Changing the Economics Conversation

Economist Kate Bahn on the evolving world of feminist economics, labor organizing, and the new narratives of policy change

Income inequality in the United States has been rapidly growing over the past 30 years. So, too, are conversations about inequality, and how the disparities caused by race and gender discrimination exacerbate those gaps. 

Kate Bahn (PhD Economics 2015) is helping shape those conversations, with the bigger goal of changing what we think about when we think about the economy. 

“High-quality, cutting-edge academic research is really important to moving the policy narrative,” Bahn says. “There’s a big demand for narrative change work right now. We see a lot of people talking about big structural economic policy change in a way that it hasn’t been talked about before.”

Bahn is the Director of Labor Market Policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, an institution that aims to build strong bridges between academics and policymakers “to ensure that research on equitable growth and inequality is relevant, accessible, and informative to the policymaking process,” especially on issues around labor standards, gender inequality, taxation to business competition, wages, and innovation.

Translating complex concepts for a variety of audiences is a valuable tool for effecting policy and inspiring both real understanding of and sustainable change around economics. Bahn does this important work behind the scenes and publicly, publishing articles on key topics in economics in academic journals, Equitable Growth’s website, and major popular publications such as The Guardian, The Nation, and Salon

The Monopsony Framework

Bahn focuses on inequality across gender, race, and ethnicity in the labor market, care work, and monopsony, a condition in which one buyer has substantial control over the market for a particular good or service offered by many sellers. She can easily trace her current interests to her past work for labor unions and topics she studied at The New School for Social Research.

“I first got introduced to the concept of monopsony in my first labor economics class at the graduate level taught by Teresa Ghilarducci [Schwartz Professor of Economics and Policy Analysis and head of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis]. She had us read the book Monopsony in Motion by Alan Manning,” Bahn remembers. “It just struck me as an intuitive way to ground our understanding of the labor market in a framework that can accommodate for power.” She went on to write her dissertation on monopsony, using it as a lens to compare labor and feminist economics, and continues to develop thinking on the topic today; this past October, she explained monopsony while testifying at a U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee hearing.

Guided by NSSR Dean and Professor of Economics Will Milberg, Bahn also completed an independent study surveying NSSR’s feminist economics literature and took one of her qualifying exams in feminist economics. She cites Dean Milberg’s support of her intellectual pursuits as crucial to her academic and professional development.

After receiving her doctorate, Bahn worked as an economist at the Center for American Progress, where she looked at how gender can inform what is valued in the economy, and the possibilities of creatively recognizing the value of gender in occupations or women workers. Since joining Equitable Growth in 2018, Bahn has shifted away from specific policy proposals and toward more narrative and explanatory work.

NSSR Alumni Collaboration

Equitable Growth also offers her the chance to work with one of the most influential voices on economic policy in the United States today: fellow NSSR alum Heather Boushey (PhD Economics 1998), who co-founded Equitable Growth in 2013 and serves as President and CEO.

“We have a similar perspective in our educational background,” Bahn says of Boushey and of NSSR, well-known for its heterodox economics department. “We understand each other. We can speak the same language. When we have conversations at work about narrative change and consensus building, we ask questions like, ‘How do you change the economics profession in order to change economic policy?’ We both fly into talking about philosophy of science or political economy or recognizing that there are multiple schools of thought in economics.” Bahn and Boushey recently co-authored the article “Women’s Work-Life Economics” for LERA Perspectives on Work, a magazine published by the Labor and Employment Relations Association.

Heather Boushey returned to NSSR in 2016 to deliver her talk,
“The Political Economy of Time and Work-Life Conflict”

Who Gets to Be an Economist?

Bahn also challenges traditional ideas surrounding economics and gender in another narrative space: on Twitter, as @LipstickEcon. “I do think the question of what it’s like to be a woman in economics in this moment is important, but it’s a little bit complicated,” she says. In addition to the harassment that women in economics face, gender and concepts of gender influence what is considered good economics research and who is largely considered to be worthwhile subjects. 

