Tom Schelling’s monument

This Monday the friends, colleagues, family, students, and disciples of Thomas C. Schelling gathered at the Kennedy School to honor his memory. The speakers included his eldest son (Andrew Schelling), the current dean of the school (Doug Elmendorf) two former deans (Graham Allison and David Ellwood), and an academic all-star cast including Mort Halperin, Richard Zeckhauser, and Glenn Loury. Somehow I was also asked to speak.

I didn’t speak from a text, but what follows is a version of what I said, “revised and extended,” just like the Congressional Record.



The dome of St. Paul’s cathedral marks the center of the City of London – a cathedral, and a city, both rebuilt after the Great Fire thanks largely to the energy and genius of Christopher Wren. On the floor directly below the dome appears Wren’s obituary, which concludes: “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice” – “If you’re looking for his monument, look around you.”

Here in the Forum of the Kennedy School, one can say the same thing of Thomas C. Schelling: his monument is all around you. Not the buildings, but the school itself as an institution, the idea it embodies, and all of us and all the others who came together around that idea are Schelling’s monument. The city of Cambridge, among many other cities, also forms part of that monument, since without Schelling’s wisdom about how to avoid nuclear war it might well be a heap of rubble glowing in the dark.

As to the more local monument: Schelling did not re-form the Littauer School of Public Administration into the Kennedy School of Government all by himself. A whole catalogue of giants in that founding generation – Richard Neustadt, Francis Bator, Howard Raiffa, Fred Mosteller, Phil Heymann, and Edith Stokey – helped to start the work. The second and third generations, home-grown or recruited, who carried on the project here and elsewhere, included – in addition to those who have spoken here today – Mark Moore, Mike Spence, Mike O’Hare, Al Carnesale, Ronnie Heifetz, Bob Leone, Michael Nacht, Bill Hogan, Bill Clark, Dutch Leonard, and Ash Carter.

But though Schelling did not act alone, the power of his mind and the force of his personality were indispensable in convoking this community.  To cite my own example among many: as a college senior, I was interrupted on my way to law school by reading “On the Ecology of Micromotives,” which introduced the “tipping” idea with its famous checkerboard model of how residential segregation could emerge, almost inevitably, in a population where everyone prefers integration but no one wants to be part of a small local minority. I went to Holland Hunter, the chair of the Haverford economics department and my mentor, and said “I have to learn how to do that.” Ho chuckled and said, “Well, Schelling teaches at the Kennedy School.” I said, “The where?”  And I’ve never looked back.

Among the giants of his generation, Schelling was foremost in creating the idea of public policy analysis as a discipline of thought, distinct both from public administration and from the social sciences: a pragmatic discipline focused on the question “What course of action, in these circumstances, would best serve the public interest?”

Of course, Schelling wasn’t only a policy analyst: he was a social scientist of towering stature, the sort of person whose Nobel Prize led people to say not “Really?” but “About time!” Others today have mentioned his contribution to the understanding of strategic interaction, and the role his concepts of imperfect self-command and strategic self-management played in starting what became “behavioral economics.” But the Schelling idea that hit me hardest was the tipping model, and the more general principle of paying attention to the importance of positive feedbacks in the choice of problems to work on.

Reading Schelling on micromotives teaches you to avoid the Sisyphean problems – where, once you’ve pushed the stone up the hill, the power of negative feedback will roll that stone right back down over you on the way to its equilibrium – and to choose instead the exciting positive-feedback situations where a nudge might get the stone over the crest and moving of its own accord down to a much better place on the other slope, or the dangerous positive-feedback situations where a little effort in the right place and at the right moment might keep the stone from rolling irretrievably over the brink. All of my work on focused deterrence in law enforcement is the application of that bit of insight; the book that resulted forms part of Tom’s monument.

In the economics course Tom and Francis taught us as first-year MPP students, we learned many important things explicitly: for example, that an obviously pro-consumer ban on surcharges for using credit cards and an obviously anti-consumer ban on discounts for cash are, in fact and in truth, identical policies. That pointed to the general rule: Ignore the label on a policy, and ask instead about its results.

But Tom taught us even more vital things by his example:

  • to use models without being used by them;
  • to see the humor in serious situations, and look for the apparent paradox that might make sense of a situation and point toward a solution;
  • to be prepared, and willing, to be surprised by the way the analysis comes out, or by the way the real-world situation stubbornly refuses to behave as the analysis says it ought to behave; and
  • to embody clear thought in clear speech and clear writing.

Though he never would have put it in these terms, Tom taught us policy analysis not merely as a discipline in the academic sense but as a yoga, an intellectual and moral self-discipline requiring difficult feats of non-attachment: to self-interest, to group interest, to factional loyalty, to received opinion, to one’s own policy prejudices, and – most of all – to the need to have been right in one’s earlier views. No force in the world – not greed, not envy, not party spirit, not even cruelty – does as much damage as the inability to say, without too much discomfort, “I was completely wrong about that; good thing I’m smarter now.”

