Thomas Schelling

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Thomas Schelling
Thomas Schelling.jpg
Schelling in 2007
Thomas Crombie Schelling

(1921-04-14)April 14, 1921
DiedDecember 13, 2016(2016-12-13) (aged 95)
InstitutionYale University
Harvard University
University of Maryland
New England Complex Systems Institute
FieldGame theory
Alma materUniversity of California, Berkeley
Harvard University
Arthur Smithies
Wassily Leontief
James Duesenberry
A. Michael Spence[1]
Eli Noam[2]
InfluencesCarl von Clausewitz, Niccolò Machiavelli
ContributionsFocal point
AwardsThe Frank E. Seidman Distinguished Award in Political Economy (1977) Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (2005)
Information at IDEAS / RePEc

Thomas Crombie Schelling (April 14, 1921 – December 13, 2016) was an American economist and professor of foreign policy, national security, nuclear strategy, and arms control at the School of Public Policy at University of Maryland, College Park. He was also co-faculty at the New England Complex Systems Institute. He was awarded the 2005 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (shared with Robert Aumann) for "having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis."[3]


Early years[edit]

Schelling was born on April 14, 1921 in Oakland, California.[3] Schelling graduated from San Diego High. He received his bachelor's degree in economics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1944. He received his PhD in economics from Harvard University in 1951.


Schelling served with the Marshall Plan in Europe, the White House, and the Executive Office of the President from 1948 to 1953.[4] He wrote most of his dissertation on national income behavior working at night while in Europe. He left government to join the economics faculty at Yale University.

In 1956, "...he joined the RAND Corporation as an adjunct fellow, becoming a full-time researcher for a year after leaving Yale, and returning to adjunct status through 2002."[5]

In 1958 he was appointed professor of economics at Harvard. That same year, he "co-founded the Center for International Affairs, which was [later] renamed the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs."[6]

In 1969 he joined Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he was the Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Political Economy.[4] He was among the "founding fathers" of the "modern" Kennedy School, as he helped to shift the curriculum's emphasis away from administration and more toward leadership.[6]

He conducted research at International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), in Laxenburg, Austria, between 1994 and 1999.

In 1990 he left Harvard and joined the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and University of Maryland Department of Economics.[7]

In 1991, he accepted the presidency of the American Economic Association, an organization of which he was also a Distinguished Fellow.[8]

In 1993, Schelling was awarded the Award for Behavior Research Relevant to the Prevention of Nuclear War from the National Academy of Sciences.[9] Many years earlier, in 1977, he received The Frank E. Seidman Distinguished Award in Political Economy.

In 1995, he accepted the presidency of the Eastern Economic Association.[10]

He received honorary doctorates from Erasmus University Rotterdam in 2003, Yale University in 2009, and RAND Graduate School of Public Analysis as well as an honorary degree from the University of Manchester in 2010.[11][10][8]

He was awarded the 2005 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences along with Robert Aumann for "having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis."[3]

Schelling was a contributing participant of the Copenhagen Consensus.[4][12]

Personal life[edit]

Schelling was married to Corinne Tigay Saposs from 1947 to 1991, with whom he had four sons. His marriage to second wife Alice M. Coleman began later in 1991, with whom he had two step sons.[13][14]

He died on December 13, 2016 in Bethesda, Maryland from complications following a hip fracture at the age of 95.[7]

Schelling's family auctioned his Nobel award medal, fetching $187,000, which they then donated to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that fights hate and bigotry and advocates for civil rights through litigation. His widow, Alice Schelling, said the most influential book he ever read was Smoky the Cowhorse by Will James, the winner Newbery Medal in 1927.[15]

Notable works[edit]

The Strategy of Conflict (1960)[edit]

The Strategy of Conflict, which Schelling published in 1960,[16] pioneered the study of bargaining and strategic behavior in what Schelling refers to as "conflict behavior." The Times Literary Supplement in 1995 listed it as one of the hundred most influential books since 1945.[17] In this book he introduced concepts like focal point and credible commitment. Chapter headings include "A Reorientation of Game Theory," "Randomization of Promises and Threats," and "Surprise Attack: A Study of Mutual Distrust."

