Thomas C. Schelling, who died on December 13 at the age of 95, was a self-described “errant economist” who worked as a Cold War strategist and won the most prestigious prize of his profession.
But the Californian-born economist was an unlikely laureate. His ideas were rich and influential — and easily expressed in plain English. He highlighted weaknesses in standard economic approaches, deploying vivid thought experiments more suited to moral philosophy than to economics, and rarely cited other academics.
Instead, Schelling used academia as a vantage point from which to advise the administrations of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. He was at Harvard University for 31 years, and said of one role there that it had given him a decade of “freedom to write and to consult, and I spent much of my time, especially during the summer, doing advisory work for the government.”
That advisory work drew on one discipline in particular.
Game theory had been dreamt up by the mathematician John von Neumann, as an attempt to model in mathematical terms human interactions from poker through to strikes or cartels.
The Hungarian-born von Neumann was a hawk (“If you say why not bomb [the Soviets] tomorrow, I say why not today?”) but Schelling took game theory in a new direction. He emphasised that even the most implacable foes could find areas of common interest — most obviously, during the Cold War, the necessity of avoiding mutual annihilation.
To this end, in the late 1950s and the 1960s, Schelling’s advisory work and his publications focused on issues of effective deterrence, communication, and the strategic limitation of arms. He was a consultant for Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr Strangelove, a nuclear annihilation comedy which introduces a “doomsday device”. The device is the ultimate deterrent: it will be triggered automatically in the case of war. Alas, it’s a secret, which limits the deterrent effect.
The doomsday device was the perfect illustration of some of Schelling’s favourite themes: strategic commitment, miscommunication, and unintended consequences. It is no coincidence that it was Schelling who insisted that Washington and Moscow establish a secure hotline and work out protocols for ensuring it was tamper-proof. This attention to details that others overlook was a spark for his best academic work. It is also is one reason why nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945.
Schelling ended his advisory work with a letter opposing the 1970 US military campaign in Cambodia. He later worked on the problem of addiction, developing models of self-control that were precursors to what is today known as behavioural economics. This research was partly motivated by his own long and eventually successful struggle to stop smoking. And in 1980, at the request of President Carter, he became one of the first economists to work on the problem of human-induced climate change.
He also anticipated the use of complexity science in economics with a celebrated “chessboard” model of segregation. This showed how two racial groups could completely segregate from each other in a chain reaction despite being quite comfortable in a mixed neighbourhood.
These days such modelling is done on a computer, but Schelling originally explored the idea in a notebook doodle on a long flight. “It was hard to do with pencil and paper,” he told the FT in a 2005 interview. “You had to do a lot of erasing.”
Thomas Crombie Schelling was born in Oakland, California, on 14 April 1921. His father was in the US Navy, but despite Thomas Schelling’s crew cut, square jaw and family history, he did not fight in the war. For medical reasons, the military would not accept him. Instead he studied economics at the University of California, Berkeley and earned his PhD at Harvard. After a spell working on the Marshall Plan, he taught at Yale, Harvard and finally the University of Maryland.
Schelling married Corinne Saposs in 1947. After that four-decade marriage ended in divorce, he married Alice Coleman, who survives him, as do four sons, two stepsons and his younger sister, Nancy.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times.