Making sense of deadly games


Forget about game theory and focal points and all the other intellectual achievements that got the University of Maryland's Thomas C. Schelling the Nobel Prize in economics last week. For many, the fact that he played a key role in nurturing the movie Dr. Strangelove would be enough to qualify him for that honor.

Many see this searing send-up of nuclear gamesmanship as one of the best films ever made. Released in 1964, it illustrated the types of Cold War bargaining strategies that led to Schelling's Nobel, making clear the absurdity of ever using nuclear weapons, reinforcing a taboo that was becoming the norm in Washington.

Schelling, then at Harvard, got involved in 1960. That was the year he wrote The Strategy of Conflict, considered a seminal document of Cold War negotiations.

He also wrote an article on the possibility of a nuclear war starting by accident, which included a review of three books that postulated such an occurrence - On the Beach by Nevil Shute, Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank and Red Alert by Peter George.

Schelling was particularly impressed by Red Alert, recalling that he sent out over more than 30 copies of the 35-cent paperback to friends.

His article, titled "Meteors, Mischief and War," appeared in the September 1960 issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In it, Schelling lauds Red Alert for presenting a plausible scenario for an accidental war that "exceeds in thoughtfulness any nonfiction available on how war might start."

Director Stanley Kubrick, working on a movie in England, saw the review when it was reprinted in a London Sunday newspaper, The Observer. He contacted George, asking him to write a screenplay based on his book.

Kubrick and George got in touch with Schelling. Along with fellow nuclear theorists Morton Halperin and William Kaufman, they sat around for an afternoon and evening dealing with a quandary - Red Alert had been written in 1958, before intercontinental ballistic missiles became the primary delivery system for nuclear weapons, which changed the plausibility of its scenario based on bombers.

"We had a hell of a time getting that damn war started," Schelling says. "We finally decided that it couldn't happen unless there was somebody crazy in the Air Force. That's when Kubrick and Peter George decided they would have to do it as what they called a nightmare comedy."

Schelling had been hoping for a serious movie. "The book was a very serious study; there was nothing funny in it at all," he says. But, like generations of moviegoers, he was not disappointed in the result that came out in 1964.

"I was a little sorry they couldn't do it without making it a black comedy, but I think it got the point across," he says.

The point was one that Schelling had made in The Strategy of Conflict - that by limiting your options you can actually improve your bargaining position. Imagine two drivers headed toward one another in a game of chicken. If one driver takes his steering wheel off and holds it out the window, showing the other driver, he has limited his options. But he has increased the possibility that the other driver will turn away.

That was what the Soviets had done in Dr. Strangelove with a doomsday machine that would destroy the Earth in the event of a nuclear attack. The problem was that they had never announced it publicly - they had not held the steering wheel out the window.

Schelling, 84, graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1944 and received his Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University in 1951. He worked in the office of the budget during World War II, and after the war went to Europe to work on the Marshall Plan. From 1951 to 1953, he was an adviser in the Truman White House.

He then joined the faculty at Yale, spent a year at the Rand Corp., and returned to Harvard in 1959, staying there until 1990, when he came to the University of Maryland, College Park, where he is now distinguished university professor emeritus in the department of economics and School of Public Affairs.

The day after learning that he had shared the Nobel Prize for economics with Israeli Robert J. Aumann, Schelling was interviewed by The Sun about his long career.

You received the Nobel for economics, yet you have spent most of your life dealing with questions such as nuclear war and drug abuse and residential segregation that seem outside the bounds of that field. Do you consider yourself an economist?

I used to say that I could still pass the Ph.D. examinations in economics. I think I'm a pretty good economist, but I got into so many other things so many years ago. So, I still consider myself a card-carrying economist, but I recognize most of what I work on is considered outside the field.

Economic reasoning will carry you a long way, so training as an economist is good training for working on a large variety of social issues. And one of the good things about getting tenure at a university is you don't have to do what they tell you to, you can work on what you want to.

Why is economic training so useful?

Economic reasoning is usually based on the idea that people are rational, that they know what opportunities they have and what their own values are, and that they will make reasonable choices among alternatives. I find that extraordinarily helpful. I spend a good deal of time thinking about situations that probably don't fit that model - how people behave if subjected to addictive temptations, when they are under panic, subject to drowsiness or procrastination, things of that sort. So I am interested in where the rational-decision hypothesis doesn't seem to work, but nevertheless the basic idea is a very powerful part of analysis.

How did you get interested in the issues surrounding nuclear weapons?

So much of the five years I spent in the government between 1948 and 1953 was spent on international negotiations that it made bargaining theory my main theoretical interest. The most important bargaining of those days were the nuclear weapons situations between the United States and the Soviet Union. So I began to work on nuclear weapons policy. I had the advantage of spending a year at the Rand Corporation in 1958, where I learned a lot of the fashionable stuff about nuclear weapons.