The strategic view toward conflict that Schelling encourages in this work is equally "rational" and "successful."[16] That said, it cannot merely be based one's intelligence alone, but must also address the "advantages" associated with a course of action; though even the advantages gleaned, he says, should be firmly fixed in a value system that is both "explicit" and "consistent."[16]

Conflict too has a distinct meaning. In Schelling's approach, it is no longer enough to beat your opponent. Instead, one must seize opportunities to cooperate. And in most cases, there are many. Only on the rarest of occasions, in what is known as "pure conflict," he points out, will the interests of participants be implacably opposed.[16] He uses the example of "a war of complete extermination" to illustrate this phenomenon.[16]

Cooperation, where available, may take many forms, and thus could potentially involve everything from "deterrence, limited war, and disarmament" to "negotiation."[16] Indeed, it is through such actions that participants are left with less of a conflict and more of a "bargaining situation."[16] The bargaining itself is best thought of in terms of the other participant's actions, as any gains one might realize are highly dependent upon the "choices or decisions" of their opponent.[16]

Communication between parties, though, is another matter entirely. Verbal or written communication is known as "explicit," and involves such activities as "offering concessions."[16] What happens, though, when this type of communication becomes impossible or improbable? This is when something called "tacit maneuvers" become important.[16] Think of this as action-based communication. Schelling uses the example of one's occupation or evacuation of strategic territory to illustrate this latter communication method.

In an article celebrating Schelling's Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics,[18] Michael Kinsley, Washington Post op‑ed columnist and one of Schelling's former students, anecdotally summarizes Schelling's reorientation of game theory thus: "[Y]ou're standing at the edge of a cliff, chained by the ankle to someone else. You'll be released, and one of you will get a large prize, as soon as the other gives in. How do you persuade the other guy to give in, when the only method at your disposal—threatening to push him off the cliff—would doom you both? Answer: You start dancing, closer and closer to the edge. That way, you don't have to convince him that you would do something totally irrational: plunge him and yourself off the cliff. You just have to convince him that you are prepared to take a higher risk than he is of accidentally falling off the cliff. If you can do that, you win."

Arms and Influence (1966)[edit]

Schelling's theories about war were extended in Arms and Influence, published in 1966.[19] The blurb states that it "carries forward the analysis so brilliantly begun in his earlier The Strategy of Conflict (1960) and Strategy and Arms Control (with Morton Halperin, 1961), and makes a significant contribution to the growing literature on modern war and diplomacy." Chapter headings include The Diplomacy of Violence, The Diplomacy of Ultimate Survival and The Dynamics of Mutual Alarm.

Micromotives and Macrobehavior (1978)[edit]

In 1969 and 1971, Schelling published widely cited articles dealing with racial dynamics and what he termed "a general theory of tipping."[20] In these papers he showed that a preference that one's neighbors be of the same color, or even a preference for a mixture "up to some limit," could lead to total segregation, thus arguing that motives, malicious or not, were indistinguishable as to explaining the phenomenon of complete local separation of distinct groups. He used coins on graph paper to demonstrate his theory by placing pennies and dimes in different patterns on the "board" and then moving them one by one if they were in an "unhappy" situation.

Schelling's dynamics has been cited as a way of explaining variations that are found in what are regarded as meaningful differences – gender, age, race, ethnicity, language, sexual preference, and religion. Once a cycle of such change has begun, it may have a self-sustaining momentum. His 1978 book Micromotives and Macrobehavior expanded on and generalized these themes[21][22] and is often cited in the literature of agent-based computational economics.

Global warming[edit]

Schelling was involved in the global warming debate since chairing a commission for President Jimmy Carter in 1980. He believed climate change poses a serious threat to developing nations, but that the threat to the United States was exaggerated. He wrote that,

Today, little of our gross domestic product is produced outdoors, and therefore, little is susceptible to climate. Agriculture and forestry are less than 3 percent of total output, and little else is much affected. Even if agricultural productivity declined by a third over the next half-century, the per capita GNP we might have achieved by 2050 we would still achieve in 2051. Considering that agricultural productivity in most parts of the world continues to improve (and that many crops may benefit directly from enhanced photosynthesis due to increased carbon dioxide), it is not at all certain that the net impact on agriculture will be negative or much noticed in the developed world.[23]

Drawing on his experience with the Marshall Plan after World War II, he argued that addressing global warming is a bargaining problem: if the world were able to reduce emissions, poor countries would receive most of the benefits, but rich countries would bear most of the costs.

