Measuring Risk to Manage Climate Disaster

This is the second piece on Professor Semmler’s work on the economics of climate change. Read the first here.

Images of a burning Amazon rainforest last week brought people across the world face to face with the effects of increasingly aggressive deforestation and the killing and displacement of humans and animals in one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth. São Paolo, the largest metropolis in the Americas, was covered by a blanket of smoke that turned the day to night.

The images are searing, but the response so far from Brazilian President Bolsonaro has been callous. The incentives toward inaction are evident: clearing forest expands arable farmland, which many growers see as key to economic growth. But is this analysis sound? Is environmental degradation truly a way to stave off economic stagnation?

Deploying models traditionally used to measure the dynamics of financial crisis and economic contraction, Willi Semmler, Arnhold Professor of International Cooperation and Development, is at the forefront of new efforts to try to make measurable the economic impacts of climate catastrophe. His conclusions may be alarming, but the concreteness of his analysis offers some hope that hard data can change the kind of short-term thinking behind the Amazon fires.

Semmler began his academic career with a mathematical economics dissertation inspired by the work of the classical economists of the late 18th and 19th centuries. For these luminaries – Smith, Ricardo, Marx – political economy was very much focused on theorizing a novel and wholly transformative phenomenon of industrial capitalism. Their questions were basic, and their approach socially informed: Why and how do economies grow? Where does the growth go, what impact does it have on inequality of income and wealth, and how? And, most importantly for subsequent generations of economists including Semmler: How can the economic engine periodically sputter and stall?

Soon after earning his Ph.D., Semmler became interested one particular kind of crisis-prone growth: climate change. “We realized that the economy is using up resources and also producing pollution. So we started working on growth and resource availability and exhaustion. How much do we leave to the next generation, and what are the environmental effects of economic growth?”

He began to adapt dynamic economic models that measure risk and recovery around financial crises to work in climate catastrophes, drawing inspiration from similar work around natural disasters by University in Exile Economics professor Emil J. Gumbel.

 “The same thing that happens during financial crises is happening in climate disasters. You usually have certain regions where  public capital — infrastructure and zoning — is destroyed. Private capital is destroyed. People lose lives. Agricultural production is destroyed. When capital is destroyed, potential output is destroyed. And the similarities are so striking,” with how financial disasters play out, says Semmler. Read his co-authored paper.

The results of Semmler’s decades of work at The New School, as well as his work as senior researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, and his work for the IMF, the ILO and the World Bank, are a set of practical recommendations for how to actually manage the risk of catastrophe in the era of accelerating climate change. In moving to that next step of formulating policy, Semmler thought carefully about risk distribution across generations and between different regions of the world. Referring to the work of philosopher John Rawls, Semmler notes that the problem of risk management is “a problem of fairness and justice.” The resulting policies are meant to both help prevent the worst catastrophes while also enabling the best possible response to the ones that do occur.

In order to prevent as many catastrophes as possible, even at our current stage, a large-scale and structural transformation of the economy is needed, says Semmler, encompassing a shift away from fossil fuels and the construction of preventative infrastructure, such as dams. This shift will itself require financing, but the typical mechanism for funding new public initiatives appears to be a political non-starter. “Raising taxes and winning elections? This will be insufficient!” he remarks.

Instead, Semmler proposes that governments raise money by issuing bonds. These 50-100-year “green bonds,” as Semmler calls them, “can transform the energy system on the large scale. They are more effective than just using a carbon tax…and distribute the burden of stepping out of fossil fuel energy and moving into renewable energy between the generations.” “Financing Low-Carbon Transitions through Carbon Pricing and Green Bonds,” a recent paper co-authored by Semmler and several NSSR alumni and students, including Mariana Mazzucato, will be published by the venerable German Institute for Economic Research in its Quarterly Journal for Economic Research. Read a working version, published at the World Bank working paper series.

Semmler has also considered how to narrow the gap between affluent countries, which tend to generate the most pollution, and developing nations, which generate relatively little pollution but are most vulnerable to its effects. An international financing effort building on the Copenhagen Accord would be necessary to both address how to build infrastructure to help reduce the risk of climate disaster as well as how to repair the damage when disaster does occur.