“I’m a particularly feminine-presenting woman in economics, I don’t fit the typical mold of an economist. I still demand to be taken seriously,” she says. “The work I do [as Executive Vice President and Secretary of] the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) — which is also very related to the broad range of schools of thought I was exposed to in economics at The New School — is about realizing that there is more than one way to do economics, and that there are some ingrained biases in what I would call mainstream economics towards a particular viewpoint.” 

Tackling major structural change within the economy and within the economics field is tough work. But as Bahn understands it, these are the conversations that matter most — and are the ones most worth having. 

Photo: BriAnne Wills, Girls and Their Cats

The Gothicness of Black America: Liberal Studies Alumna Leila Taylor on Her First Book

A library after closing hours can be a mysterious place — making it a great location to talk with Leila Taylor about her first book, Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul (Repeater, 2019). From a bench in the children’s section of Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), Taylor, a 2018 Liberal Studies MA alumna and BPL’s creative director, explores the history of Afrogoth, the visceral horror and inherent gothicness of Black America, and her own history in the Goth scene.

Taylor’s personal relationship with Goth culture is critical to the development of the book. “I didn’t really intend to write about myself as much as I did,” she says. “I was intending it to be much more of a historical and cultural text, but I found that it was hard to talk about the subject matter without talking about myself. When I realized that so much of my own personal story was directly related to these larger historical issues and larger cultural issues, all of these genres mushed together made sense.” 

In Darkly, Taylor writes, “I suppose I would fall into the Traditional goth category or (god forbid) Elder Goth.” Growing up as a self-proclaimed Goth kid in Detroit, Taylor threw herself into the music of the 80’s goth rock. She recalls buying Siouxsie and the Banshees albums and hanging a Joy Division poster on her bedroom wall. As an adult, she reclaimed this inner angsty teen by going to events hosted by Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy, which produces events on ‘art and medicine, death and culture’.

Decolonizing Goth

Through these experiences, Taylor felt the whiteness in Goth spaces. She was often the only Black person at the events and concerts, and she started to ask herself why. “When I started this project, I was really looking at what it was like being a Black person in the Goth scene and to be the only person in the room and all that entails,” she said. “I made an effort to go looking for people who shared this experience.”

Taylor found a good starting point in the Afropunk scene. “That was my gateway into all this,” she laughs. The documentary Afro-Punk (2003) examines Black people in the overwhelmingly white punk scene, and is also the name of a movement that has blossomed into journalism, fashion, and a music festival. 

Taylor looks at Afrogoth as a twist on Afropunk. “Afrogothic is a similar  Black-centric perspective of the gothic. Some people think of it as the subculture of people who dress in black and wearing too much eyeliner, but for me, it’s closer to a way of looking at a genre through an Afrocentric, decolonized lens.” 

What Taylor found is that the experiences of Black people in the scene didn’t have anything to do with them being Goth, but rather, the lived experience of being Black in America — applicable in any field in which people of color are not considered, marginalized, or taken for granted.

“I realized there really wasn’t any difference between Black Goths and everybody else. The only difference was that they were Black,” Taylor said. “It really stopped becoming about Goth as a subculture, but the gothicness of Blackness and how blackness itself is a gothic experience.” Darkly asks, “If the gothic narrative is metabolized fear, if the Goth aesthetic is romanticized melancholy, what does that look and sound like in Black America?” Taylor contrasts this question of the “aesthetic of horror” with the real visceral horror that defines the history of race in America for many. Part memoir, part historical context, and part cultural criticism, the book analyzes the ways Goth embodies race relations in the U.S. in the twenty-first century. The skeletons in the closet are the persistence of white supremacy and the ghosts of slavery, and the haunted grounds are the ubiquity of Black death and its mourning. This ghastly undercurrent of fear and grief moves throughout Darkly, but there is still a joy in Taylor’s writing, a reclamation in processing this trauma. 

