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Thomas Schelling: In memory of my mentor and dear friend

The late Thomas Schelling’s 1960 classic, The Strategy of Conflict, opened up new vistas in the then emergent field of game theory. This personal tribute by a longstanding friend and colleague describes how Schelling’s creative and playful mind, his incredible breadth of interests, and his unparalleled mastery of strategic analysis opened up a new world of intellectual possibilities.

The great economist Tom Schelling – winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, past president of the American Economic Association, author of (among many other works) the prodigious and seminal tome, The Strategy of Conflict, which was first published in 1960, and which opened up new vistas in the then emergent field of game theory – died in late 2016 at the age of 95.

There is much to say about Tom's intellectual contributions to the fields of economics and public policy. First and foremost, however, I have a more personal reaction. I simply want to declare that Thomas C. Schelling was like a surrogate father to me. I loved the man, and sought to emulate the example he set – both as an economist and as a human being.

We were colleagues together at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard from 1982 until 1990. In those years I was a young economist, confused about how to reconcile my interests in pure theory with my commitments to racial equality and social justice. Tom took me by the hand, and persuaded me that, indeed, there was no contradiction between these whatsoever. During this time, he taught me much about being a scholar and even more about being a man.

I will always remember the excitement and the joy of working closely with him at the Kennedy School in the 1980s. And, I shall never be able to repay his kindness during what, due to certain personal challenges that I faced in the late 1980s, proved to be some of the darkest days of my life. It pains me greatly to know that he is no longer with us. I can only pray now, at this geographic remove, that Alice and his surviving children will find the strength to carry-on at this difficult time. I wish that I could be there with them now, but they will be constantly in my thoughts.

The Tom Schelling whom I got to know in the 1980s at Harvard had incredibly broad interests; he was possessed of a playful mind; he was a master of strategic analysis; he had command of an elegant and incisive writing style; and he had a gift for imaginatively linking the insights of economic theory with the imperatives of public policy.

At his instigation, the two of us created and co-taught for several years a course called ‘Public Policy in Divided Societies’. There I encountered and read deeply for the first time such writers as Amartya Sen, Albert Hirschman, Erving Goffman, David Lewis, Leo Strauss, Kenneth Arrow, Robert K. Merton, Howard Raiffa, Mancur Olson, Michael Spence, Harold Isaacs, Jon Elster, Thomas Pettigrew, Michael Walzer, Gunnar Myrdal, Thomas Kuhn, Robert Jervis, and others (which is to say – even though I already had a PhD in economics from MIT – I nevertheless got a real education!)

And so did our students. With Tom's encouragement and inspiration, they wrote papers investigating such topics as the Roma in Europe, the indigenous in Central America, untouchabililty in India, slave maroon communities in the Caribbean, skin colour caste in the 19th century cities of New Orleans and Charleston, the sign language versus lip-reading debates among the deaf, the affectation of name and accent changes to disguise ethnic/regional origins, collective punishment, group-based feelings of pride and shame: the public goods problems associated with collective reputation, racial profiling, stigma, explanations for the sexual divisions of labour at home and in the workplace, the inequality-promoting implications of endogamy and assortative mating, and much more.

In these conversations with Tom Schelling some 30 years ago – originating with the course, but expanding into a broader exchange (since my Kennedy School office was just next door to his, allowing intimate communication between us to become the norm) – we discussed many conceptual puzzles.

He helped me to understand how a broad-minded economist might theorise rigorously about the workings of such real-world phenomena as rumours, seduction, riots, ‘passing for white’, plausible deniability, signalling, the political value of strategic imprecision, the dangers of group think, code words and dog-whistle politics, discursive taboos, naked emperors, one's knowledge of another’s state of knowledge, the problem of image-management and strategic behaviour in public, some subtle differences between promises, threats and bluffs, and so much more.

In short, I incurred an enormous intellectual debt to Tom in those years, one which I shall never be able adequately to discharge.

Tom Schelling – a white man – forever altered this black man's way of thinking about the intersection between economic theory, social policy and race – in the United States and throughout the world. I am the scholar that I am today, in large part, because of what I gleaned from these interactions three decades ago with Tom Schelling. I came to love him dearly and to rely on his sage advice.

And I am now left to wonder what I will do without it.


Loury, G (2002), The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, Harvard University Press.

Schelling, T (1960), The Strategy Of Conflict, Harvard University Press.

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