense of humor and charisma of a stand-up comedian, Bauman creates entertaining and informative comedy shows, with an economics theme, that he takes to audiences around the world. He is one of the authors of The Cartoon Introduction to Economics books, available in two volumes, which were reviewed by Development Roast last year. Volume One, released in 2010, covered microeconomics, and following its success the authors wrote and released Volume Two: Macroeconomics, in 2012. Due to their popularity, these books have now been published in several languages including Italian and Japanese, and will shortly be available in Spanish (see below for a sneak preview).
Bauman did not take a direct route into economics. He majored in mathematics at Reed College in Oregon, United States, taking a couple of economics classes along the way. After graduating, he rejected the idea of pursuing math at the postgraduate level as it was too esoteric a subject; as an undergraduate, he had encountered and been drawn to the idea of environmental tax reform, which led him to think about a career related to public policy. However, with no firm plans, Bauman drifted for a couple of years whilst deciding what to do next. He ended up in San Francisco working as a computer programmer, which enabled him to earn a living, but he wasn’t satisfied. So he quit his job, moved to Seattle, and spent some time packing bags in a grocery store to the dismay of his father.
That’s when things started to fall into place. Having found out that the author Alan Durning had recently founded the Sightline Institute, a think tank for sustainable development located in Seattle, Bauman enquired about internship opportunities. Fortunately, it turned out that they were looking for someone to work on a book on environmental taxes; the position was perfect for him. After the internship, Durning asked Bauman to work on another book called ‘Tax Shift‘, which was published in 1998. At this point, Bauman decided that it was time to go to graduate school to study economics properly, where he discovered that his background in math was a big advantage. In fact, he says that during his MA and PhD at UW, many of the economics graduates struggled whereas the mathematicians had few problems. It was during his graduate studies that he also began his comedy career: he wrote a parody of the American macroeconomist’s—and now the Chairman and Professor of Economics at Harvard University—Gregory Mankiw’s ‘Principles of Economics‘ which was later published in a science humor journal, “and the rest is history.”
Bauman takes some inspiration for his comedy routines from Tom Lehrer, a comedian and mathematician from the 1960s who wrote and performed humorous songs about math and science (one of the most well-known ones, especially amongst chemistry students, is the wonderfully fast-paced and fun ‘The Elements’).
Bauman’s stand-up comedy has been so successful that he now makes a living from it, although he also does free shows for public schools and community colleges. When asked about the aim of his shows, Bauman says that he tries to reach out to audiences who have a negative opinion about economics by showing them that it can be fun and interesting.
With his strong interest in climate change and environmental taxation, Bauman tries to spread the message about climate change to corporate audiences. His aims are modest: he simply wants to plant the idea amongst them that climate change is happening and that something needs to be done. Many of these audiences, he explains, especially the more conservative ones, want to avoid the issue because they are afraid that the only way to confront climate change is to relinquish their capitalistic and free-market ideals. However, Bauman points out to them that climate change can be dealt with in a market-friendly way; for example, taxing carbon emissions. His tactic for getting this message across is a sort of humorous climate change sandwich: he first relaxes his audience with 45 minutes of jokes, then, when they are not paying attention, slips in a 10 minute slot on carbon taxes, before finishing up with a few more laughs.
Bauman’s interest in tackling climate change also led to a follow up to the cartoon economics series: The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change book that is due for release in May 2014. In order for it to be printed by non-profit publishers Island Press, Yoram and co-author and illustrator Grady Klein covered the necessary costs via an online, crowd-finance Kickstarter effort, raising their target US$20,000 in just 60 days, with contributors from all over the world. “As an Economist, I benefit from having the low expectation that all people are self-interested, so a show of generosity like this comes as a nice surprise,” he jokes.
The aims of the cartoon introduction series are books that are accessible and attractive to a number of audiences. On one level the reader can reach the end relatively quickly, understanding just the basic principles and the jokes. On another level the books can be read more carefully to absorb the underlying ideas, concepts and stories. Because of this the books are not only read by adults, but by high school students, and younger children too: “they may not necessarily take everything in but they can understand some of the ideas and enjoy the jokes,” hopes Bauman. In fact, he occasionally receives messages from school teachers telling him that they are using his books in their lessons, and kids who are just ten years old love the fact that they can read a book that their parents are reading too.
Besides promoting economics and gently nudging the corporate sphere into doing something about climate change, Bauman candidly talks about mental illness, revealing that his mother had bipolar disorder and took her own life when he was just four years old. He was very proud of what she did during her life, describing her as a “pioneering feminist lawyer,” and acknowledges that in the end it was just too difficult for her to continue. Mental illness is still a taboo subject with many people unwilling to talk about it openly, and he hopes to contribute his bit towards changing society’s attitude.
Bauman is currently negotiating a Cartoon Introduction to Calculus, although in the future he would prefer to focus on his research on climate change and environmental taxes, where he regularly makes academic contributions. Last year he co-wrote a paper with the UW earth and space scientist Gerard Roe called ‘Climate Sensitivity: should the climate tail wag the policy dog?‘ in the journal Climatic Change. The ‘tail’ refers to the so-called ‘fat tail’ – the possibility of a large long-term increase in global temperature due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases. And currently, he is working with some colleagues on a paper studying the impact of climate change on milk production in the U.S.A. It turns out that dairy cows are temperature sensitive: the hotter it is, the less the cows eat and the less milk they produce. Bauman summarizes the findings as “Cows are happy in parts of Northern California and not in Florida” and he posted a draft of the paper on his website, attracting journalistic interest of both the serious, and the not-so-serious variety.
He tells this anecdote with a tone of glee and clearly appreciates good humor even if it at the expense of his own work – certainly not a trait that can be found in all academics. It’s another reason why Bauman is so approachable and personable, and why the Stand-Up Economist is ideally suited to educating the public about economics, as well as encouraging us all to face that facts about climate change.
Tracey Li is a Senior Research and Communications Intern with INESAD.
For you reference:
Bauman, Y. (2003). Mankiw’s Ten Principles of Economics, Translated. Annals of Improbable Research. <http://www.improbable.com/airchives/paperair/volume9/v9i2/mankiw.html>.
Bauman, Y., Mauger, G. S. & Salathé, E. P., in preparation. Impacts of Climate Change on Milk Production in the United States. <http://standupeconomist.com/new-working-paper-impacts-of-climate-change-on-milk-production-in-the-united-states/>.
Durning, A. T. & Bauman, Y. (1998). Tax Shift. Rachel Gussett and Northwest Environment Watch.
Klein, G. & Bauman, Y. (2010). The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume 1: Microeconomics.
Klein, G. & Bauman, Y. (2012). The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume 2: Macroeconomics.
Roe, G. H. & Bauman, Y. (2013). Climate sensitivity: should the climate tail wag the policy dog? Climatic Change, Vol. 117, Issue 4, pp. 647-662. <http://earthweb.ess.washington.edu/roe/GerardWeb/Publications_files/RoeBauman_FatTail.pdf>.