A cooler head
Thomas Schelling, economist and nuclear strategist, died on December 13th, aged 95
WITHIN half an hour of waking up on October 10th 2005, Thomas Schelling received four phone calls. The first was from the secretary of the Nobel Committee, with news that he and Robert Aumann had jointly won that year’s prize for economics. During the fourth call, when asked how winning felt, he answered: “Well, it feels busy.” He was nothing if not truthful. He also confessed to feeling confused about which bit of his work had won the prize.
2005年10月10日，托马斯·谢林(Thomas Schelling)在醒来后的半小时内接了四个电话。第一个是诺贝尔奖委员会的秘书打来的，告知他和罗伯特·奥曼(Robert Aumann)共同获得了该年的诺贝尔经济学奖。到了第四个电话，当被问到获奖有何感受时，谢林答道：“哦，觉得挺忙的”。他再坦率不过了。他还坦言觉得纳闷，不知道自己因为哪部分成果拿了这个奖。
It might have been his work on addiction—flicked off like ash from his own struggles with smoking. Economists must understand, he wrote, the man who swears “never again to risk orphaning his children with lung cancer”, yet is scouring the streets three hours later for an open shop selling cigarettes. Mr Schelling’s work laid (largely unacknowledged) foundations for future behavioural economists. In his thinking, addicts have two selves, one keen for healthy lungs and another craving a smoke. Self-control strategies involve drawing battle lines between them.
The prize could also have been for his work on segregation, showing how mild individual preferences could lead to extreme group outcomes. Even if people do not mind living in a mixed community but have just a slight inclination to live near others like themselves, that could lead to deep racial segregation.
By the time Mr Schelling arrived in Sweden in December 2005, he had worked out what the prize was for. His acceptance speech observed that “the most spectacular event of the past half century is one that did not occur. We have enjoyed 60 years without nuclear weapons exploded in anger…what a stunning achievement—or, if not achievement, what stunning good fortune!” If achievement was the word, the credit was partly his.
Like so many of his generation, Mr Schelling was drawn to economics by the horrors of the Depression in the 1930s. By the time he had finished his PhD in 1948, the agenda had changed. With the wounds of the second world war still fresh, the priority was to prevent a third. He dipped into government, gaining first-hand experience of negotiations, such as those that established NATO. Then in the 1950s he began publishing academic work on bargaining, using his crystal-clear prose to formalise concepts that gifted negotiators knew instinctively, and shunning what Richard Zeckhauser, a colleague, called the “Journal of Advanced Economic Gobbledygook”.
The conflicts Mr Schelling considered transcended the case of two parties scrapping for a bigger slice of a fixed pie. The richness of his subject lay in the truth that “in international affairs, there is mutual dependence as well as opposition.” As neither America nor the Soviet Union wanted to be engulfed in a nuclear mushroom cloud, there was scope for military strategy involving wit, not weaponry. In 1960 he set out his ideas in a book, “The Strategy of Conflict”, which showed how the advantages of co-operation could overcome antagonism, even without a formal bargain.
谢林所考虑的冲突超越了“从固定大小的馅饼中抢夺更大块”的情形。他立论的丰富是基于这样一个事实：“在国际事务中，既有相互依赖，也有对立。”无论是美国还是前苏联都不想被核爆炸蘑菇云吞没，那么就有了空间来施展依赖智慧而非武器的军事策略。1960年他在《冲突的战略》(The Strategy of Conflict)一书中阐述了自己的观点，证明合作的好处如何能够消减对立，甚至不需要一场正式的谈判。
“Any time somebody talks about deterrence, they’re influenced by Schelling,” says Lawrence Freedman, author of “Strategy: A History”. This deterrence could take several forms. Counter-intuitively, limiting your options can strengthen your hand, by convincing the enemy of your seriousness. Applied to nuclear strategy, Mr Schelling saw that it was important to persuade the opposition that in the event of a nuclear attack, there would be a counter-strike. Weapons that would retaliate automatically if the country was attacked could deter nuclear aggression in the first place, so defending such weapons was the best way of defending civilian lives. The important thing was to avoid a situation in which one side attacked so as to offset the other’s perceived first-mover advantage.
“任何时候若有人谈到威慑，就一定受到了谢林的影响。”《战略的历史》(Strategy: A History)的作者劳伦斯·弗里德曼(Lawrence Freedman)说道。这种威慑可能有多种表现形式。与我们的直觉恰恰相反的是，限制你的选择能够增强你的威慑力，因为这让敌人确信你是认真的。运用到核战略上，谢林认为重要的是要让对方相信，自己在遭到核攻击时会发起反击。当国家受到袭击时会自动实施报复的武器能在一开始就阻遏核侵略，因此支持使用这类武器是保卫国民生命的最佳方式。重要的是避免一种情况，即一方为了抵消它认为对方所具有的先发优势而袭击对方。
Mr Schelling also promoted the importance of reputation as a useful deterrent. Richard Nixon understood this with what he called his “madman theory”: the idea of making the North Vietnamese enemy believe he was capable of anything, including pressing the nuclear button. But consistent behaviour can have as deterrent an effect as erratic unpredictability: if your adversaries believe that you will keep your word, then your word can shape their actions. The danger of this approach, however, is that it could lead to perseverance with a stupid strategy, just to save face.
United we stand
Mr Schelling was often referred to as a game theorist, despite not calling himself one. His methods marked him apart. Mathematical minds had proven elegantly that Mr Schelling’s games would always have solutions. There would always be at least one set of strategies where each side was playing its best possible response to the other. When whittling down the number of options, however, the mathematical approach was to chuck more assumptions and equations at the problem. Mr Schelling, in contrast, thought that just as one could not deduce logically whether any given joke will make people laugh, so it was ludicrous to deduce what people might think in a nuclear war from logic alone.
Mr Schelling looked to the real world for help, and argued that shared norms were the answer. When he asked his students to pick a meeting place in New York, unco-ordinated, most would settle on the clock at Grand Central station. In his prize lecture, Mr Schelling used this idea to help explain why nuclear weapons had not been used on the battlefield for so long: their use was a taboo, so the world could settle on a focal point.
On that busy morning of October 10th, when pressed by the third journalist of the morning, Mr Schelling refrained from advising young people. “I wouldn’t necessarily try to talk somebody into…becoming an economist.” Instead of being confined by any academic discipline, he led by example, tackling some of the world’s most worrying—and most intractable—problems.