His prescriptions thus vary in scope. Semmler believes that the involvement of supranational organizations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, is absolutely necessary to support recovery developing nations  after disasters. But when it comes to preventative measures, “nation-states are responsible for certain things and for third and other things, the global community is responsible,” he says. “There’s a balance to recognize the fact that on an individual level, we can’t really do too much. There’s a sense in which there needs to be global redistribution and global responsibility, but also we can’t defer responsibility to a kind of imagined global community, when in fact nations are still effectively the ones who need to be taking action, raising taxes, issuing climate bonds.”

Semmler’s work encapsulates much of what’s best of The New School’s tradition of engaged scholarship. Drawing on specialized knowledge, Semmler has worked to adapt existing dynamic models to deal with unforeseen but pressing sociopolitical issues with an eye towards practical, sustainable solutions. Very much in line with the NSSR’s intellectual heritage, however, Semmler is not working alone. As director of the Economics of Climate Change project at NSSR’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, and in conjunction with the University’s Centennial celebrations, Semmler is organizing the “Climate Disasters and the Green New Deal” conference on September 3, featuring economists Stephanie Kelton (NSSR alum now at Stony Brook University), Claudia Kemfert (German Institute of Economic Research), Bob Kopp (Rutgers University), and Stefan Mittnik (Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich). Semmler hopes the event will inform and motivate policy makes to take action on climate change now. “There’s a huge group of new Congress members who are pursuing [issues related to climate change], but nobody can put this platform forward without talking about the Green New Deal. I want to put these two things together. There’s the climate disaster, and Green New Deal.”

Hubertus Buchstein on the Heuss Professorship and Otto Kirchheimer

Connections between The New School for Social Research and Germany are both long-standing and numerous, ranging from the University in Exile in the 1930s to the Technical University of Dresden exchange program today,

A transformative moment in this transatlantic relationship happened in 1965, when New School President John Everett worked with the Volkswagen Foundation to create the Theodor Heuss Chair of the Social Sciences. Named for the first president of West Germany, this was the first professorship in the United States supported by a German foundation; Volkswagen endowed the chair for five years, after which the German federal government assumed responsibility. According to the most recent history of The New School for Social Research by Judith Friedlander, the chair “evolved out of earlier exchanges of mutual recognition and appreciation” between Heuss and New School leadership; like many University in Exile faculty members, Heuss himself had been dismissed from an academic position by the Nazis in the 1930s.

Early Heuss Professors included sociologists and philosophers who had studied critical theory in postwar Frankfurt School with the original founders of the Institute for Social Research, among them Jürgen Habermas. Today, the Heuss Professorship rotates between NSSR departments.

In 2018-2019, the Politics Department welcomed Hubertus Buchstein, a Full Professor in Political Theory and History of Political Ideas at the University of Greifswald. In addition to teaching a spring seminar on Habermas and the current work of Critical Theorists in Germany, he also completed extensive archival research on political theorist and University in Exile professor Otto Kirchheimer. Read on for more about his year here.

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RESEARCH MATTERS: So I hear you’ve been to The New School a few times before! Can you tell us about your own academic history and what brought you here?

HUBERTUS BUCHSTEIN: When I was working on my PhD thesis at the Free University of Berlin in the late 1980s, the topic involved some emigrants I knew were at The New School. So when for the first time in my life I came to America in 1990, I went to The New School. I wanted to see the building where Hannah Arendt had been — I simply wanted to be at the building!

I also got in contact with Andrew Arato and his wife Jean Cohen. He was the only one in the huge Frankfurt School camp who wrote critically about Eastern Europe. When I came back as a Humboldt Research Fellow in 1994, I taught a class with Andrew on the political sociology of the Frankfurt School. I came for the next seven years, every year for two months in February and March, and taught a class twice a week.

Since then I’m still in close contact with The New School and I come every year to New York. It was very easy to make friends here, to get to know people. It’s very international and this was totally different than what I knew.