The Horror of Working, Writing, and Studying

While Darkly was published in 2019, the idea of the book has motivated Taylor for years, even before she started her Master’s in Liberal Studies at The New School for Social Research. “I knew I wanted to do it, but I had no idea what I was doing,” she said. “I had it in my head the entire time. I was writing short essays here and there of cultural theory stuff and not getting published and realizing that I really don’t know what I’m doing.”

Taylor began to take note of faculty members who could help shape her writing and processes. “I was taking classes with the people that were writing the kind of things that I like to write and the kind of style that I like to write, so having those people as a sort of a regular weekly influence was helpful,” she says, citing Dominic Pettman, Professor of Culture and Media, and Eugene Thacker, Professor of Media Studies as influential mentors. 

In addition to studying part-time at NSSR, Taylor was working full-time at BPL. When asked when she found time to work on the book, she replied “Every moment! It was before work, sometimes during work, after work, and on the weekends,” she said. “It was a lot. It was really rough, but basically any free time was when I did it. The one thing, working for the library — it was incredibly supportive. Also if I ever needed a book source it’s right there.” Working as a designer also helped her develop her creative problem-solving skills and her research process. “Part of the creative process is trying to do something that no one else has done before, something unique that is expressive of yourself and communicating a larger idea. This all goes back to the idea of sending a message,” Taylor explains.

Research Matters asked Taylor if she had any advice for writers who are full-time students, like many Liberal Studies and Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism students, or have unrelated full-time jobs. “Give yourself a break,” she says. “Don’t feel guilty if you don’t write a day, because you’ll go crazy. Don’t think about what you think other people want to read or what you think will get published or what you think is going to sell. You have to do what you want to do, as long as you can, and as much as you can.”

The Future of Afrogoth

Looking to the future of Afrogoth, Taylor says that the movement is happening right now and there’s only more to come. Taylor emphasizes that there is an abundance of work on the history of Black people of horror films. She recommends the Shudder documentary Horror Noire as particularly great viewing. “There’s a lot more scholarship about [Afrogoth] and work being done creatively in the mainstream giving it a bigger voice,” she says. Films like Tales from the Hood and the more recent works of director Jordan Peele are using horror to express the Black experience and the day-to-day terror Black people continue to experience. The success of Peel’s Get Out has amplified his messages to much wider audiences.  

“It’s not only Black people,” she says as she excitedly references newer horrors like HBO’s Los Espookys, featuring New School alum Julio Torres, and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, called “the first Iranian vampire Western.” “Any kind of opportunity for different faces and different voices is good. I think it’s only going to get better.”

Set Up for Success: Historical Studies MA Students Accepted to Top PhD Programs

Well-known for its doctoral programs in the social sciences and philosophy, The New School for Social Research also offers terminal Master’s degree programs that allow new graduate students to dig deeply into a topic and develop their research skills while preparing for careers or for additional graduate study.

This year, several 2019 Historical Studies MA graduates were accepted at top History PhD programs that support their research interests. Their experiences illuminate how the department can help emerging historians identify, prepare for, and confidently choose the best next steps in their scholarly careers.

Ella Coon, a Minnesota native, first moved to New York to attend Columbia University where she majored in printmaking. Later, while working as an archivist at the LeRoy Neiman Foundation, she discovered her passion for combing through archives. She had long been interested in history, especially the Cold War and the political debates that underpinned it, and she began to seek opportunities for research that could combine research and art.

“I’ve always wanted to be at The New School,” Coon explains. “I was attracted by the faculty, but also to what seemed like a progressive environment.” That scholars and students in the department were unafraid to innovate methodologically or to delve into the political implications of their research “was really refreshing.” 

