The Importance of Thomas Schelling

By Henry J. Aaron

Tagged Economics

Thomas Schelling’s death evokes no surprise.  He was 95, after all.

But it evokes a sense of loss. He embodied a unique and enormously engaging combination of quirky originality, moral commitment, and emotional intensity.

This characterization may seem at odds with his early contributions to the field of economics, a now forgotten text on international trade, and his still-indispensable book, The Strategy of Conflict, borne of government work on strategic deterrence during the Cold War. In a certain sense, The Strategy of Conflict was just an application of game theory, a branch of economics that in the hands of some is formidably abstract. But in Schelling’s hands, the subject was concrete and specific, his writings alive with vivid and unforgettable examples. But the beauty of it was that he saw games everywhere—in the myriad reactions between and among people and, most intriguingly, in the internal conversations we all have among the melange of wants and thoughts that comprise each of us.

He made deep insights seem simple. For example, he showed with black and red markers on a checkerboard how random chance could drive people of different races or religions or political beliefs to inexorably segregate themselves, even if they actually prefer a little diversity in their lives. Simple and unpretentious as was Schelling’s checkerboard analysis, it fathered a whole new analytic technique, forbiddingly named “agent-based modeling,” that now, paradoxically, makes heavy demands on powerful computers. (For a glance at Schelling’s checkerboard analysis, see this interactive game.)

To read Schelling or to listen to him was a rare pleasure. His prose was clean and vivid. It spoke simultaneously to the head and the heart. His talent was to look at the world we all inhabit, to see puzzles few others did, and to find answers to those puzzles that are startling, intriguing, and deep. For example, he begins his masterful collection of essays, Micromotives and Macrobehavior, characteristically with an amusing personal experience.  Why did an audience of 800 people who had assembled to hear him lecture voluntarily seat themselves in the auditorium so that the first ten rows were entirely vacant? Only a theorist as inventive as Schelling could use such a seemingly trivial example as a launching point into discussions of purposive behavior and equilibrium analysis, and also provide a lengthy list of potential motivations behind seating behavior.

A later essay, “The Intimate Contest for Self-Command,” builds on the profound challenge raised by the fact that each of us is not a psychologically unitary entity but more plausibly seen as a fractious community of distinct and often warring selves. It is the tale of the not-always-cooperative game that the multiple elements in each of us play with each other. I defy anyone to read this essay and not come away both intellectually changed and emotionally moved.

There is nothing more exhilarating than the be exposed to ideas, spoken or written, that challenge one’s mind, that delight through their artistry, and that move one emotionally. Thomas Schelling provided that remarkable combination regularly to those who heard him speak, and he can continue to provide it to those who read him even now.

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Henry J. Aaron is the Bruce and Virginia MacLaury Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the trustees, officers, or other staff of the Brookings Institution.

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