RM: It was that different than Berlin?

HB: Berlin is Germany’s biggest city. But in comparison to New York it was a sleeping city. And in those days my Political Science department in Berlin didn’t have so many international students, in particular from Eastern Europe and from Latin America.

Teaching was also quite different. Here it’s more lecture-style seminars. In Germany we start in our theory classes with a discussion of the text. We have assigned sometimes 20, 30 pages only for class and the students have to read them three times so it’s like 80 pages. Here you assign a book but you can’t always do such a close reading. I really had to adjust to this style of teaching.

Benjamin Van Buren on Perception, Illusion, and Returning to New York

In 1976, NASA’s Viking 1 orbiter, which was circling around Mars, delivered one of the most striking and close-up images of this distant place that had ever been seen by earthlings. The photograph featured what looked like a human face sculpted into the surface of the planet. While many realized that the face was simply a coincidental pattern of light and shadow caught at just the right time, some took this “face on Mars” as evidence of abandoned alien civilizations and government cover-ups. 

Picture and close-up of the “face on Mars” taken by the Viking 1 orbiter

Visual perception has a difficult job. Starting from highly limited sensory input (flat, low-resolution images), it fills in gaps, adding information that was never there to begin with. Such extrapolations can provide an accurate sense of the world, or they can lead us astray. The wonders and folly of perception motivated Benjamin Van Buren, the new Assistant Professor of Psychology at The New School for Social Research (NSSR), to develop a research program concerning the precise mechanics of attention, perceptual inference, and illusion.

But how exactly does one study perception? One approach, which Van Buren favors, is psychophysics, a branch of psychology that deals with the relationships between physical stimuli and mental phenomena. Van Buren’s work maps visual inputs onto visual experiences, an approach favored by Gestalt psychologists, who discovered, for example, that how you see something moving depends dramatically on the context in which you view it.

Which dot is circling the other?

Van Buren gives the above example: Which dot is circling the other? We perceive the relationship between the two dots (i.e. which is stationary, and which as ‘orbiting’) by referring their motion to an external reference frame — either the screen or the moving background texture. The influence of background motion on the appearance of the dots strongly supports the Gestalt view of perception — that wholes take precedence over parts, and the appearance of parts depends on the wholes they are seen to comprise.

Gestalt Psychology has a long history at The New School; the first University in Exile faculty included Max Wertheimer, considered the father of Gestalt psychology, and Rudolph Arnheim. More recently, working outside the Gestalt tradition, Arien Mack, Alfred J. and Monette C Marrow Professor of Psychology, has advanced the study of perception with her research on inattentional blindness.

Van Buren’s path to NSSR began with an interest in visual aesthetic experiences. “In high school, I was always doing art-related stuff; making animations, wood carvings, and kinetic sculptures after Jean Tinguely. Then I got to college and the whole universe opened up before me,” he recalls. At the University of Pennsylvania, he followed a program in cognitive science and started working with Anjan Chatterjee on projects in neuroscience and aesthetics. “I wanted to see if it was possible to use a relatively ‘hard’ scientific approach to better understand things that seem more ineffable, like art experiences,” he says. This led him to a string of projects exploring the cognitive demands of viewing photographs of beautiful and ugly landscapes, how attention is deployed to attractive faces, and how artists’ painting styles change as a result of Alzheimer’s disease.

Most recently, Van Buren has also been probing the perception of intentions. Strictly speaking, when we see somebody reach out to hold our hand, or run to catch a train, the sensory data contain nothing more than physical states and changes. But in both of these cases, we experience the action in more than merely physical terms — we see it as performed by an agent with a mind, who has beliefs and goals. As a case study, his research has focused on another strong and storied illusion, in which we reflexively see simple geometric shapes (which we know to be inanimate) as alive and goal-directed when they move in particular ways.

