Thomas Schelling has passed away

by on December 13, 2016 at 4:12 pm in Economics, Games, History, Philosophy, Political Science | Permalink

Here is my 2005 tribute post, Thomas Schelling, Nobel Laureate.  Here are all the other MR posts about Schelling.  A great loss of course and for me he was a true role model and important advisor throughout my career.  Here is the University of Maryland notice.

1 Ray Lopez December 13, 2016 at 5:09 pm

What did he do? Say nothing but good of the dead…

2 Ray Lopez December 13, 2016 at 5:32 pm

From TC’s Oct 10, 2005 post, Thomas Schelling’s contributions:

“1. The idea of precommitment. You can be better off, either individually, or institutionally, if your choices are limited in advance.” – OK, if you say so. Both links cited are dead links. Does precommittment contradict ‘nudge’ theory? I assume not.

“2. The paradox of nuclear deterrence. Ever see Dr. Strangelove? Tom developed the idea that deterrence is never fully credible (why retaliate once you are wiped out?). The best deterrent might involve precommitment, some element of randomness, or a partly crazy leader. ” – Yes, I agree. I’ve said online that Trump is good (seriously) precisely for this reason. North Korea, China, and Russia fear him.

“3. Focal points. People coordinate by directing their attention to commonly recognized points of importance. If a meeting time for lunch is not specified, you might assume 12 noon.” – this cannot be (?) original thought by Tom. I recall reading something about Grand Central Station in NYC being a popular meeting place for this reason, but perhaps it was Tom’s work cited.

“4. Behavioral economics and the theory of self-constraint. One of Tom’s best pieces is “The Mind as a Consuming Organ,” American Economics Review, 1984. Here is a lecture of his on self control. Will Wilkinson cites a bit of that essay. Tom made it respectable for economists to talk once again about happiness” – link rot, again. Does this theory presuppose people have self-control? The ancient Greeks thought so but I believe modern science says no, people are more ‘deterministic’ as hard-wired by their DNA.

“5. The economics of segregation. Tom showed how communities can end up segregated even when no single individual cares to live in a segregated neighborhood.” – this is a mathematical exercise that is akin to Conway’s Game of Life, which I’ve simulated as a programming exercise. Cellular Automation as it’s known in computer science. Let me be uncharitable and say it probably has little relevance in human societies. I mean you can simulate, like the Kurt Vonnegut short story (or was it his physicist brother?) how the earth can turn into a giant snowball from a single crystal that becomes the nucleus for albido feedback that makes the world colder and colder. Google this.

“6. Later in his life Tom turned his attention to issues of global warming. He has been skeptical of the idea that global warming involves insuperably high economic costs. Here is a short essay by Tom on the topic. Here is his excellent AER piece on the same topic.” – wow, good man. I would have thought Tom was more like Julius Simon or Bjorn Lumborg. I agree with Tom 100%. He’s right too: global warming will hit developing countries more than First World countries. Also methane is produced by Third World farming and land clearing for 85% of the total (not CO2, but the more potent methane). Tom was a good man, he confirms my priors.

“Like so many other prestigious American economists, Tom worked for the Marshall Plan in its early stages. ” – good man. From what I understand from my Greek relatives, and it’s just anecdotal, Marshall Plan monies were given to leading Greek families who were already rich, who thereby got even richer. There was a ‘trickle down’ effect but not that much, not unlike Reagan’ trickle-down Reaganomics that produced today’s 1% (of which my family is one). Just saying… And I think back then the Marshall Plan, inflation adjusted, was something like less than the cost of the 2008 US Bailout (Tarp I), as I once computed.

3 Thor December 13, 2016 at 6:16 pm

There’s a vast difference between there being no self-control, and us humans having, on the whole, the potential for self-control.

4 anonymous December 13, 2016 at 9:44 pm

“Vast”was a well chosen word….

5 Bill December 14, 2016 at 1:17 pm

Note the word “potential” and the implicit choice of the future tense contained in it. If we had self control, we would not be talking about it or its “potential”.

6 anonymous December 15, 2016 at 12:32 am

Bill – good point, I noted what you said. Every word in the comment was well chosen.

7 John Burrett December 13, 2016 at 7:28 pm

Precommittment is an idea in game theory. If you recommit, your “opponent” can’t assume that you’ll change your mind and not carry out a threat or other action once circumstances change. It’s kind of like posting a performance bond.

8 Scott Mauldin December 13, 2016 at 5:51 pm

“Russia fear[s] him” – all evidence to the contrary
“Tom was a good man, he confirms my priors” – I’m curious as to what conjunction you might after that comma. “Because”? “Also”? “But”?

9 Donald Pretari December 13, 2016 at 6:39 pm

Many years ago, I worked with one of his sons. My condolences to the family.

10 Marc Cohen December 13, 2016 at 6:48 pm

Dr. Ralph Raico (Circle Bastiat, Ludwig von Mises NYU seminar, studied under FA Hayek at U of C) passed away as well. RIP.

11 rayward December 13, 2016 at 6:51 pm

That Shilling was at least partially responsible for Dr. Strangelove (the movie) makes me a fan. Was it consistent on his part to acknowledge global warming but oppose efforts in the developed countries to mitigate global warming because most of the benefits from mitigation would be realized by developing countries while most of the the costs would be borne by developed countries. It may seem naive in this narcissistic age, but don’t those who have been blessed have an obligation to set an example for those who weren’t.