Obviously, and you have talked about this, a taboo built up against using nuclear weapons after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How did that happen? Was it inevitable because of the nature of these weapons?

No, it wasn't. The main advocate of the notion that nuclear weapons should be treated as just another weapon was John Foster Dulles, secretary of state under Eisenhower. Eisenhower also always spoke that way, though I am not sure he was convinced of it. Eisenhower thought that, in order to deter the Soviets from invading Western Europe, he had to be blase about nuclear weapons. But Dulles really believed passionately that the so-called taboo had to be disposed of. Eisenhower would talk about using these things precisely on purely military targets, though not as passionately.

It was really Kennedy and his defense secretary, McNamara, who started acting as if nuclear weapons were a really dangerous thing. That continued with Lyndon Johnson. I have memorized a quote from 1964 when Johnson was asked about using nuclear weapons - "Make no mistake. There is no such thing as a conventional nuclear weapon. For 19 peril-filled years, no nation has loosed the atom against another. To do so now is a political decision of the highest order." That suggests the taboo influenced Kennedy and McNamara and Johnson, and I think it influenced Nixon as well, even though he is credited with at least pretending to threaten the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

I think the taboo really showed up in 1973 in the Yom Kippur War, when the Egyptians had two armies across the Suez Canal in the middle of the Sinai with no civilians within 50 or 60 miles. It was the perfect target for a nuclear strike, but Golda Meir apparently never considered it. Most amazingly, the Soviets waged an ugly, bitter and demoralizing war in Afghanistan in the 1980s and never used nuclear weapons and as far as I know, never considered it. ...

I think the taboo is something to be treasured and sustained. That's why I don't like this current administration's drum-beating about nuclear weapons. ... We must be quite sure that the Iranians and North Koreas appreciate the taboo, so we should do anything we can to increase that appreciation.

How does this taboo fit into the game theory strategies around nuclear war?

I don't know that it does, except I did a lot of work on what came to be called focal points. The nuclear taboo is a kind of focal point - everybody expects everyone else to share it. If everybody does, it becomes a compellingly attractive notion. So everybody feels that the one to break the taboo may incur an extraordinary opprobrium.

I once wrote an article about the fact that with nuclear weapons, zero use is an interesting focal point. If there is going to be any amount of use, it is hard to define what kind of use is appropriate. Small weapons on military targets? How do you define military targets? How do you define a small weapon? So it is hard to know where to draw the line. Zero is an easy place to draw the line.

The focal point concept is one of the things that put you on the map in game theory, which many people know from the movie A Beautiful Mind, about another Nobel laureate, John Nash. But haven't you said that you are not a game theorist?

A lot of people think the focal point idea is a game-theoretical idea, but when I did that work I did not know any game theory. I only realized later that it was formulated in game-theoretical terms. But I didn't need game theory to arrive at that idea. A game theorist could look at it and say that's game theory, but it's not really, it's just that you could fit it into game theory.

The article I think I am most famous for is a 1966 essay on bargaining that is considered by a lot of people as one of the founding ideas of the practical application of game theory. But I didn't know any game theory, just enough to make reference to it.

When people ask me what game theory is, my answer is that it is an attempt to formalize any kind of study of strategic behavior where people are trying to affect or anticipate the behavior of others. So all kinds of people are game theorists. Organized labor of the 1930s. The underworld is full of extortionists who are good at it. Most of what I did with very few exceptions can be understood without having any idea what game theory is.

Do you think one reason that people who worked on nuclear strategy were subject to such bitter satire, like that of the title character of Dr. Strangelove, is because of the name given to their work - game theory? Didn't that make it sound as if people were playing games about things were horrendously serious?

There are two funny words in that name. One is game. That is there because the economist John von Neumann realized that in chess, checkers, bridge, those table-top, two-sided, zero-sum games in which one person loses and the other wins, it is important to anticipate the moves of the other person in the game. That's why it's called game theory. It was then applied it to economic situations, though the word game is slightly frivolous.

The other word is theory. In most fields, you have the theoreticians who are operating out on the theoretical frontier, while the rest are working where real people operate. But in game theory, there is no distinction between the theorists and those doing applied work. You could call it the field strategy in bargaining and negotiation or conflict theory. When I was at Harvard, some wanted a field called interdependent decision-making, where two or more parties have to make a decision but they can't do that independently.

But there is no accepted name for the field except game theory. So if you were trying to study something like nuclear war - if we do this, then what will the Soviets do next? - colloquially it became known as gaming the subject. To people on the outside, it sounds as if it was frivolous, that it was fun to play going to war, all because of the name game theory. For a long time, that had a deleterious effect on the reputations of people who explored sequential moves in scenarios and referred to that as gaming the subject.

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