Contributions to popular culture[edit]

Stanley Kubrick read an article Schelling wrote that included a description of the Peter George novel Red Alert, and conversations between Kubrick, Schelling, and George eventually led to the 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.[24]

Schelling is also cited for the first known use of the phrase collateral damage in his May 1961 article Dispersal, Deterrence, and Damage.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Spence, A. Michael (December 8, 2001), SIGNALING IN RETROSPECT AND THE INFORMATIONAL STRUCTURE OF MARKETS (PDF), Nobel Foundation, p. 407, retrieved Jun 8, 2017
  2. ^ "Eli M. Noam". Columbia Institute for Tele-Information. Retrieved October 16, 2016.
  3. ^ a b c "Thomas C. Schelling - Facts". Nobel Foundation. Retrieved December 13, 2016.
  4. ^ a b c "Curriculum Vitae: Thomas C. Schelling". University of Maryland School of Public Policy. 2008. Archived from the original on July 3, 2007. Retrieved 2008-09-18.
  5. ^ "Nobel Committee Honors Former RAND Economist Thomas Schelling". Retrieved 2017-11-16.
  6. ^ a b "Thomas Schelling, Nobelist and game theory pioneer, 95". Harvard Gazette. 2016-12-14. Retrieved 2017-11-16.
  7. ^ a b Campbell, Megan (December 13, 2016). "In Memory of Thomas Schelling". University of Maryland School of Public Policy. Retrieved December 13, 2016.
  8. ^ a b "Honorary Doctorate for professor Thomas C. Schelling". (in Dutch). Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam. September 29, 2014. Archived from the original on November 17, 2017. Retrieved November 16, 2017.
  9. ^ "NAS Award for Behavior Research Relevant to the Prevention of Nuclear War". National Academy of Sciences. Archived from the original on 2011-06-04. Retrieved February 16, 2011.
  10. ^ a b "Thomas C. Schelling | NECSI". Retrieved 2017-11-16.
  11. ^ "Nobel prize winner delivers SCI annual lecture".
  12. ^ "Thomas Schelling". Copenhagen Consensus. Retrieved 16 January 2016.
  13. ^ "Thomas C. Schelling". The Notable Names Database. 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-18.
  14. ^ Uchitelle, Louis (2005-10-11). "American and Israeli Share Nobel Prize in Economics". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-11-16.
  15. ^ Levin, Sala (June 8, 2018). Family of Late UMD Professor Auctions Nobel Medal to Fight Hate.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Schelling, Thomas C. (1980). The Strategy of Conflict (Reprint, illustrated and revised. ed.). Harvard University Press. p. 309. ISBN 978-0-674-84031-7. Retrieved September 21, 2010.
  17. ^ "100 Most Influential Books Since the War (TLS)".
  18. ^ "A Nobel Laureate Who's Got Game", The Washington Post, October 12, 2005.
  19. ^ Yale University Press
  20. ^ Thomas C. Schelling (1969) "Models of segregation," American Economic Review, 1969, 59(2), 488–493.
       _____ (1971). "Dynamic Models of Segregation," Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 1(2), pp. 143–186.
  21. ^ Thomas C. Schelling (1978) Micromotives and Macrobehavior, Norton. Description, preview.
  22. ^ Schelling, Thomas C (2006). "Some Fun, Thirty-Five Years Ago". Handbook of Computational Economics. Elsevier. 2: 1639–1644. doi:10.1016/S1574-0021(05)02037-X.
  23. ^ Schelling, Thomas C. (2007). "Greenhouse Effect". In Henderson, David R. Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (1st ed.). Library of Economics and Liberty. Retrieved 7 December 2017.
  24. ^ Thomas C. Schelling, 2006 prologue to 'Meteors, Mischief, and War', in Strategies of commitment and other essays, Harvard University Press, 2006.
  25. ^ "INFORMS PubsOnline".

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Finn E. Kydland
Edward C. Prescott
Laureate of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics
Served alongside: Robert Aumann
Succeeded by
Edmund Phelps