Meeting the world's first & only stand-up economist
Antonio: Welcome, Yoram, and thanks for joining me.
Yoram: Thanks for having me.
A: Right, let's start from your title. You claim to be the world's first and only stand-up economist. This sounds fancy, but what does it actually mean and what inspired you to come up with it?
Y: Well, it says on the Internet that I'm the world's first and only stand-up economist, so it must be true. I'll tell you the first joke I ever told on stage, which was when I told my father I was going to be a stand-up economist. He said, you can't be a stand-up economist. And I said, why not? And he said, because there's no demand. I said, don't worry, dad, I'm a supply-side economist. When I was in graduate school, I wrote a parody of an economics textbook just to kind of blow off some steam. And one thing led to another and I started doing stand-up comedy as a hobby. And then after I finished my PhD, two things happened. One was that my academic career did not go quite as well as one might have hoped. And the second one was that I had a video up on YouTube that got a million hits. And people started emailing me and asking me if I could perform. And I started saying yes. And so, over the next few years, it gradually went from being a hobby to being my job.
A: Cool, I really need to check that video. So, when did you first become interested in climate change?
Y: As an undergraduate, I took a couple of economics courses, and in one of them I came across this idea of environmental tax reform, which is higher taxes on bad things that we want less of, like pollution. And then you can use the revenue to reduce existing taxes on things we want more of, like jobs and income and savings and investment. And I remember thinking that that was kind of an intellectually beautiful idea and also one that might actually work in the real world. And so I decided to go to graduate school in economics to study the idea of environmental tax reform, tax shifting, and started off looking at pollution generally, and then ended up spending a lot of time and effort working on climate change issues in particular.
A: Economy and climate change are possibly the two most boring topics ever. Do you like challenges or you’re just a masochist or something? Seriously, what's your secret for getting laughs?
Y: Well, it helps to have low expectations, but I think you can do comedy anytime. There are strong stereotypes about economists being hyper-rational and always focused on money numbers. And so you can play against those stereotypes.
A cartoon picturing the link between climate change and economy
A: Let's talk about your book, “The Cartoon Introduction To Climate Change”. I found it extremely informative, yet easy-to-understand and funny, which is as rare as polar bears when it comes to books about global warming. As you know, I'm a writer, so I'm kind of good with words, but I'm terrible at drawing. Though, I found the book vignettes very cool. So I was wondering if you think visuals are more effective than words in climate comedy?
Y: Well, first of all, I should give lots of credit to my co-author, who's also the illustrator, because I also cannot draw. So kudos to Grady Klein. We have a really great collaboration, and his drawings are fabulous. And I do think in the process of working on these books, I've become a big fan of graphic nonfiction, if you want to use the fancy word for cartoon. I don't know if this is true internationally, but at least in America, lots of people think that cartoon books are just for kids. And it's true that they're very accessible and kids do like them, but it's also true that if you go in a train or an aeroplane, and you look at the emergency instructions, they're basically in cartoon form. And that's not because they're just for kids. It's because that's a very good way to convey sometimes complex information very quickly. And that's what we try to do in the cartoon book, have a fun, informative presentation of important material.
A: The first two parts of your book do an excellent job at breaking down the science behind global warming, which is usually quite difficult, but sometimes people pretend not to understand. So, how do you handle climate deniers? Do you ever joke around what they say? Because some of the things they say are actually hilarious.
Y: Back in 2014, there was a fellow economist named Brian Kaplan, who reached out to me, and he's famous for making bets and winning lots of bets, and he seemed to think that climate scientists didn't know what they were talking about. So he made a bet with me that global temperatures wouldn't increase for the next 15 years after 2014. And he asked me for two to one odds, and I said, look, I'll give you a three to one odds. We bet my $1,000 against his $300, and as you probably know, I'm crushing him in the bet. The thing that's amazing about science is you make predictions about the future, and if the predictions come true, then that gives you credibility.
Taxing pollution instead of potatoes
A: As my economic knowledge is as poor as Trump’s expertise on climate science, I want to pick your brain on part three of your book where you discuss actions, or, to use a more boring word, policies. So, if you were to explain to me, in simple words, what policies economists should push forward to fight climate change, what would you say?
Y: What I work on, and what a lot of economists work on, including William Nordhouse, who won the Nobel Prize for his work in large part on climate economics, is that we should put a price on carbon. So, using something like a carbon tax or a cap and trade system to make polluting more expensive. And then the extra policy that I put on top of that is that we can use the revenue to reduce existing taxes, as a way to make the policy more palatable, to put money back into people's pockets, right? I'll give you an example. I live in Utah now, in Salt Lake City, and Utah is one of the few states in the United States that still has a sales tax on grocery store food. And so I'm working with a group called Clean the Darn Air. Utah also has some pretty bad local air pollution problems. And we're working on a ballot measure, which is, let's get rid of the sales tax on grocery store food, let's put some money into local clean air programmes and let's pay for it with a modest tax on fossil fuels. Right? So in a nutshell, we want to tax pollution instead of potatoes and put the money that's left over into cleaning the darn air.
A: That makes a lot of sense. So speaking of taxes, I might scare away some listeners here with the next question. But do you think we should tax frequent flyers? And if you do, how?
Y: The great thing about a carbon tax is it applies to the consumption of fossil fuels, so you can expand that to include jet fuel. And whether you're a frequent flyer or a one-time flyer, you pay the carbon tax. If you're travelling a short distance, it's going to make rail travel, for example, more attractive than flying on an aeroplane. It'll encourage the airlines to think about and explore biofuels, as well as encouraging passengers to think about, do you need to make that trip? Can you do it on Zoom? Can you travel by train or by car or whatever?
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