Hyperinflation in Hell: An Economics Comedy Routine

BY Paul Solman  January 23, 2013 at 11:39 AM EDT

Video courtesy of Yoram Bauman.

Known as “the dismal science” for a reason that is itself dismal, economics has a tradition of humor long reliant on a few stock, self-deprecating jokes.

A physicist, chemist and economist are stranded and starving on an island. A can of soup washes ashore. The physicist proposes to smash it open with a rock. The chemist suggests building a fire and heating the can first. The economist says: “Assume we have a can-opener …”

Or, if they’re thrown down a well: “Assume we have a ladder.”

The great economic historian Peter Temin tells another in his latest book, “The Roman Market Economy”:

An economist meets a colleague on campus who asks, “How are your children?” “Compared to what?” the economist replies.

NEH, however — the New Economic Humor — goes beyond mocking the discipline’s dependency on making comparisons and assumptions. Though surprisingly, it formally debuted with the economy at its most dismal.

In January 2009, the economy still in shock from the financial crisis, the American Economic Association’s (AEA) meeting in San Francisco featured the annual convention’s first-ever Economic Humor session, featuring Yoram Bauman, a young environmental economist at the University of Washington, who’s also a stand-up comic.

Yoram has since become a close friend of, and occasional contributor to, Making Sense, most recently, as “Our Man in China.” (The entire roster of China videos are linked on the right side of the screen.)

The next year, in 2010, Yoram brought comedy back again to the AEA with a Humor Session laff-fest — comparatively speaking, of course. It seemed funny enough that we covered it on the broadcast. And comedy is now an annual affair when the dismal scientists convene.

This year, we were planning to attend the annual comedy session and mine it for laughs and insights. Unfortunately, like millions on the East Coast, we were felled by the flu. But thankfully, Yoram set up a camera to capture his new routine, embedded at the top of this post: “Hyperinflation in Hell.” Forewarned is forearmed: to fully appreciate this routine, fluency in the language of economese is recommended.

This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions