Professor Willi Semmler Unpacks the Economics of Climate Change

This is the first in a series of Research Matters articles profiling the interdisciplinary climate change work of students, faculty, and alumni at The New School for Social Research. Check back for more!

Despite his contributions to scholarship in the economics of climate change, Willi Semmler—the Arnhold Professor of International Cooperation and Development in the Economics Department at The New School for Social Research—considers himself a relative latecomer to the field.

“I stepped in just a few years ago,” he explained, reflecting on decades-long efforts to understand the implications of a warming world for global growth.

Semmler suggested that serious discussions about these issues began with the first meetings of The Club of Rome, an international group of scholars and practitioners from across fields and areas of expertise that first met in 1968. “They recognized that growth has limits,” he said, “It affects the environment. And it uses up resources that won’t be available for future generations.” If given the opportunity, Semmler can trace the highlights and lowlights of climate change policy throughout the half-century that followed the 1968 meeting—from Rome to Rio, Kyoto to Cancun, and Doha to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.

Semmler now serves as the Director of the Climate Change Project at The Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, and was recently named Senior Researcher on climate change issues at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria. With Lucas Bernard—PhD alumnus of The New School and Professor at NYC College of Technology—Semmler edited The Oxford Handbook of The Macroeconomics of Global Warming. In their introduction, they write, “The developed world can protect itself against climate change through infrastructure improvement and will use more energy to adapt to climate change effects. But it is in developing countries where some of the most dangerous consequences of climate change will be concentrated.”

In this sense, questions about the economics of climate change can rehash fundamental debates about the winners and losers of globalization, and the haves and have-nots within an interdependent global economy. “The losers of globalization were not compensated, and this has produced inequality,” Semmler said. As a result, the current political moment—in which climate change is already a hot-button issue—is made more complicated by debates about globalization itself. He explained, “We are seeing imbalances within individual countries and across borders [and] people are more skeptical about what type of globalization we really want.”

Semmler argued that this is especially the case in countries like the United States, where large swaths of the manufacturing labor force has been affected by globalization over the last three decades. He pointed out that the negative fallout for workers is particularly pronounced, “if you don’t have a proper social system where the victims or the losers of globalization and the free markets don’t have much in the way of unemployment benefits, welfare benefits, or opportunities to do re-schooling or reskilling.”

In this context of considerations about both climate change and the consequences of globalization, Semmler is examining whether financial markets can be used to help shift investment toward green technologies, nudging policy toward regulations that will promote sustainability and growth.

Semmler again returns to fundamental debates about the role of financial markets and regulation of industry to illuminate the stakes of his analysis. Breaking down the argument in his recent book Sustainable Asset Accumulation and Dynamic Portfolio Decisions, Semmler said, “There are basically two views on financial markets: the first is that you can’t constrain operations of the market and you can’t too much constrain investment choice.” In this approach, if social problems or unexpected needs emerge, then the markets should be free to allocate resources to address them. “You make your money freely and then you give it to social needs.”

But Semmler’s research suggests that, “There can be guidelines for more responsible investment: investment that takes into account environmental responsibilities, or that creates social impact.” Against the notion that such guidelines limit growth potential, Semmler has suggested that such strategies—which consider the responsibility to address social dilemmas like climate change—can produce better results for investors. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that you will lose money,” Semmler said, “Because you may be better off in the long run.”

If there is something that concerns Semmler most, it is the possibility that political uncertainty might be a drag on growth. “The global uncertainty comes from the global world order,” he said, “It’s now the global world disorder. Economies, corporations, people, and firms are affected by these macroeconomic phenomena.”

Potential solutions to these enormously complex challenges, in Semmler’s estimation, will continue to require nuanced and collaborative solutions that can better understand the often-hidden forces that are driving economic change. To celebrate Semmler’s contributions to the field of economics, several of his students and colleagues assembled a festschrift—13 essays on his work and career—in 2016. Of his work, New School for Social Research economics PhD alumnus Aleksandr Gevorkyan writes that, “Semmler’s macroeconomic analysis penetrates the most deeply hidden and convoluted aspects of the complex modern global economy.” Judging by the essays included in the collection, titled Dynamic Modeling, Empirical Macroeconomics, and Finance, climate change is less of a hidden aspect now than when Semmler began working on the issue.

And judging by the pace of news and persistence of uncertainty in the field, it seems that the economics of climate change will only continue to demand new research and insight.

Uneasy Street: Sociology Professor Rachel Sherman’s New Book Tackles the “Anxieties of Affluence”

Sociologist Rachel Sherman quickly observed a common trait among the wealthy and affluent subjects of her latest book, Uneasy Street: the Anxieties of Affluence.

