In memory of Thomas Schelling, the errant economist

Update (1/22/17): check out this touching tribute to Schelling by Glenn Loury. (Hat tip: Garrett Jones, via Twitter.)

We have been trying to stay away from the Internet during our “Christmas sabbatical” to spend more time with our family, attend to grading duties, and read Roy Sorensen’s beautiful book on thought experiments, but we just discovered that the author of The Strategy of Conflict and self-described “errant economist” Thomas Schelling (pictured below) died a few days ago. Because Professor Schelling had such a great influence on us (he was one of our intellectual heroes), we are interrupting our Internet sabbatical to describe his impact on our approach to law and life. In particular, here is an abridged excerpt (without footnotes) from an essay we published in 2015: 

I chanced upon a copy of The Strategy of Conflict through an acquaintance during the spring of 2007. Suffice it to say that this collection of essays would change my intellectual life forever. In fact, everything else I had read up to that point—with the possible exceptions of Cervantes, Darwin, and the King James Version of the Bible—paled in comparison. I once again experienced that rare and breathtaking feeling of leaving behind the darkness of the cave.

To begin with, I especially enjoyed Professor Schelling’s plain-English style of writing and his wide-ranging selection of whimsical examples from fiction, history, and daily life to illustrate his analysis of the problem of conflict, such as the ancient customs of exchanging hostages or wine goblets in classical times, the search-and-rescue missions of army parachutists landing on enemy terrain, and the cat-and-mouse game of pursuit between Sherlock Holmes and his arch-enemy Moriarty. But my favorite “Schelling tale” by far, the one that I just could not get out my mind no matter how hard I tried, was the case of the two dynamite trucks on a one-lane road. One of the trucks is going uphill, the other downhill. Both are laden with explosives, and both drivers are in a hurry. So which truck is going to back up?

But most important, Schelling gave me a simple three-part taxonomy of human interactions and thus provided me with several missing pieces of my newfound intellectual puzzle: the problem of conflict.

On one extreme, there are those zero-sum, winner-take-all interactions in which there is no room for mutual cooperation. Schelling calls these zero-sum interactions games of “pure conflict.” Think of the life-and-death predator-prey interactions in nature or the brutal gladiatorial contests in ancient Rome. Other classic examples of pure conflict include the more familiar activities of chess, poker, tennis, football, baseball, and so on. In all these cases, there is one winner for every loser.

On the other extreme, there are those interactions or coordination problems in which both sides actually prefer the same outcome. Schelling calls these types of interactions “games of pure coordination.” These types of games are potentially positive-sum interactions because both sides can win and achieve the desired joint outcome if they could only communicate with each other or find some other way of coordinating their actions.

But to me, Schelling’s most remarkable and notable insight was his recognition that interactions involving pure conflict or pure cooperation are the exception and not the norm. According the Schelling, these two forms or types of interactions—pure conflict and pure cooperation—are but two extremes, two end-points on a continuum of conflict. Most human interactions, in fact, fall somewhere in between these two extremes, involving a subtle mixture of conflict and cooperation, what Schelling calls “mixed-motive games.”

And so, if Darwin taught me that conflicts are pervasive in nature and in life, it was Schelling who taught me that not all conflicts are zero-sum and that not all cooperative relationships are free of tension and conflict. In sum, Schelling taught me that most human interactions will contain elements of conflict and cooperation, that the difference between an ally and an enemy, between friend and foe, is a matter of degree and not of kind.

In addition to Schelling’s useful three-part taxonomy of human interactions, I saw that there was an underlying method to Schelling’s apparent madness. Beyond the sheer pleasure that I got from what one of my colleagues once derisively called “these silly Schelling tales,” I also learned that mathematical analysis was not the end-all or be-all of Schellingesque game theory. That is, Schelling taught me that highly-stylized mathematical models are unable capture the many dimensions and full flavor of real-world conflicts, another reason why I consider myself an intellectual agnostic and critical scholar first and foremost.

Image result for schelling focal point

Rest in peace.

This entry was posted in Academia, Bayesian Reasoning, Cooperation, Economics, Game Theory. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to In memory of Thomas Schelling, the errant economist

  1. Abogada Guerra says:

    May he S.I.P. Excuse my ignorance, but is he the one who worked with the continuum theorem?

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