As she deepened her understanding of the politics and economics of the Cold War, she began working closely with Associate Professor of History Julia Ott and Assistant Professor of History Emma Park, both of whom teach classes in the history of capitalism. Coon cites their encouragement and flexibility with helping her craft a project while also gathering resources and preparing essential elements, such as a literature review, to help her write a strong thesis at the end of her second year.

“From the beginning of the program there was a sense that you should be thinking about what you’re going to do at the end,” Coon explains. A large part of that work happens during  a required third-semester seminar in which students workshop their theses and also prepare PhD applications. “Faculty would come in every other week to talk about their work and their methodology, but then some weeks were dedicated to helping us apply by going over our projects with that in mind,” Coon says.

It worked. She completed her thesis, which examines the political economy of technology transfers between the U.S. and Comecon during détente. And in Fall 2019, she’ll be heading back uptown to start a PhD in History where it all began — Columbia University.

By contrast, Deren Ertas moved to New York from Turkey at just 11 years old. She threw herself into books, primarily as a way to learn English. “Then I just kept reading,” Ertas says, reflecting on the path that led her to major in the College of Social Studies at Wesleyan University.

She discovered her passion for history while writing her undergraduate thesis on the 2013 Gezi Park protests that swept across Turkey. Through analyzing protest rhetoric, Ertas began to focus on how Turkish practices of civil disobedience and resistance had developed historically, as well as how a Turkish national identity had been constructed more generally. “In Turkey we’re kind of fomenting hatred for each other all the time and I was interested in how that dynamic had been historically configured by different political projects,” Ertas explains.

As her interests in history developed, so did her passion for political theory and theorists such as Hannah Arendt, who drew her attention to NSSR as a potential next step. “Of course I wanted a strong background in history, but I also wanted to continue to take classes in different disciplines and develop my insights through an engagement with different methods,” Ertas says. “I couldn’t go to a more traditional program, that’s not the kind of relationship I want to have to my field.” Conversations with Assistant Professor of History Aaron Jakes and the possibility of taking classes with major thinkers like Willy Brandt Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and History Ann Stoler helped her realize this was the place for her.

Ertas knew that she had made the right decision while delivering a paper at the 2018 Radical Democracy Conference. “Andreas [Kalyvas, Associate Professor of Politics] and some other students in the class really encouraged me to present this paper, and I’m glad they did because it led to a shift. I decided to dedicate myself to academic work full time and pursue my application to PhD programs in Fall 2018” she remembers.

Ertas credits Historical Studies faculty with helping her develop the content of her thesis, which explores the ways in which the project of modernizing and liberalizing reforms undertaken by the Ottoman state in the 19th century (known as the Tanzimat) can be understood as an effort to address specific problems in tax levying and military recruitment as well as a modern project of nation-building. She also examines the way resistance to these modernizing projects — much like the Gezi Park protests — established patterns of resistance that recurred in later Ottoman and Turkish politics.

“My conversations with [Professor Jakes] were fundamental in terms of my understanding of my work and how to situate it within the field of Middle Eastern history” she says. Jakes also invited her to participate in a small gathering of scholars to workshop his forthcoming manuscript, which  allowed Ertas to see different aspects of what academic life could be like. “Those experiences were intellectually enriching at every turn,” she added.

As she crafted her PhD application, she received support from other Historical Studies faculty members, and Jakes also urged her to continue reaching out to people in her top-choice programs. “He kept encouraging me because I was feeling very shy,” Ertas explains. “Pushing me to do that was very important!”

The recipient of the 2019 Outstanding Master of Arts Graduate Award for Historical Studies, Ertas will pursue her PhD in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She is happy about staying in the East Coast, which will allow her to sustain the close connections she made with NSSR faculty and students. “I’m excited to go from one place where I can forge my own path to another place where I can do that,” she says.

Consuming the Past: Victoria Flexner and Edible History

Founded a century ago, The New School for Social Research sought to have leading scholars teach night courses to working professionals, fostering a community both cutting-edge and non-traditional with respect to student age and academic background, as well as to the kind of learning taking place inside its fledgling walls.