They hated getting specific about money. It is, in the words of one interviewee, “more private than sex.”

In part, Sherman—Associate Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research—attributes this reluctance to her subjects’ often-ambivalent relationship to wealth. The 50 New York parents she interviewed over the course of this multi-year study all belong to the top five percent of earners, meaning that they bring in more than $250,000 per year, and the majority are in the top one or two percent. Some benefited from substantial inheritances, which in several cases in excess of $10 million. Sherman chose to focus on people in their 40’s and 50’s who were embarking upon home renovation projects, given that such undertakings provide occasions for intentioned thinking about consumption and lifestyle choices.

The project has roots in Sherman’s longtime interest in structures of inequality in the United States and in the evolution of her thinking over the course of two previous ethnographic projects.

It was during her dissertation research on luxury hotels that Sherman identified a similar ambivalence about wealth among hotel guests, who were adamant that it was important to treat workers well. “I wouldn’t have talked about it this way then,” she said of the hotel guests she interviewed, “but I think they wanted to be morally worthy of their privilege.” That study—which Sherman developed into her 2007 book Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels—focused primarily on hotel workers rather than guests. Yet, Sherman recalls, “Even then, the larger question of what it means to have money in a socially acceptable way was interesting to me.”

Social Epistemology and “Orange is the New Black”

Philosopher Emmalon Davis Joins The New School for Social Research

When introducing her research to non-experts, Assistant Professor Emmalon Davis—who recently joined the Department of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research—turns to Orange is the New Black.

Inspired by the prison memoir of convicted white-collar criminal Piper Kerman, the hit Netflix series helpfully illuminates several of Davis’s overlapping interests in ethics, social epistemology, feminist philosophy, and the philosophy of race. In Davis’s words, Orange provides an entry point for examining, “the social processes through which knowledge and interpretive resources are developed within and disseminated across communities.” Specifically, in the show’s portrayal of its disenfranchised female characters, Davis finds a lens through which we can start to recognize how “social biases are a corrupting influence on these processes.”

Davis pointed out that Orange creator Jenji Kohan has referred to the show’s anti-heroine—the white, educated, middle class, blonde felon, Piper Chapman—as a “Trojan horse.” Though Kohan focuses attention on her protagonist, she also introduces (in what constitutes a kind of narrative smuggling) stories about Piper’s fellow prisoners, many of whom are multiply marginalized by virtue of their age, race, class, gender identification, and sexual orientation.

“This strategy has been somewhat successful at bringing marginalized stories into more mainstream visibility,” Davis explained, “but it does so without locating marginalized voices at the center of their own stories.” Even as the show gives voice to stories from the margins, Orange is the New Black risks “reducing these other stories, and the women at their center, to mere props or ornamentation.” It presents marginalized knowledge only in relation to a character whose identity comports with established conventions about who should belong at the center of a narrative.

To unpack this problem, Davis suggests we need to examine how social biases perpetuate such conventions, not just on television, but also in lived experience.

In her most recent scholarship, the concept of “epistemic injustice” has been especially influential. Defined by CUNY Graduate Center Professor Miranda Fricker, epistemic injustice serves as a framework for describing the effects of bias when individuals interact with one another as knowers and testifiers. The concept can be deployed to reveal the obstacles marginalized individuals face when attempting to share their knowledge with a prejudiced audience.

“Fricker’s account emphasizes the ways that prejudiced interlocutors dismiss marginalized knowers altogether,” Davis said. In these cases, bias prevents certain testifiers from serving as knowers, despite their possession of knowledge. Davis approaches epistemic injustice from the opposite direction, instead interrogating “the harms that arise when dominant audiences actually do engage with marginalized knowers.” Again, the case of Orange is the New Black proves instructive, as it provides an example of the appropriation of marginalized voices into dominant narratives.

“Marginal knowers are not seen as viable testifiers in their own right,” Davis said, “Their voices are mediated.”

Yet even as marginalized knowers are frequently pushed to the sidelines of discourse, so too do they find themselves called upon to serve as representatives of the communities they are seen to inhabit. As Davis put it, “They face the possibility of being over-taxed in certain environments by requests to describe, for the edification of dominant others, what it feels like to live under conditions of oppression.” She pointed to college campuses, classrooms, and activist communities as environments in which marginalized knowers find themselves in this double bind: silenced by conditions of structural oppression and yet expected to educate the privileged about the nature and impact of their oppression and the way that oppressive structures affect social living.” Davis clarified that, “this educative work plays an indispensable role in our collective ability to undermine oppressive social structures,” but at the same time, “we need to pay attention to this dual nature of epistemic harm—ignored on one hand and overburdened with requests to educate on the other.”