In the same way that we can’t help but experience other visual illusions, we can’t help but see the shapes in the above Heider and Simmel film as animate, and telling some kind of story

Van Buren explains that seeing the world in this rich way is adaptive, driven by evolutionary pressures and the demands of development. Successful interaction with the world requires seeing it in all sorts of ways that go beyond the input data. “You can conceive of perception as solving a number of different problems. And we need not always think of perception as one process; it can be understood a variety or processes that are tacked together as solutions to problems that are posed by the environment,” Van Buren says.

For the past several years, Van Buren has been investigating perception’s curious “solutions” at Yale University, where he earned his doctorate, and at KU Leuven in Belgium, where he conducted postdoctoral research. His projects have explored everything from the perception of food’s caloric content to visitors’ aesthetic experiences in art galleries. Most recently, he has been interested in the question of how and when a still photo — which, strictly speaking, corresponds to a single moment of time — is seen to represent a longer stretch of time (from a few seconds to hours).

A New York native, Van Buren is looking forward to joining the New School and leading his own laboratory, the NSSR Perception Lab. He envisions the lab as “a space where people feel encouraged to break new intellectual and methodological ground, and where they learn from one another by sharing and debating ideas.” He is also excited about potential interdisciplinary collaborations with Parsons faculty and students. “Designers spend much of their time thinking about how we see the world in order to improve our experience of our surroundings. A lot of this knowledge would be interesting to vision scientists, but communication between these fields has been fairly rare. Fortunately, The New School is known for collaborations across disciplinary boundaries and for a widespread willingness to explore new avenues of research,” he says, citing the example of Professor of Psychology Michael Schober, who conducts research on jazz musicians as they improvise. “This work moves beyond all the existing paradigms in psychology in order to answer profound questions about how people read each other’s signals and create together.”

In Fall 2019, Van Buren will be teaching two classes. In “Visual Perception and Cognition,” NSSR graduate students will survey the latest vision science, including research on the perception of color, motion, shape, material, and depth. “I want to focus on big themes, and I plan to incorporate a lot of demonstrations.” he says. In “The Psychology of Aesthetics and Design,” undergraduates will study existing literature on empirical aesthetics, design a research question, and test their hypotheses through rigorous experimentation. He hopes these projects will reflect students’ own design practices and concerns, and that through them they will also discover new ways in which empirical methods can be used to enhance creative work.

Closure, Transformation, and the Law: NSSR Welcomes Political Theorist Sandipto Dasgupta

Within contemporary political language, a constitution is generally considered a neutral document, one that sets forth fundamental ground rules for how persons and organizations should conduct themselves politically but stands outside of the push and pull of quotidian politics itself. It is also understood as a stable, almost timeless framework that exists outside of the many changes of ordinary political life. Think of the mechanisms for amending itself the US constitution sets out, these emphasize an aspiration to enduring currency. Therefore, most people tend to understand a constitution as both an unbiased arbitrational document and as something essential to moving about effectively in the world.

But Sandipto Dasgupta, the new Assistant Professor of Politics at The New School for Social Research, has a different perspective. A political theorist, he explores the historical relationship between political institutions, like constitutions, and political transformation, taking a broad look at the variable historical composition of political paradigms, from constitutionalism to postcolonialism. His findings challenge some of the most conventional beliefs we have about the connection between revolutionary upheaval and political institutions. As he demonstrates, constitutions are not always the neutral means of closure and containment, but are sometimes the very tools of genuine political transformation.

A Global Academic Journey

A native of Calcutta, Dasgupta began his career with tentative intention of become a lawyer. He graduated from the National Law School of India University, the country’s first such school, and worked as a clerk at the Supreme Court of India. During his studies, Dasgupta discovered that he was especially curious about the theoretical underpinnings of the law — the historical and philosophical assumptions that were as fundamental to the legal curriculum as they were unexamined. “I wanted to look at the legal language more critically and from a distance,” Dasgupta said.

This interest led him on a global academic journey, first to Columbia University, where he earned a PhD in Political Science in 2014. “New York was very fundamental in shaping me as an intellectual subject,” he says. “I was there in very interesting political times [Occupy Wall Street], all these new journals, people talking to each other. I was a shaped as a scholar by these moments outside the classroom and the library, as much by anything that happened within them. It also helped me, I think, move beyond India, linking my questions up with those that resonated globally.”

