The Models of Thomas Schelling

Thomas SchellingThe great economist Thomas Schelling is 93 today. At least I guess he’s an economist. He is definitely a mathematical modeler. But a lot of stuff he has done strikes me as more like political science. And he is definitely of the realpolitik tradition. I’m not at all convinced that his models necessarily relate to reality as much as many people seem to think. This is because all my scientific work was mathematical modeling. And as much as this work can be really helpful, it’s important to remember that they are just models. Usually scientists don’t forget this, but the people who follow them often do.

Schelling has been of some note recently because of his opinions about global warming. He has determined that mitigation would be most costly to the advanced economies and most beneficial to the developing economies. This is rather typical economic nonsense. And it is also entirely typical of his Machiavellian outlook on international relations. I think it is in our interest to do something because we have a lot to lose and we don’t know what global warming will bring. But one thing that is almost certain to happen is that the major farm areas of the United States will literally dry up. And if we don’t intend to invade Canada, we really need to do something about it.

I am especially interested in Schelling’s work on segregation. He created a model that I find quite compelling. It shows that small individual preferences for neighbors of the same race will lead to macro-scale segregation. It also happens to go right along with my experiences of humanity. Most people are somewhat ethnocentric and this leads to really big racial problems. It is one of many things that make me despair of humans ever advancing much past the culture of ancient Sumer, given that we haven’t managed to do it over the past 5,000 years. Although it is cool that we are better able to model it.

Happy birthday Thomas Schelling!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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