Creating more equitable spaces entails adequate recognition of and compensation for the labor that marginalized knowers contribute in social spaces.

Davis similarly calls attention to the reality of marginalized bodies, and to considerations of which bodies are acknowledged in the spaces of medicine and bioethics. “Particularly within reproductive medicine,” she said, “marginalized individuals are subjected to violence and fail to receive the medical resources they need to flourish.” Citing women, people of color, persons with disabilities, and LGBT individuals as having been especially subject to the “medical gaze” throughout history, Davis aims to expose instances in which social identity mediates our relationships to the very institutions upon which we often rely to make our bodies and lives habitable.

In all of her scholarship, Davis suggested that she attempts to make philosophical concepts accessible to multiple communities of knowers—including those who find themselves underrepresented within the discipline of philosophy. Describing an interest in expanding what counts as philosophical discourse, Davis said that she takes “interesting philosophical questions and writes about them in a way that synthesizes lived social experiences and real-world everyday problems.”

This effort extends to the classroom, where Davis hopes that she can help, “remove some of the barriers that have prevented women and people of color from entering into philosophical spaces.” In a discipline where rigor and inaccessibility are often a euphemism for opacity, Davis aims to promote inquiry that activates student energy for grappling with philosophy, while creating spaces for genuine interdisciplinary conversation.

Citing The New School’s open curriculum, she expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of bringing together students and faculty from across the university. “The intellectual resources here at The New School are immense,” she said, “and I’m really excited to be a part of this community.”

A History of Infrastructure in East Africa

Emma Park Joins The New School’s History Faculty

This June, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta celebrated the opening of a sleek Chinese-built railway that connects the cities of Nairobi and Mombasa. The line replaces obsolete rails constructed by the British in 1901, and its $3.2 billion price tag makes it the most expensive infrastructure project in Kenya’s 53-year postcolonial history.

For historian Emma Park, who joins The New School as an Assistant Professor of History this summer after completing her doctoral work at The University of Michigan, the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) serves as the most recent example in a long history of infrastructural development projects; and it brings into full relief the complex relationship between technology and politics—or technopolitics—in Kenya. Park’s dissertation examines the history of such large-scale infrastructure projects in East Africa, and she brings to The New School an integrative and interdisciplinary perspective on the region. Working at the intersection of African Studies, the history of technology, and science and technology studies, Park will also complement the department’s strength in capitalism studies.

In a conversation about her research, Park suggested that President Kenyatta has used the new railroad as proof of his effective leadership in the run-up to Kenya’s general election. Kenyatta “hopes to mobilize the ‘successful’ completion of the project as demonstrable evidence that he is, in fact, doing the work of governing by provisioning for his constituents,” she said. Referring to the president’s directive to hasten the railroad’s completion so that its grand opening would precede national elections, Park added, “The politics of infrastructure in Kenya are quite complicated, but they’re not always subtle.”

To help understand the intricacies of infrastructure projects in East Africa—and to consider what they reveal about the interdependence of technology, state power, and capitalism—Park has written about three distinct moments in the last 120 years of Kenyan history. At the core of her dissertation sits this question: “Why has access to infrastructures emerged a key metric or frame by which people understand their relationship to the state?”

To understand the dynamics among capital, state formation, and the politics of belonging, she analyzes British road construction at the turn of the twentieth century, the development of radio networks after World War II, and the recent launch of digital communications and financial services by communications giant, Safaricom.

For Park, these three projects represent specific moments in the history of development as an idea. In the first case, she said that the British East Africa Company was given a mandate to “bring commerce and civilization” to Kenya. In the Post-War Period, the British aimed to advance social welfare by providing access to information. And in the most recent case—in what Park called a “bottom of the pyramid” approach—developers claim that telecommunications and financial services will accelerate and generalize prosperity across Kenya. But Park argues that the long-angle view of development enabled by an exploration of its infrastructures demonstrates these three have much in common, as designers imagined how contact with new technological networks would generate internal transformations in users.

Park uses these case studies to test what she calls the “durability” of several prevailing claims. “Africa has long been positioned—up to the present—as a place without technological expertise,” she said, citing one enduring misconception. Despite the contributions of Kenyan knowledge workers and experts to the development of major technological projects, the state (British and Kenyan alike) has found ways to reclassify and diminish their contributions. “Irrespective of how centrally important these figures were to making infrastructures work,” Park explained, “their labor was constantly devalued.” She further suggested that an understanding of the processes by which corporate and state enterprises have extracted under-compensated but value-generating work in the past clarifies extractive processes in the contemporary moment.

