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.

Inaugural Activist-in-Residence Shanelle Matthews Engages at The New School this Fall

Shanelle Matthews and Assistant Professor of Politics Deva Woodly lectured in the Race in the US Course on October 2, 2017. View the video at livestream.com/thenewschool.

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Shanelle Matthews joined the Black Lives Matter Global Network in January 2016, having spent seven years in journalism and public interest communications. As the network’s Director of Communications, she crafts messages for the organization that she called, “a co-creator of the 21st-century Black Freedom Movement.”

In a recent conversation, Matthews talked about how her diverse training and experience as an organizer, researcher, journalist, and communicator for numerous political and non-profit organizations came together to equip her for the position. “I believed everything that I had done up until that point prepared me for this role,” Matthews said. “And then it became clear that no experience could really prepare you for a job like this.”

This fall, Matthews has also joined The New School as the university’s inaugural Activist-in-Residence, a pilot program jointly conceived by NSSR Assistant Professor of Politics Deva Woodly and two members of The New School’s Board of Trustees, Fred Dust and Susan Foote. They worked to recruit Matthews to The New School.

“It feels important for me and for people who are committed to this position to close the gap between the movement and the academy,” Matthews said. She suggested that it represents an opportunity to align resources among academics and activists, build mutual trust, and facilitate innovative collaborations to produce social change.

According to Matthews, partnerships of this kind have the potential to break down barriers that can often separate scholarship from activism. “If we continue to work in siloes, it will take us much longer to make progress,” she said.

Just four weeks into her tenure as Activist-in-Residence, Matthews has big plans for her remaining time at The New School. She will deliver a lecture in the Race in the U.S. course alongside Professor Woodly. The class is a continuation of the “Post-Election America” series, and is Livestreamed on a weekly basis through The New School’s Facebook page. Matthews is contributing articles on race in America for Public Seminar and has made herself available to students across The New School for one-on-one discussions of activism and scholarship.

She will also continue to conduct research into the representation of under-represented voices in media. “I’m trying to deepen our understanding of how decision makers in media decide who to offer as experts,” she said. Matthews hypothesizes that to diversify the pool of individuals acting as experts would advance understanding. This dovetails with her work through Channel Black to provide training in improvisation, debate, and cognitive science to leaders in the movement, many of which identify as black, female, and LGBTQ. The goal is to share knowledge and communications best practices to empower a new generation of leaders to serve as experts and effective advocates in the media. “Increasing representation of black, LGBTQ, and female voices into the media will help us create more empathy and nuance, which we desperately need.” Matthews explained.

Having advocated on behalf of the black community, women, and LGBTQ individuals in several previous roles, Matthews was serving as Deputy Director of Communications at the Sierra Club—the nation’s largest grassroots environmental organization—just before she joined the Black Lives Matter Global Network.

Matthews talked candidly about her decision to join the Network staff. “I had to do a lot of personal digging to decide whether this was the right role for me, and whether I could serve the black community in the way that we needed,” she said. With nearly two years behind her, she adds, “I’ve had to learn how to be more tender and more gentle in a fast-paced environment that can feel lonely and hard to navigate.”

Matthews finds it is hard to pinpoint her most difficult month as Director of Communications for BLM, and instead pointed to the intellectual, professional, and emotional challenges of having to respond so frequently to acts of violence on behalf of a global organization that contains many perspectives. “When you become the person who’s responsible for concisely and accurately messaging for a network that shares the same name as a broad moniker, it can be unhinging,” she said. Speaking of a weeks-long stretch last year in which she was called upon to respond to events in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas, Matthews added, “You become, in some ways, slightly confused about what you believe versus what makes sense to message at that moment, and what’s true for most people. And you need to reconcile yourself to the fact that you’re not going to make everybody happy.”

The New School strikes Matthews as an institution with a responsibility to lead conversations about how activism and scholarship can advance social justice. “It’s very exciting to be here, and I’m proud to be here,” she said. Observing some of the structural imbalances of representation in higher education, she added, “For a university to have integrity on these issues means having more people of color as decision makers—in addition to diversifying students and faculty.” Matthews expressed that she is looking forward to working with colleagues at The New School “to offer perspectives on how to double down on the institution’s commitment to better understand our world and improve conditions for local and global communities.”

“Whether we are talking about issues that impact the Black community, White community or any community, we will not be able to move forward and become a more empathetic and pluralistic country until we hear from more diverse voices,” she added. “Through my work at The New School and beyond, I’m committed to making that a reality.”

The lecture delivered by Shanelle Matthews and Deva Woodly as part of the 2017 Race in the U.S. class, broadcast live on October 2, 2017, will be archived and available on The New School‘s Facebook page and at livestream.com/thenewschool.

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.”

On the Psychology of Collective Memory and Group Membership

The 2016 US Presidential campaign and its aftermath have energized international dialogue on the prominence and proliferation of ideological echo chambers, fake news, and so-called “alternative facts.” We are in a moment that is forcing us to face pressing questions about the social nature of facts: how they come about and who feels entitled to ratify or question them.

NSSR Alumnus Alin Coman (photo credit: Princeton University)

To address some of these questions, Research Matters spoke with Alin Coman, a doctoral alumnus of the Psychology Department at The New School for Social Research, and currently Assistant Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Coman’s research — initially developed as a graduate student in the lab of William Hirst (the Malcolm B. Smith Professor of Psychology at NSSR) – focuses on the way that social contexts affect our ability to create and recall memories, both as individuals and as groups. Recent political events in the United States and around the world have brought new urgency to Coman’s investigation into how politics and group dynamics can shape and reshape our sense of the past.

Coman was first exposed to the field of collective memory as an undergraduate psychology student at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. At the same time, Professor Hirst was conducting research on collective memory while advising Romanian psychology departments through a rebuilding process that followed their abolition during the communist authoritarian rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu (1965-1989). After completing his undergraduate degree in Romania, Coman followed Hirst back to The New School for Social Research for graduate work.

Under Hirst’s supervision, Coman developed an empirical approach to the study of collective memory in communities of individuals, investigating how our social interactions influence the way that we create, retain, and recall memories. As Coman recently wrote: “Psychologists are now investigating the fundamental processes by which collective memories form, to understand what makes them vulnerable to distortion. They show that social networks powerfully shape memory, and that people need little prompting to conform to a majority recollection — even if it is wrong.”

It is this issue that Coman explores in his current work at Princeton.

Take a recent study completed in conjunction with Hirst and fellow NSSR Professor Emanuele Castano. The study asked American participants to confront two sets of stories about soldiers committing acts of violence in Iraq and Afghanistan. One group of participants read that it was the American soldiers committing acts of violence and abuse, while another group — reading about the same acts — were told that they were committed by Iraqi soldiers. “It turns out there’s a huge difference in terms of the cognitive processes individuals undertake as they’re listening to somebody describing these atrocities,” Coman explained. The interpretation of this information is influenced by the group membership of the person exposed to the stories.

This phenomenon extends to the process of remembering and forgetting. According to Coman, when we hear information from people we perceive to be within our group, these sources are, “more likely to reinforce memories that are already encoded.” He adds that they can also “induce forgetting of memories that are related to those that they hear from an [outgroup] source.” Information relayed by people inside one’s own group will “be prioritized in the cognitive system.” This leads to a bias in terms of what gets remembered and what is left to wear away from our memories.