Dasgupta also studied at NSSR as part of the Inter-University Doctoral Consortium, sitting in on Politics classes with Andrew Arato and Andreas Kalyvas, and a class on Hegel with Jay Bernstein, which he remembers as going late into the night and often continuing at a nearby bar.

Dasgupta then moved on to postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard University and at the British Academy in London. “It says something about the postcolonial world that its best archive is actually in the British Library,” he jokes. He has spent the past three years back home in Delhi, teaching a range of course on political ideology and political economy at Ashoka University.

Excited to return to New York, Dasgupta views the NSSR Politics Department as the perfect fit for a scholar such as himself, one interested in “interrogating the foundations and the assumptions that are built into the discipline,” he says. “The kind of political theory I do is critical and political. It tries to make political theory speak to the political life of the present. I always felt that The New School is the perfect place for that kind of approach.” This summer, he’s busy planning for  “The Political Theory of Decolonialization,” the first course he’ll teach to NSSR graduate students.

The Role of Constitutions

He’s also been busy wrapping up his first book, Legalizing the Revolution (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). In it, Dasgupta returns to the accepted idea that constitutions act like skeletons for polities, providing a rigid structure that firm up the basic functions of administration and jurisprudence alike. He claims that this view narrowly focuses on and generalizes from a specific period of constitutional writing, ignoring other roles constitutions might play, especially in bringing to life the political institutions of a state.

For example, we tend to look to and study the constitutions of the 18th and 19th centuries rather than the ones that were written in the 20th. In those earlier centuries, the story of constitutions “is the story of closure,” Dasgupta says. “There’s upheaval and revolution and it comes to an end with a constitution. Constitutions end revolutions.” In the 20th century, however, constitutions may do exactly the opposite: They transform, they kick off revolutions. For the newly decolonized states of the twentieth century, Dasgupta says that “the revolution was in the future. We have a constitution through which we can do the revolution, transforming the colonial subject into a postcolonial citizen.” In this second kind of constitution, the distinction between the time of revolution and the time of law is undone, and the two meld together. In other words, these post-colonial states challenge our received notions of constitutions as instruments of order and closure, instead exploring their possibilities and limitations as instruments of revolutionary transformation.

Dasgupta has also explored the history of institutionalizing postcolonial visions of freedom. “When you think about it, the 20th century is this great moment of freedom, or at least of an image of liberation,” Dasgupta says, citing the examples of postwar decolonization. “The question that interests me is, what happens right after? How do we move from an image of freedom to institutions that help us to build that world?”

In one of his articles, Dasgupta takes Gandhi as a vehicle for exploring that broad question of transition into independence. “This is the paradox: he is this enormously influential figure both within and outside India’s anti-colonial movement, and yet almost none of his visions of postcolonial India come to fruition.” In this sense, Gandhi embodies a tension that all postcolonial state leaders must deal with: What does independence look like, institutionally, if it isn’t a replica of the European state model?

In Dasgupta’s view, the first three decades after decolonization have witnessed a shift from idealistic potential to a gradual disappointment. This perspective leads him to yet another question: how to construct an account of decolonization that is alive to both its expansive aspirations of emancipation as well as the eventual exhaustion of hope. Gandhi can be seen as case study in what happens when the vision fails to find a way to implement itself, when the anticolonial spirit fails to translate itself into a postcolonial one.

These sorts of issues, along with other recurring questions that newly independent states and leaders grapple with, will be explored in Dasgupta’s Fall 2019 course. “I’m am really looking forward to being at The New School, being back in New York,” he said. “What I look forward to about these graduate seminar is the opportunity to explore interesting questions together with the students. From the conversations I had with my colleagues and some of the students already, I believe that it will be an exciting journey!” he says.