While the university has transformed since then, this vision still holds true today — at least for Victoria Flexner, a 2019 MA graduate of the Historical Studies program. Flexner’s work is unorthodox in more than one sense; a part-time student and full-time business owner, Flexner’s academic focus is on food history, an emerging field she explores with a thesis that incorporates the latest scholarship as well as historical fiction.

A native New Yorker with a French father and chef uncle, Flexner grew up in a family with a strong passion for good eating. As a teenager, she worked in food service. But she didn’t think of herself as a lover of things gastronomic until she left the city to complete her undergraduate degree in Scotland. “The food was terrible!” she remembers. She realized that if she wanted to eat well while away from home, she was going to finally have to learn how to cook.

Having learned how to fare for herself in a foreign land, Flexner graduated and returned to New York. Drawing on her passion for food and her knowledge of the city’s restaurant industry, she was able to secure a job as a publicist for celebrity chefs and restaurants. “While I was working in food PR,” she says, “I was like, ‘There’s got to be a way to take my love of history and my practical skill set of having worked in the food business and blend the two together.’”

The result was Edible History, a company that hosts themed dinners based on historical recipes. Flexner introduces each course with a short history lesson, while her team brings out authentic recreations of meals from across the centuries: three types of ceviche from pre-Columbia, colonial, and modern Peru; dinner as it would have taken place in 10th-century Baghdad; a bit of medieval Mongolian cuisine. In 2018, she hosted a feminist-focus dinner party inspired by Judy Chicago’s famous art installation “The Dinner Party”; major outlets from the New Yorker to Vogue covered it.

From Flexner’s “Feminist Food, Feminist Art” dinner

As her business expanded, Flexner was decided to pursue additional education. “I realized if I wanted to be any kind of authoritative voice on history — if I wanted to stand in front of people and talk about history and not only have them care but to take me seriously — I needed to get another qualification,” she explained.

Flexner chose NSSR because it offered freedom to do explore what she wanted — a freedom she didn’t see at other New York universities. “It felt like what I was trying to do with food and history where it’s not quite the food business, not fully academic, it’s kind of existing in this weird new space,” she said. The parallels between Flexner and fellow Historical Studies alumnus Rien Fertel, who studies barbecue in the American South, are many.

NSSR doesn’t employ any food historians, but this isn’t so unusual; the academic study of food history is relatively young, and there are few specialized graduate programs in it. “The field is kind of a mix between popular history and a newer academic version which is still figuring itself out,” Flexner said. Food historians vary in the kinds of materials they study; some are more archival materials-based while other are more theoretical  The study of food is not only the history of a cuisine — its ingredients, its influences — but also about the institutions and cultures that it’s connected to. Some food historians argue, for instance, that the desire for luxury food products such as pepper and spices paved the way for European expansionsim and imperialism. “The entire world from different spheres was drawn together because of a search for a luxury food product. That’s pretty mind blowing,” Flexner explains.

Flexner’s time at NSSR allowed her to explore food history through a variety of different periodical and regional lenses. Her work culminated in Spring 2019 with a thesis on the history of the restaurant in New York.

From Flexner’s “Evolution of the New York City Restaurant” dinner

As a social practice, the restaurant first emerged in 1760s France and gradually made its way to the United States. Flexner argues that the restaurant truly came into its own due to a number of overlapping factors, but cited one of them as the emergence of the 19th Century boarding house. During a period in which most New Yorkers lived in boarding houses,  where meals were served in a common area and at set times. “The food was notoriously disgusting at all boarding houses across the spectrum,” Flexner says. A combination of a desire for good food and lack of access to private kitchens created a market for third spaces in which people could pay to eat. “By 1855, there would have been eateries that had the components of what we now recognize as the restaurant,” Flexner adds, alluding to a public-facing private food service venue offering a menu of options and working within certain operating hours.

