Thomas Schelling, 1921-2016

The American economist Thomas Schelling, who died last week, was a great man and a great economist. He will be remembered for many contributions, but for me his most important was help in prevention of nuclear war between the USA and the USSR.

Though not a pacifist, Schelling was a peacemaker. Tim Harford, ‘undercover economist’ for the Financial Times, highlights this aspect of his life in an obituary he wrote for last weekend’s newspaper.

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. ….

Schelling ended his advisory work with a letter opposing the 1970 US military campaign in Cambodia. ….

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.

Tim Harford, “Thomas Schelling, economist, 1921-2016“, Financial Times, 17 December 2016 (metered paywall).

Addition information can be found in Harford’s interview of Thomas Schelling, which took place shortly after Schelling won the 2005 Nobel Prize in economics.

Though he spent most of his life teaching economics at Harvard, he [Thomas Schelling] also lectured young officers on military strategy at the United States War College. The Kennedy administration was packed with intellectuals fresh from Schelling’s seminars, including McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser to Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson; Walt Rostow, Bundy’s deputy, and John McNaughton, who became a close adviser to defense secretary Robert McNamara.

Through these men, Schelling helped to create a taboo against the use of nuclear weapons. Eisenhower’s administration had argued that such weapons were no different to any others, but Schelling thought otherwise, and the Kennedy administration agreed.

Schelling stopped advising the government when the US invaded Cambodia in 1970. He led a team of a dozen colleagues to see Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, to resign en masse from their informal advisory positions. “We thought about it the way a lot of people think about Iraq now,” he says, “that there was subterfuge, there was misuse or manipulation of intelligence information.”

Tim Harford, “Lunch with the FT: The game of life“, Financial Times, 17 December 2005 (subscribers only).

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Matthew 5:9. Thomas Schelling, RIP.


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