NSSR Faculty Win Major 2019-2020 Research Grants

From the many celebrations and reflections that accompany the centennial of The New School throughout 2019, on thing has become abundantly clear: Many of the issues early New School scholars sought to address continue to be central to our thinking today. From the effects of borders and migration on refugees to rising fascism and anti-democratic politics, concerns about capitalism to growing inequality, today’s New School for Social Research faculty members are launching bold new investigations into these pressing questions, and several have won major grants to carry out this important work for the coming academic year.

Deva Woodly, Associate Professor of Politics, has been named a 2019-2020 Fellow-in-Residence at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. She focuses her attention on the ways that public meanings define the problems that the polity understands itself to share, as well as the range of choices that citizens perceive to be before them. Drawing primarily from newspapers and social media, she examines public discourse and its central practical importance to democratic politics.

While at the Safra Center, Woodly will be working on two book projects: #BlackLivesMatter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements, which explores the ways that social movements re-politicize public life in times of political despair, and What We Talk About When We Talk About the Economy, which examines public discourse and opinion concerning what “the economy” means to different stakeholders in American politics. While there, she will also participate in the Safra Center’s Working Group on Political Economy and Justice.


Miriam Ticktin, Associate Professor of Anthropology, has been named a 2019-2020 Russell Sage Visiting Fellow. Ticktin is currently at work on two related book projects: a short book on innocence as a political concept, and how it produces an unending search for purity; and a book on the way border wall technologies travel, both transnationally and cross-species, with the goal of engaging with speculative practices, and reimagining the idea of bordering. Over the past year, Ticktin has been co-director (co-PI) of the Mellon Foundation-funded Sawyer Seminar series on Imaginative Mobilities, in which an interdisciplinary group of faculty members and graduate students from the fields of design and social sciences reframed debate on the nature, purpose, and futures of borders.

As a Russell Sage Visiting Fellow, Ticktin will continue work on her second book project. She will investigate the resurgence of border walls as an anti-immigrant tool in the context of rising right-wing and nationalist populisms, concentrating on the proposed border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Drawing from legal, historical, and ethnographic research, she aims to demonstrate how border walls paradoxically rely on transnational and cross-species technologies, ideas, and economies. She will analyze how the materials and technologies involved in the construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall offer insight into the politics of borders and how rethinking border design has implications for immigration policies.

Both Virag Molnar, Associate Professor of Sociology, and Julia Ott, Associate Professor of History, have been named 2019-2020 members of the Institute for Advanced Study.

Molnar’s research explores the intersections of culture, politics, social change and knowledge production with special focus on urban culture and transformations of the built environment. She has written about the relationship between architecture and state formation in socialist and postsocialist Eastern Europe, the post-1989 reconstruction of Berlin, and the new housing landscape of postsocialist cities. Her latest book, Building the State: Architecture, Politics and State Formation in Postwar Central Europe (Routledge) received the Mary Douglas Prize for the Best Book in the Sociology of Culture from the American Sociological Association in 2014.

At the IAS, Molnar will continue researching and writing her new book, tentatively titled Marketing Radical Nationalism in Contemporary Hungary, which she began while receiving a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin. The book explores how markets can serve as crucial vehicles for promoting new interpretations of national identity and circulating nationalist symbols, thereby fostering popular support for nationalist radicalization.

Ott specializes in economic history and political history. Aiming to advance critical histories of capitalism, she investigates how financial institutions, practices, and theories influence American political culture and how, in turn, policies and political beliefs shape economic behavior and outcomes. She was the 2016-2018 co-director of the Robert H. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies and is the author of When Wall Street Met Main Street: The Quest for an Investors’ Democracy (2011).

At the IAS, Ott will work on her latest book project. Wealth Over Work: The Origins of Venture Capital, The Return of Inequality, and the Decline of Innovation examines the history of venture capital as an idea, as a form of investment, and as a politically-mobilized industry. In the half-century after start of the Great Depression, beliefs about the centrality of venture capital for innovation, jobs, and growth shaped economic policy and corporate behavior while gradually transforming U.S. financial system. Concerns about venture capital – voiced from all across the political spectrum – slowly steered American political culture in a neoliberal direction, in favor of investors and the wealthy.  The result was the less innovative and far more unequal economy that we live with today.