In Memoriam: Thomas C. Schelling (1921-2016)

Thomas C. Schelling

Thomas C. Schelling, a major researcher in strategy, negotiation and social change and a longtime college professor, died Dec. 13, 2016. He was 95.

Professor Schelling shared the 2005 Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences with Robert Aumann, a longtime member of INFORMS and its predecessor societies. They were honored for their research (separately) showing how game theory applies to economic and strategic negotiations and competitions. Hence, while Professor Schelling did not generally identify himself as an OR/MS analyst, his work was essential to the field.

His work early in the Cold War illuminating deterrence and cooperation strategies [1,2] was highly influential in establishing and then modifying the “Mutual Assured Destruction” doctrine the U.S. pursued. Among other contributions, Professor Schelling showed that limiting one’s options may strengthen one’s negotiating position – for example, locking in a rapidly escalating response to a provocation, thus removing the more moderate response options, may help to deter the other party. On the other hand, such a doctrine increases the risk of inadvertent major conflict.

Relating to the escalation risk work, Professor Schelling was also a source of inspiration for the movie “Dr. Strangelove.” He recommended to Stanley Kubrick, the movie’s director, that he read the novel “Red Alert” [3], whose author, Peter George, wound up writing much of the screenplay. Also at Professor Schelling’s recommendation, Kubrick carefully read Herman Kahn’s “On Thermonuclear War” [4], which became the source for a number of provocative lines  – including the title character’s famous exclamation, “A doomsday device doesn’t do you any good if you don’t tell anyone about it!” [5]. It appears that, like Kubrick and Kahn, Professor Schelling wanted to help people understand just what the risks and trade-offs were in this critical area of strategy and policy. And, like Kubrick and Kahn, he met with mixed success in this attempt.

Another of his well-known contributions was a model of how mild preferences for living with people like oneself could produce segregation in housing. This model is a staple of agent-based social science now, but he did it using coins on a checkerboard, 30 years before it was replicated in many agent-based simulations [6].

He also did important work on addiction, noting that addictive behavior is against the person’s self-interest but can be quite persistent anyway. This work helped establish the field of behavioral economics.

Early in his career, after receiving a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Schelling worked for the federal government as an analyst for the Bureau of the Budget and at the White House as a foreign policy advisor to the president. Professor Schelling later returned to academia, earning a doctorate in economics from Harvard. Professor Schelling taught at Yale University from 1953 to 1958, when he left to join the economics department at Harvard. Professor Schelling remained at Harvard for more than 30 years. In 1990 he became a distinguished university professor with the University of Maryland’s Department of Economics and School of Public Policy, a post he held until his retirement in 2003 [7].

Although the Nobel Committee and a number of prominent obituaries [7, 8, 9] did not mention wargaming, Professor Schelling was famous for that, too, and at very high levels. A story he liked to tell about himself was that a couple of generals were walking out of the White House Situation Room to get dinner during the Cuban Missile Crisis. One was overheard to say, “Well, now we know how realistic Schelling’s games were.” The other replied, “No, now we know how unrealistic this situation is.”

As The Economist’s obituary noted, “His acceptance speech observed that ‘the most spectacular event of the past half century is one that did not occur. We have enjoyed 60 years without nuclear weapons exploded in anger …what a stunning achievement – or, if not achievement, what stunning good fortune!’ If achievement was the word, the credit was partly his.”

– Douglas A. Samuelson

References

  1. Schelling, Thomas C., 1960, “The Strategy of Conflict,” Harvard University Press.
  2. Schelling, Thomas C., 1966, “Arms and Influence,” Yale University Press.
  3. George, Peter, 1958, “Red Alert,” Ace.
  4. Kahn, Herman, 1960, “On Thermonuclear War,” Princeton University Press.
  5. “The Making of Dr. Strangelove,” Columbia Pictures.
  6. Schelling, Thomas C., 1978, “Micromotives and Macrobehavior,” W. W. Norton, pp.147-155. Earlier version: “Models of Segregation,” American Economic Review, Vol. 59, No. 2,
  7. May 1969.
  8. The New York Times, Dec. 13, 2016 (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/13/business/economy/thomas-schelling-dead-nobel-laureate.html)
  9. The Washington Post, Dec. 13, 2016 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/12/13/thomas-schelling-has-died-his-ideas-shaped-the-cold-war-and-the-world/)
  10. The Economist, Dec. 24, 2016 (http://www.economist.com/node/21712133/print).