In Memoriam: Thomas C. Schelling

Photo credit: Rhoda Baer

On Tuesday I spoke at the University of Maryland memorial service for my teacher and friend Tom Schelling, who died last year at the age of 95. The photo above was on the dais. I didn’t speak from a text, but this is something like what I said:


                                              “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life.”


Wittgenstein’s maxim holds true even of a life as long and productive and brilliant as Tom Schelling’s.

The idea that filled Tom’s life was interactive choice: the obvious but subtle observation that, whatever it is you’re deciding about, other people are also making decisions, and that their choices will influence the consequences of any choice you make, just as your choices influence their outcomes.

Tom applied that small but infinitely expandable thought to large problems and to small ones: to the explicitly strategic interaction among nuclear-armed powers that might have ended in “mankind’s final war,” but which, thanks in no small part to Tom Schelling’s thought and work, led instead to mutual restraint; to the apparently disconnected choices of mutually anonymous individuals that lead to traffic jams and riots and segregated neighborhoods and global warming; and even to the tension within the individual personality, between short-term impulse and long-term goals, that produces both bad habits such as drug addiction and efforts to overcome those habits.

That thought did not fill Tom’s life all by itself; it was combined with the intention to make clear thinking improve public and private decisions, in the service of a better and safer world.

That thought and that purpose together have filled lives other than Tom’s. I, for example, was a college student on my way to law school when I read a paper called “On the Ecology of Micromotives,” which explained how residential segregation could emerge as the result of interactive choices among families who would all prefer integration, simply because none of them wanted to be part of a small minority.  More generally, it pointed to the importance of positive-feedback phenomena, and especially of the “tipping points” where a small and temporary intervention can make a large and lasting impact.  I went to my instructor and said, “I have to learn how to do this.” He replied, “Well, Schelling teaches at the Kennedy School.” I said, “The where?” and haven’t looked back since.  Everything I’ve done and written since is the result of that experience, including my attempts to produce what I think of, in optimistic moments, as Tom Schelling’s book on drugs and Tom Schelling’s book on crime.

As superb a writer as he was, Tom was an even more inspired teacher. I can’t put my finger on the technique, but everybody came out of a class with Tom Schelling feeling a little bit smarter than he was on the way in.

Most of all, though, there was the smile, as though he’d just seen the point of a really excellent joke and hoped that, before long, you’d see it, too.

We will miss him. “We shall not look upon his like again.”

But Tom was like the Cheshire Cat. Even though he’s gone, the smile stays with us.

Photo credit: Rhoda Baer.