In other words, Park suggested, historical research can help to contextualize what many refer to as uniquely “neoliberal” development interventions. “One of the labors of the project is to say that the devaluation of the everyday expertise of African workers is not unique to a neoliberal vision of development,” she said, “Contemporary projects operating under the banner of value at the bottom of the pyramid are building on a long genealogy.”

Park is excited to integrate these research interests into her pedagogy at The New School, where she will begin by teaching a course on Modern African History this fall. Asked about why she is looking forward to teaching at The New School, Park said, “The University’s commitment to social justice and active participation in politics and political discussion—as well as its encouragement of research that has political purchase or can gain traction in these domains—was very appealing.” She added that she looks forward to contributing to joining a collaborative department that places an emphasis on capitalism studies and interdisciplinary scholarship. “To feel as though my commitment to work between these fields is supported is wonderful,” she said.

“There was no Berlin Wall, and it Never Fell”

Sociologist Julia Sonnevend Joins The New School for Social Research

Media sociologist Julia Sonnevend begins her first book, Stories Without Borders (Oxford), with a provocative opening salvo.

“There was no Berlin Wall,” she writes, “and it never fell.”

Sonnevend, who joins the Department of Sociology at The New School for Social Research this summer, spends the remainder of the book elaborating on the significance of this assertion. In the process, Stories Without Borders contributes to our understanding of how the meaning of events evolves alongside their symbolic representation. Using the fall of the Berlin Wall as a case study, Sonnevend proposes aspects of what she calls “global iconic events.” From there, she analyzes the factors—many of them related to media reportage and representation—that contribute to the transformation of certain events into enduring and compelling stories.

“If you want an event to be remembered over time,” she explained, “you have to turn it into a simple, condensed, universalized myth.”

In the case of the Berlin Wall, mythology elides the complex bureaucratic processes, political maneuvering, tense meetings, and delicate deal-making involved in negotiating the opening of the East German border. As Sonnevend put it, we instead tell each other “a mythical story about the Wall: that it just magically came down. We remember a quick, split-second event, when ordinary people had the power and determination to overcome a seeming permanent division.”

This willingness to neglect the facts of an event’s complicated history in favor of an enchanting (though less accurate) story represents a non-rational element of human behavior that ties together multiple strands in Sonnevend’s research. “I’m interested in the idea that we might be far less rational—far less fact-oriented—than we might imagine ourselves to be,” she said.

Her latest work deals with the concept of charm, which she says has long proven an elusive topic despite its pervasiveness in social life, and which can produce similarly non-rational social responses. “We all know charming people,” she said, “It’s a quality that’s very important in everyday interactions. But it’s very hard to measure, and very hard to describe.”

According to Sonnevend, scholars in fields like international relations have previously asked what it means to have a charming leader, and have long used—alongside journalists—phrases like “charm offensive” to describe diplomatic interactions. Sonnevend explained that she is interested in examining media representations of charm in international relations contexts, but she also wants to understand charm’s everyday social manifestations. At the heart of her current work lie questions about how charm influences individuals, how it differs from charisma, and how it can convince individuals to act in non-rational ways.

Sonnevend arrives at The New School for Social Research from the University of Michigan. She received her doctorate in Communications from Columbia University and previously completed a Master of Laws (L.L.M.) degree at Yale Law School, as well as a J.D. and M.A. in German Studies and Aesthetics at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. Originally from Hungary, Sonnevend brings to the Sociology Department a breadth of research interests in the sociology of media, and a passion for working across disciplinary lines and in different genres of scholarly production. She has already contributed a piece on contemporary borders to Public Seminar.

“Contemporary academia is often very siloed in terms of departments and disciplines,” Sonnevend said, adding that the particular interdisciplinary quality of scholarship at The New School for Social Research was part of what attracted her. Similarly important was NSSR’s progressive history and its openness to active faculty participation in public debate. “I see myself as a combination of an academic and a public intellectual or essayist,” Sonnevend said, “And it seems to me that one can play those roles here at The New School. I am also very much looking forward to contributing to the Journalism & Design program at Eugene Lang College.”

In the 2017-18 academic year, Sonnevend will co-teach a graduate course on media and micropolitics with Jeffrey Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology. She will also offer an undergraduate course on “visual media and society.” She says that she is excited to teach students interested in media and communication across The New School’s divisions.

Photograph cred. István Huszti (Index)