The overlap between her business and her studies has been fundamental to her success in juggling her studies and a full-time job. “Research that I’ve done at school has benefited Edible History, of course, and I’ve brought my experiences from the business into school if I could. It all feels interrelated and I’m here because I want to become a better historian. It’s beyond useful,” Flexner reflects.

That interrelation inspired Flexner to propose an unorthodox approach to her thesis: As she would an Edible History dinner, she carefully blended traditional historiographical narrative with a bit of historical fiction to narrate the story of the restaurant’s development through the experiences of fictional characters like Lorenzo, an early restaurant pioneer. By adopting this approach, and with the support of her mentors Associate Professor of History Oz Frankel and Professor of History and Department Chair Jeremy Varon, Flexner hopes to heighten her ability to do what impassions her.

“I’ve had one woman tell me that recently, ‘You know, I always hated history, and then my husband started making me come to these dinners. Now I buy history books and read them for fun!”‘ Flexner remembers. “That’s the dream!”

Joining the Dream Team: PhD Alumnus Luis Daniel Torres Gonzalez on His Economics Journey

Eighteen years ago, Luis Daniel Torres Gonzalez embarked on a long road that led him from Mexico City to New York City, where he earned his PhD in Economics at The New School for Social Research.

This month, he reached a new destination: Rome, where he was awarded the prestigious 2018 Pierangelo Garegnani Thesis Prize for writing one of the best doctoral dissertations in political economy in the world. Named for the famous Italian neo-Ricardian economist and awarded by the Centro di Ricerche e Documentazione Piero Sraffa at Roma Tre University, the prize is one of the biggest honors an emerging economics scholar can receive.

But when asked about the award, Torres is modest. He’d much rather talk about that path to his PhD, which he completed in 2018, and how he’s developing that dissertation, entitled “Essays on Prices of Production and the Interindustry Structure of Technology and Demand,” even further.

As an undergraduate at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Torres found himself drawn to the work of several NSSR economists, including Arnhold Professor of International Cooperation and Development Willi Semmler and Professor Emeritus Lance Taylor — part of what he calls NSSR’s ‘dream team’ of heterodox economists. “From that moment, I decided that I must do my graduate studies at The New School,” he says. “But that took a lot of time.”

After earning a Master’s degree at UNAM and working for several years at the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology, he finally arrived at NSSR with a valuable government scholarship and a clear direction. He knew he wanted to study the foundations of the economy and delve further into theory of prices of production, and he began working closely with Leo Model Professor of Economics Duncan Foley and Professor of Economics Anwar Shaikh, who also served as his dissertation advisor.

He recalls that dual mentorship as being absolutely critical to his success; the two professors helped him begin his research in his second semester; supported him through long years of research, writing, and conference presentations; and, most recently, encouraged him to apply for the Garegnani Prize.

Collaboration was also an important part of his NSSR experience. In fact, he wrote the third chapter of his award-winning dissertation together with fellow student Jangho Yang, now a postdoctoral research fellow at Oxford. “The Persistent Statistical Structure of the US Input-Output Coefficient Matrices: 1963-2007” was published as part of the Economics Department Working Paper Series and has been accepted for publication in the top field journal, Economics Systems Research.

Torres is continuing that research as a postdoctoral research fellow back at UNAM. “I’m working on the study of the financial markets based on the same [long-period analysis] method that I used for studying the prices and the structure of production,” he says. “I’m interested in measuring the effects of the financial sector on income distribution based on linear production models.”

He’s also investigating the interindustry structure of technology and demand. “This structure is relevant for the determination of important ratios, such as industries’ capital intensities and commodities’ composition of output….I explore the implications of the identified statistical structure to different linear production models,” he writes. A key scholar in that field? Piero Sraffa, of the eponymous Italian center now honoring Torres.

The road to becoming a top emerging economics scholar may be long, but for Torres, it has been entirely worth it.