You know you might be a climate-change economist if … you spend a lot of time flying around on airplanes telling other people to spend less time flying around on airplanes.
To Yoram Bauman, who is both a climate-change economist and, believe it or not, a stand-up comedian, this joke he tells is bittersweet.
Sweet because it pokes fun at himself. But bitter in the way it hints at the hard choices and brittle politics that have crippled the U.S. into doing next to nothing about greenhouse-gas pollution.
“I’ve been working on climate change since 1997,” Bauman told me the other day. “I’ve been banging my head against this particular wall for a long time.”
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To date there hasn’t been a lot of give (at least not in the wall). Until, maybe, now.
An unusual alignment of events has suddenly made the political environment as ripe for a major climate-change initiative as it has been in years. The economy is stronger. The governor of the state has made the issue his signature push. And most important, the price of gas has plummeted.
Last week I filled up my car for $25. As of Tuesday, you could buy gas in Seattle for $2.11 a gallon. Inflation-adjusted this is what we were paying in 1972.
It makes the idea of slapping a tax on fossil fuels to discourage their use no longer seem so toxic.
“Oil’s swoon creates the opening for a carbon tax,” was a headline in The Washington Post on Monday.
Strangest of all is that if anyone around here is poised to seize this moment, it isn’t the politicians. They will be as gridlocked as ever this year and next.
It’s the comedian.
Bauman, 41, is a University of Washington Ph.D. economist who goes about the country doing an eclectic stand-up act. He bills himself as “the world’s first (and only) stand-up economist,” and he apparently makes a tidy living making fun of the dismal science at meetings and economics conventions.
His most famous bit involves translating a classic economics textbook (sample: “microeconomists” are “people who are wrong about specific things.” While macroeconomists are “people who are wrong about things in general.”) A video of this routine — it really is funny — has gotten 1.2 million views on YouTube. I also recommend his three-minute “S*** happens: The economics version.”
Joking aside, Bauman’s also been advocating, for years, that the state adopt a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Similar to one in British Columbia, it would raise $1.7 billion a year, from taxes on gas and energy, and then rebate this to citizens and businesses, mostly by reducing the sales tax by a percentage point.
Tax what we burn, not what we earn, he says. By making carbon more expensive, presumably pollution would fall. By refunding the money, presumably the economy would take no hit.
Because there’s little chance our current political system will enact anything like this, Bauman and his group Carbon Washington are taking their case to the people. In March they’re filing an initiative to the Legislature. If they get the signatures and lawmakers don’t act on it, it would be on the ballot in 2016.
Bauman admitted there will be cynicism about the central promise: to be revenue-neutral. Some people suspect Olympia would later just hoover up all the new taxes (especially as new revenue is genuinely needed for schools).
“We’re trying to stay out of the eternal ‘is government too big or too small’ debate,” he said. “We’re trying to stay focused on just helping the climate.”
A pollster he hired told him this was fine in theory. In practice, though, a majority of voters want no change in taxes and also, paradoxically, more spending.
“So what we really need is an initiative to repeal the laws of arithmetic,” Bauman says.
Politics and the voters — as a comedian might say, it’s a tough crowd. But with gas prices so low, there’s a golden opening here. Maybe the funny guy can lead us where all the serious people have failed.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com