The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling passed away today. He was one of the greatest economists of the last half of the twentieth century. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times have articles that describe some of his most important contributions in detail. Economist and prominent blogger Tyler Cowen (who studied under Schelling at Harvard) has a post with many interesting links to his earlier writings about Schelling's work.
Much of Schelling's work focused on game theory and strategic signalling in the fields of defense and international relations. In particular, he showed that strategic actors can often benefit from "precommitment"—tying your own hands in advance. This was not a completely new idea. But Schelling developed it with far greater depth and sophistication than anyone before.
Schelling also made important contributions to the study of law and economics and urban planning, most notably in his book Micromotives and Macrobehavior. For example, one chapter in that work shows how highly segregated housing patterns can arise even if the vast majority of both blacks and whites prefer a substantial degree of integration. Schelling's pioneering work on the importance of "focal points" also has applications to a wide range of fields that go beyond those he originally applied it to.
In the coming days and weeks, I am sure we will see more detailed assessments of his many contributions. For now, I close by offering condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.