12 Todd Kreider December 13, 2016 at 6:58 pm

I came across Choice and Consequence around 2000 and unlike other books I read at the time I thought, “I want to think like him.”

I don’t think Schelling will be correct on climate change because as with most economists, he assumed no major changes for the developed world even decades out. His 1992 essay “Some Economics of Global Warming” includes:

” In a hundred years, adverse changes in climate for food production would be far more tragic if the countries we now associate with the developing world had populations totaling 12 billion than if they totaled 9 billion. For the developing worlds, the increasing concentration of people is probably more serious than the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide.” Bangladesh is often the example used to represent a poor, developing country that will be hardest hit decades from now. But Bangladesh’s GDP/capita that was $1,200 (2015 dollars) when Schelling wrote that piece is now at $4,000 and growing at 7%. If Bangladesh growth slows to just 3% a year out to 2092 that will grow to $37,000 a year, where Japan is today. Japan doesn’t look third world to me… In his talk last year as well, Schelling assumed little technological changes out to 2100, 85 years. That isn’t what happened in the previous 85 years.

Anyway, good-bye to a deep thinker.

13 Todd Kreider December 13, 2016 at 7:04 pm

In the 1992 article, I missed that Schelling did write: “Their [developing world] best defense against climate change may be their own continued development.”

14 rayward December 13, 2016 at 7:10 pm

The difference between historians and economists is that the former believe they can’t predict the future whereas the latter believe they can. Who do you believe: the historians or the soothsayers?

15 Anon December 13, 2016 at 7:28 pm

Now, there is a saying, attributed to the Physicist Niels Bohr but apparently an old Danish proverb, that it is difficult to predict, especially the future.
“The future isn’t what it used to be.”

16 Silas Barta December 13, 2016 at 7:25 pm

They could honor him by holding his funeral without having to tell anyone where it will be. /too soon?

17 ricardo December 13, 2016 at 8:58 pm

Well that’s entirely in keeping with the rest of your corpus.

18 efim polenov December 13, 2016 at 9:13 pm

I doubt that was the actual Brad DeLong. Underrated, I say, and anybody who was Tyler Cowen’s advisor is all right by me. I don’t get the Saturday morning thing, but there is a lot in this world that I do not understand.

19 efim polenov December 13, 2016 at 9:31 pm

Corrected version – Brad DeLong at 8:52 said “overrated”. I doubt that was the actual Brad DeLong. My second sentence should have read: “Underrated, ‘he’ says, but anybody who was Tyler Cowen’s advisor is all right by me.” I don’t get the Saturday morning thing, but there is a lot in this world that I do not understand. I never met Schelling but I met or corresponded with a few of his friends, I think. My condolences to his family, and, as we say in my world, memento etiam domine famulorum famularumque nostrorum qui nos praecesserunt cum signo fidei, et dormiunt in somno pacis — ipsis, et omnibus in Christo quiescentibus, locum refrigerii, lucis et pacis, ut indulgeas, deprecamur.

20 prior_test2 December 14, 2016 at 1:30 am

I somewhat agree, but the actual link is valid, and DeLong has (quite a while in the past) commented here. At least the link to DeLong’s web site seems valid, though I have not been there for years.

Well, after actually clicking on the link – talk about a rabbit hole. My (oldish) memory is that DeLong used Typepad, and several sources seem to suggest that his personal web site is still found at the linked address. If so, what a wonderfully pompous self-parody of a man who so richly deserves it. Or to be possibly more charitable, DeLong is in some sort of decline, as can happen to anyone, and this is the best that can be managed at this point. In such a case, mockery would be inappropriate – for example, a lot of recycling seems to be going on, from the short impression I had.

21 prior_test2 December 14, 2016 at 1:12 am

Well, I am looking forward to this comment being deleted, in the proud tradition of DeLong’s website deleting anything less than laudatory of DeLong’s beliefs and icons.

22 Jurgen December 14, 2016 at 1:49 am

Ice-9 (from Cat’s Cradle).

I may be wrong but I believe Schelling was the first to apply game theory to the world of nuclear war. And thereby introduce game theoretic thinking minus the math to ordinary folk (yes, I still have my copy of Strategy of Conflict and I may re-read it in tribute). He certainly influenced Erving Goffman, who applied the ideas to everyday life and “impression management”, lately a topic of interest to psychologists.

23 prior_test2 December 14, 2016 at 7:02 am

The counter might need a bit of work – it still registers a group of comments. A reasonable enough call in this case, assuming that it was clear that someone was playing an economist on the Internet, instead of being one.

24 efim polenov December 15, 2016 at 12:45 am

Another fascinating Nobelist on the Maryland faculty was Juan Ramon Jimenez, the greatest poet of donkeys and burros that one can imagine. (Trust me on that…) I looked at all the references to Schelling on this weblog that TC helpfully provided – I am the opposite of a technically proficient economist, but I recognize useful insights when they are described to me – and I was impressed that Schelling not only had a favorite Bach work but even a favorite Bach performance (some guy with a Slavic name performing, I think, the Art of the Fugue). And he was a colleague of Marshall’s (not the Marginal Revolution Marshall but the Citadel – or as it VMI? – Marshall who helped out guys like Patton to be Patton at his best and guys like Truman to be Truman at his best – maybe not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, but a big deal to people like me who grew up in the decades when I grew up) and that is not something everyone can claim to be. My condolences to Schelling’s family on their loss.

25 Enrique December 15, 2016 at 5:03 pm

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