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Stand-up Economist Finds the Light Side of a ‘Dismal Science’

February 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Economics isn't exactly a side-splitting discipline, but at a recent economics convention in Atlanta, self-proclaimed "stand-up economist" Yoram Bauman showed it's possible to infuse the sober science with monetary mirth.
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RAY SUAREZ: And, finally, tonight: Have you heard the one about the economist who walked into a bar?

Well, our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, has, and it’s all part of his series Making Sense of financial news.

YORAM BAUMAN, Stand-Up Economist: You might be an economist if you think that supply-and-demand is a good answer to questions like, where do babies come from?

PAUL SOLMAN: For more than 150 years, economics has been derided as the dismal science.

Yoram Bauman wants to change the image.

YORAM BAUMAN: You might be an economist if you adamantly refuse to sell your children because you think they will be worth more later.

PAUL SOLMAN: Bauman, who bills himself as the world’s first stand-up economist, is playing a conventional venue, this year’s annual Economics Convention in Atlanta.

The meetings, generally better known for monotone than monologue, feature this year a session devoted solely to that seeming oxymoron economics humor.

JON SHAYNE, investment adviser: His name was Friedrich Hayek.

PAUL SOLMAN: Headlines by the likes of Merle — as in moral — Hazard.

JON SHAYNE: He wrote “The Road to Serfdom,” concerned with government size.

PAUL SOLMAN: This song was a takeoff on the conservative book “Road to Serfdom,” “Serfin’ USA.”

JON SHAYNE: And that’s “The Road to Serfdom,” Friedrich Hayek size.

JODI BEGGS, Harvard University: The world of economics is suffering no shortage of words that can be made to sound dirty.

PAUL SOLMAN: Next up, Harvard’s Jodi Beggs. She’s been straining to make her mark as a rib-tickling econ teacher.

JODI BEGGS: And then I remember a very tried-and-true business principle, that principle being sex sells. And “Economists Do It With Models” was born.

PAUL SOLMAN: And speaking of smut, Emory Professor Hugo Mialon gave an actual academic paper that might make even non-economists blush.

HUGO MIALON, Emory University: Well, I can’t believe it, but I’m going to present a paper on the economics of faking ecstasy in lovemaking.

HUGO MIALON: This particular line of inquiry was suggested to me by none other than my lovely wife and colleague…

HUGO MIALON: … Sue Mialon, who is in the audience tonight.

Hi, sweetie.

PAUL SOLMAN: Don’t worry. We will spare you the intimate details and cut right to the professor’s conclusions.

HUGO MIALON: The rational model performs quite well, even in the bedroom.

And, of course, it would be — for future, it would be very interesting to test the predictions of the rational model experimentally.

PAUL SOLMAN: The presenters tried every trick in the comic book, maybe because, while smarts and sense of humor are highly correlated, comedy doesn’t come easily…

MAN: I don’t tell normally economics jokes.

PAUL SOLMAN: … to even the least dismal scientists we know.

MAN: I don’t even normally tell jokes.

PAUL SOLMAN: What’s your favorite economics joke?

ROBERT GORDON, Northwestern University: The fastest way for a billionaire to become a millionaire is to invest in airline stocks.

PAUL SOLMAN: That’s a joke?

So, what’s your favorite economics joke?

PAUL KRUGMAN, columnist, The New York Times: Oh, good God. It’s — you know, it’s not all that funny a subject, can I tell you?

CAROLINE HOXBY, Stanford University: An economist, a sociologist and a psychologist are golfing together. And they are golfing behind a guy who is blind. And he’s going…

PAUL SOLMAN: Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby.

CAROLINE HOXBY: And the psychologist said, you know, I really am trying to understand what must be going through this man’s mind. And the sociologist says, oh, but, you know, think about the interesting social interactions that he’s having with other people on the golf course. And the economist says, this is so inefficient. He should be playing at night.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, economics isn’t exactly a side-splitting discipline. On the other hand, who are we to mock sobriety, as Yoram Bauman noted, recounting his highlights of 2009, which included an interview with us.

YORAM BAUMAN: And I got to be on the “PBS NewsHour” with Jim Lehrer. Now, I don’t know how much you people know about the world of stand-up comedy, but let me tell you this. In the world of stand-up comedy, people, it doesn’t get any bigger…

YORAM BAUMAN: … than the “PBS NewsHour”…

YORAM BAUMAN: … with Jim Lehrer.

YORAM BAUMAN: I have been getting phone calls nonstop on my rotary dial telephone.

PAUL SOLMAN: But, mostly, economists were the butt of the jokes.

YORAM BAUMAN: I have a British knock-knock joke. I have to put on a terrible British accent for this.

Knock-knock.

AUDIENCE: Who’s there?

YORAM BAUMAN: Economist.

AUDIENCE: Economist who?

YORAM BAUMAN: Economist the financial crisis, but I promise I will do better next time.

PAUL SOLMAN: But if economists are running a drollery deficit, it’s not that they’re enjoyment-averse. In fact, Merle Hazard went a fair ways to maximizing their utility with his concluding number.

JON SHAYNE: Give me that old-time recession, lord. It’s good enough for me.

PAUL SOLMAN: If John Maynard Keynes was right, and animal spirits are what move the economy, maybe there were hints of an upturn, even here.

JON SHAYNE: Give me that…

AUDIENCE: … old-time recession…

JON SHAYNE: That’s right.

JON SHAYNE AND AUDIENCE: Give me that old-time recession…

JON SHAYNE: Some of that…

AUDIENCE: Old-time recession.

JON SHAYNE: Lord, it’s good enough for me.