Credit Henry Griffin/Associated Press
Thomas C. Schelling, an economist and Nobel laureate whose interest in game theory led him to write important works on nuclear strategy and to use the concept of the tipping point to explain social problems, including white flight from urban neighborhoods, died on Tuesday at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 95.The death was confirmed by Richard Zeckhauser, a former student and colleague.It was while working as an economist in the Truman administration that Professor Schelling became intrigued by the stratagems and negotiating ploys that he observed in international bargaining. In particular, as the Cold War developed, he became fascinated with the complexities of nuclear strategy, then in its infancy and a source of worldwide anxiety.After spending a year studying nuclear weapons at the RAND Corporation in 1958 and writing “The Strategy of Conflict” (1960), he took his place as a leading theorist of nuclear war and peace along with the RAND intellectuals Herman Kahn and Albert Wohlstetter, as well as Henry A. Kissinger, the director of the Defense Studies Center at Harvard.Professor Schelling analyzed superpower negotiations in the way that he analyzed the conflicts between, say, a blackmailer and his client, a parent and a child, or management and labor. In each case, he wrote, “there is a mutual dependence as well as opposition,” with each side seeking out tests of strength at less than crisis levels.Among other counter-intuitive propositions he put forth, Professor Schelling suggested that one side in a negotiation can strengthen its position by narrowing its options, using as an example a driver in a game of chicken who rips the steering wheel from the steering column and brandishes it so his opponent can see that he no longer controls the car. He also argued that uncertain retaliation is more credible and more efficient than certain retaliation.“The Strategy of Conflict” introduced the concept of the focal point, often called the Schelling point, to describe a solution that people reach without benefit of communicating, relying instead on “each person’s expectation of what the other expects him to expect to be expected to do.”People separated geographically, for instance, will rendezvous at a prominent landmark. Mr. Schelling used the example of strangers arranging to meet in Manhattan. Posing this problem to a group of students, he found that the most popular choice was the information booth at Grand Central Terminal at noon. The time and the place were given preference by tradition, and that preference was anticipated by all.In “Meteors, Mischief and Wars,” published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1960, Professor Schelling looked at the possibility of an accidental nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union and reviewed three novels that imagined such an event. The director Stanley Kubrick read his comments on the novel “Red Alert” and adapted the book for “Dr. Strangelove,” on which Professor Schelling was a consultant. In the film, the Soviet “doomsday device,” set to respond automatically to a nuclear assault by the United States, was, Mr. Schelling said, a poor piece of gamesmanship.
“One obvious point in the Strangelove movie was that the Soviet doomsday thing was not a deterrent when the other side did not know in advance that it existed,” he pointed out in an interview with The New York Times in 2005, when he and the Israeli economist Robert J. Aumann were awarded the Nobel in economic science.Despite being identified with game theory, Professor Schelling described himself as an opportunistic user of its ideas, bringing them in when needed and sometimes not at all.“When people ask me what game theory is, my answer is that it is an attempt to formalize any kind of study of strategic behavior where people are trying to affect or anticipate the behavior of others,” he told The Baltimore Sun. “So all kinds of people are game theorists. Organized labor of the 1930s. The underworld is full of extortionists who are good at it. Most of what I did with very few exceptions can be understood without having any idea what game theory is.”Thomas Crombie Schelling was born on April 14, 1921, in Oakland, Calif. His father, John, was a Naval officer. His mother, the former Zelda Ayres, was a schoolteacher. His interest in mass unemployment in the Depression led him to major in economics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1944.In 1947, he married Corinne Saposs. That marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, the former Alice Coleman; four sons, Andrew, Thomas, Daniel and Robert; two stepsons, Robert and David Coleman; a sister, Nancy Schelling Dorfman; eight grandchildren; four step-grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Credit Pool photo by Jonas Ekstromera plausible screenplay using bombers.