Thomas C. Schelling, Nobel Laureate
Thomas C. Schelling and Robert J. Aumann are the joint recipients of
the 2005 Nobel Prize for Economics. Tom Schelling, 84, now at the
University of Maryland, made much of his distinctive contribution to
applied game theory in his four decades at the Kennedy School of
Government, Harvard University from the mid-20th century till 1990.
His research and immense intellectual output contributed much to the
Kennedy School acquiring its reputation for excellence. Over the
decades, other faculty, students and visiting scholars have looked
forward to and gained from interacting with him.
I had just enrolled in mid-1984 for a one year (2 semesters)
Mid-career Masters Programme at the Kennedy School when I attended a
lecture by Tom Schelling on global warming. That subject was then much
less in vogue than now but, predictably, the hall was full.
The lucid identification of the critical issues and cold sharp
analysis of the available options, set out in characteristic terse
prose, gripped and retained my attention and that of virtually everyone
I immediately decided to take, in my first semester, 'Conflict and
Strategy', which was, for many years, Tom Schelling's only course
offering. That extra-ordinary multi-disciplinary course had evolved,
over the decades, around his theories and thinking.
He preferred a small class so as to do without a Teaching Fellow and
maintain total control, and had a creative and acceptable strategy to
discourage excessive enrolment. I consider that course as the most
exciting that I have come across anywhere.
In the next semester, Tom Schelling, together with Glenn Loury,
offered a new course titled 'Public Policy in Divided Societies'. I took
that course too. During that semester, Tom Schelling and I agreed that
it would be a good idea for me to stay on for a Doctoral Programme on
'An Inter-Country Study of Affirmative Action', which was the subject of
one of my papers in Public Policy in Divided Societies.
He would be my Supervisor, and I would be appointed as Teaching
Fellow on both courses. I found that Doctoral Progamme and the Teaching
Fellowships to be enormously rewarding in many ways.
Though Tom Schelling was among those who contributed most to
developing strategic studies as an academic discipline, he was no dry
theoretician. Every principle that he introduced was backed by multiple
examples that everyone could understand and appreciate.
These were culled from ancient history, current events, films, short
stories, news items and everyday experiences. Core course themes such as
the Prisoner's Dilemma, and many readings remained unchanged, but he
kept his mind, eyes and ears open, and brought in new readings and fresh
examples every semester.
The examples may relate to international relations (e.g. the Cold
War, negotiating an end to the Vietnam War, etc.), military strategy
(e.g. an army commander cutting off all retreat options of his own
troops), social and environmental issues (e.g. global warming, resource
conservation at all levels, etc.), interpersonal relations (between
colleagues, within the family, between business rivals, etc.),
interaction between different species ranging from large mammal to
bacteria (based on competition, mutual dependence, etc.) or struggles
against various addictions.
He made it clear that the course was about strategies, not values.
To those who would protest that the principles and strategies are
abstractions divorced from reality, he would respond that if we are
alert, we would discover that all of us, every day, encounter many
incidents that illustrate several of these principles and strategies.
All, even infants, resort to strategies, consciously or instinctively.
The course objective is to enhance awareness and efficiency.
Tom Schelling stands out in any company, even among Nobel Laureates.
But much of his most important work came out decades ago. It may be
asked why he was not awarded a Nobel Prize much earlier, say in the 70s
or 80s. Perhaps it was because he cannot be easily contained within any
of the recognized Nobel categories.
He began as an economist but has constantly strayed from that field
into many others. Few economists will recognize any of his books as
primarily within their discipline.
He even disclaims being 'a real Game Theorist' presumably as against
being 'an Applied Game Theorist'. But whatever ambiguities there may be
in defining his core discipline, many Nobel Prize winners will surely
find it flattering to count Tom Schelling as a fellow Laureate, even as
I consider myself privileged that he was my Professor and Supervisor
during my years at Harvard.