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reed magazine logoJune 2010

Finding Humor in the Dismal Science

Yoram Bauman ’95


“I spent five years in graduate school getting a PhD in economics, and then decided to try my hand at stand-up comedy,” Yoram Bauman ’95 tells a Seattle audience. “You can imagine how proud my father is.”

Yoram Bauman

photograph by andrea lee

It’s a funny line, but Yoram, who bills himself as “the world’s only stand-up economist,” has a serious mission: to make the dismal science less daunting. “There’s a huge gulf,” he tells me, “between what people think economics is about and what it’s actually about.”

An environmental economist at the University of Washington, Yoram first began using humor to explain economics in graduate school, when he wrote a parody of a standard economics textbook, Principles of Economics by N. Gregory Mankiw. In 2004, he started performing it live as part of a stand-up act. The result was his most famous routine, “Mankiw’s 10 Principles of Economics, Translated.” The bit soon propagated on the internet—“700,000 views on YouTube can’t all be from economists!” he says—and led to a feature in the Chronicle of Higher Education and an appearance on the PBS NewsHour. “For comedians, it doesn’t get any bigger than the PBS NewsHour,” he quips.

Now Yoram has branched out yet again, joining with artist Grady Klein to create a comic book explaining economics.

The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume One (Hill and Wang, 2010) covers the basics of microeconomics—optimizing individuals, Pareto efficiency, game theory, supply and demand, and the like—and does it with a minimum of mathematics. Instead, Yoram explains principles using the kind of stories economists are so fond of, with the added dimension of charming, and sometimes ridiculous, illustrations. Medieval torturers use the rack to explain elasticity, ball-and-chain convicts sort out the prisoner’s dilemma. The cartoons don’t just illustrate the ideas, they also make them more memorable. And, at bottom, they make the whole subject seem a great deal less intimidating.

“Almost all academic work is directed at expanding the boundaries of thought rather than figuring out how to better convey existing knowledge to nonexperts,” Yoram says. “That’s fine, but I’m more interested in the latter topic.”

The Cartoon Introduction to Economics

Microeconomic comedian Yoram Bauman ’95 explores the Laffer Curve and other inherently hilarious subjects in his forthcoming book,
The Cartoon Introduction to Ecomonics.

His reasons for this focus are largely political: “I work on climate-change economics and [figuring out how] we can use market forces to protect the environment, so I’m always looking for ways to talk to noneconomists about those ideas. . . . Ultimately what I want in life is to help make carbon pricing a reality. That takes academic research, but it also takes public [education] and barnstorming.”

Still, the idea of rendering abstract theories and complex equations into line drawings and word balloons might seem a little far-fetched. Is it really possible to maintain intellectual rigor in this format? “Absolutely,” he says. “But that’s partly because I think some of the ‘rigor of the discipline’ is misplaced. There are a lot of graphs in economics textbooks that don’t need to be there.”

While Yoram is careful not to dismiss the importance of technical proficiency, he worries that economists have failed to explain elementary concepts to the public. “With climate-change economics, for example, I spend a lot of time talking to nonexperts about the basics of carbon pricing and that helps remind me that the basics are just as important (if not more so) than intricacies about price elasticities and snapshot-versus-lifetime regressivity measures.”

He also notes that standup routines and comic books impose a different sort of rigor than lectures and textbooks. “The biggest difference is about scale and perfectionism. Stage time in comedy is measured in minutes, and you can spend six months tweaking the same five-minute routine until you get it just right; I found a similar intensity working with comics, which average maybe 50 words per page. You don’t usually find that sort of concision in academia.”

“I suppose there’s also a time-of-day difference,” he concludes. “Public speaking at 8 p.m. is comedy; public speaking at 8 a.m. is tragedy.”

These days, in addition to the stand-up and the environmental work, Bauman teaches part time at Lakeside High School in Seattle, and at Bainbridge Graduate Institute. He’s now beginning work on the second volume of the Cartoon Introduction to Economics, which will cover macroeconomics. “I’m a microeconomist,” he admits, “so the macro book will probably kill me.”

But as the saying goes: Dying is easy. Comedy’s hard.

—Kristian Williams ’96

reed magazine logoJune 2010