Tufts University

Thomas C. Schelling

Distinguished University Professor Emeritus, Department of Economics and School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland, and co-recipient of 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics

[ Biography | Honorary Degree ]

Commencement 2007

Thomas C. Schelling came of age during the Great Depression and was motivated to study economics because financial instability and unemployment were the nation's greatest dilemmas at the time. Since then, his groundbreaking work in game theory has been applied to other vital issues, including nuclear weapons control, climate change, organized crime, racial segregation, terrorism, foreign aid, and tobacco and drug policies.

In 2005, he was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics for "having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis." Game theory, has been used in fields as diverse as economics, political science, biology, sociology, computer science, applied mathematics, and philosophy, examines decision-making in cooperative and non-cooperative situations.

The son of a naval officer, Schelling received a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of California at Berkeley and a doctorate from Harvard University. In 1948, he joined the administration of the Marshall Plan, a U.S. foreign-aid program designed to help Western Europe recover from the economic devastation of World War II. He worked first in Copenhagen and then in Paris. After returning to the United States, he joined the foreign policy staff of the White House for a year and then spent two years in the Office of the Director for Mutual Security in the Executive Office of the President.

In 1953, he took a teaching position at Yale University. It was at Yale that the work recognized by the Nobel Committee began. He published two articles on bargaining, including one in the inaugural issue of The Journal of Conflict Resolution. "Interestingly, those two articles were completed before I had more than a smattering of acquaintance with formal game theory," he wrote in an autobiography prepared for the Nobel organization.

He left Yale in 1958 to join the RAND Corporation, one of the first nonprofit "think tanks." He returned to Harvard in 1959, remaining for the next 31 years. With a colleague from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Schelling established a Center for Arms Control in the summer of 1960. Several members of this group became advisors to the Kennedy administration, and Schelling was appointed chairman of committees concerned with nuclear weapons policy—including the committee that originated the idea for the "hotline" between the White House and the Kremlin. His government work ceased after he led a group of Harvard faculty to meet with President Nixon's national security advisor to declare their opposition to the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in 1970.

Over time, game theory became a significant part of Schelling's theoretical work on the issue of nuclear proliferation and deterrence. While at RAND, he formulated an idea that has become known as the "Schelling point," or "focal point," which argues that the only viable convention regarding the use of nuclear weapons would be no weapons, not some quantitative or qualitative limits.

Forty-five years later, this became the concept behind Schelling's Nobel Memorial Lecture, "An Astonishing Sixty Years: The Legacy of Hiroshima." He told the audience in Stockholm, "What nuclear weapons have been used for, effectively, successfully, for 60 years has not been on the battlefield nor on population targets. They have been used for influence." Schelling shared the Nobel Prize with Robert J. Aumann of the University of Jerusalem.

Schelling founded and led Harvard's Institute for the Study of Smoking Behavior and Policy and is the Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Political Economy Emeritus. In 1990, he joined the faculty at the University of Maryland, where he is a Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the Department of Economics and School of Public Affairs.

Schelling's work has been wide ranging and includes research in substance abuse and addictive behavior and racial segregation and integration, among other topics. In 1980, the National Academy of Sciences asked Schelling to investigate a subject unfamiliar to him—an issue then known as the "carbon dioxide problem." In one of the first U.S. government reports on the issue, he wrote a chapter on policy and welfare implications of climate change.

"…mobilizing to do something about prospective global warming and climate change is what I expect to be, during this century, what nuclear arms control was during the century just past, namely an immense challenge to ‘cooperation amid conflict,' " he wrote in his Nobel autobiography. Shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, Schelling was asked to join the Committee on Science and Technology to Counter Terrorism, an endeavor of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. The author of nine books and numerous articles, Schelling has become an inspiration for students of economics, political science, and sociology. His latest book is Strategies of Commitment and Other Essays (Harvard University Press, 2006). He is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association, Schelling served as that organization's president in 1991. He will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

This story originally ran on May 20, 2007.