By his example, Tom also taught us to pursue questions not for their abstract interest but for their practical significance. He was disappointed when I chose to write my dissertation on cannabis policy – where I was convinced I could see the right answer – rather than on cocaine policy, where the stakes were much higher but the right set of policies seemed much harder to find.

That principle led him to choose smoking as the new focus of his attention once his insights about preventing nuclear war had largely been incorporated into the thinking of decision-makers. Tobacco wasn’t a “Schellingesque” problem, ready to fall apart at the touch of a brilliant insight. There is no analogy in tobacco policy to second-strike capacity or focal points or the threat that leaves something to chance. No, Tom chose tobacco simply because it was and is the leading preventable cause of death in the developed world, and a growing problem in the developing world, with tens of millions of lives at stake, and he was convinced that thinking hard about it would help point policy in the right direction.

The same was true of global warming. As Tom freely acknowledged, economic and strategic analysis were only two among the two dozen disciplines needed to address that question. He picked it up not because he saw the answer but because the problem was interesting and hard, and because the consequences of getting it wrong – either ruinously over-investing in fending off what might be a phantom threat, or under-investing and failing to control warming before it becomes self-sustaining, or combining the two errors by adopting expensive but ineffective control policies – might be so disastrous.

In both of those cases, he demonstrated his willingness to follow the analysis where it led, even if it led him away from his old allies. With respect to tobacco, he followed Nietzsche’s advice to “depart from one’s cause when it triumphs.” Having labored mightily to put the health harms of smoking front and center in policy discourse and to break the political power of the tobacco industry, and having helped demonstrate the futility of low-tar-and-nicotine cigarettes as harm-reduction measures, Tom later formed part of a distinct minority willing to speak out against what had become a rigid tobacco-control orthodoxy on behalf of the less dangerous non-combustion forms of nicotine administration, including “vaping.”

On global warming, he started out in the camp of the skeptics: not skeptical about the human contribution to climate change, but somewhat skeptical about what seemed alarmist views of how bad things might get and deeply skeptical both about the capacity of initiatives such as the Kyoto Protocol to control the problem and about the feasibility, constrained by international politics, of mounting the massive coordinated effort that might be required to keep greenhouse-gas levels below what some climate scientists regarded as intolerably dangerous levels.  He hoped that geoengineering approaches and measures to adapt to whatever climate change did occur might reduce the magnitude of the required economic adjustments.

But as the temperature data continued to come in, and as sailboats began to ply the Northwest Passage through waters once utterly ice-locked, Tom parted company with the “Copenhagen Consensus” group and started to call for more vigorous action, on the theory that changes in relative prices – especially if phased in – were likely to be easier adjust to than rising sea levels and shifting and rainfall patterns.

From the outside, it was hard to see the influence Tom Schelling wielded over those of us who followed him, without ever handing out orders. Once, in a conversation with Mark Moore about something Mark wanted me to do or not to do, contrary to my inclination – I can no longer remember the original topic, about which Mark was probably right – I defended my intentions by saying, “Mark, you don’t understand; I always wanted to be Tom Schelling when I grew up.” He replied, “What you don’t understand is that everyone in this building wants to grow up to be Tom Schelling.”

Well, Tom is no longer with us, and neither is that unforgettable smile. So it’s time for the rest of us to grow up and get back to building the monument.


Here’s an earlier tribute to Schelling, from the memorial service at the University of Maryland.

And here are some of his thoughts on climate change and what to do about it.


Schelling’s most famous book, and the one most likely to be read 500 years from now, is The Strategy of Conflict.  Micromotives and Macrobehavior is a  similarly stunning achievement, centering around “tipping” phenomena. The best introduction to Schelling’s thought for the non-specialist is probably the collection of essays called Choice and Consequence; the two essays on “self-command” reflect his role in founding behavioral economics.




National Grid and the end of British coal

The British grid operator flags its first day without coal.

Somebody in the National Grid control room in the UK has a sense of history.

NG is greatly understating the length of the British coal story. The 1880s were when electrical power stations began. But the switch to coal in England was already under way in 1600, as the trees ran out and wood prices soared. The first Industrial Revolution in the 18th century depended on coal. The steam engine was invented to pump water out of mines. Since coal is no longer burnt for anything else than electricity, the day marks the end of the four-century coal era in the first modern industrial country.

National Grid are noticeably not moaning about their loss of “baseload” coal plants, unlike Rick Perry. In her successful 1989 electricity privatisation, Margaret Thatcher split transmission, a technical monopoly, from generation, which can and should be competitive. National Grid started out in the public sector; it was later privatised, but remains tightly regulated with a public-interest mandate and no generating assets. (In the US the company operates as a conventional mixed utility). The model, as good ideas tend to do, has spread to Texas, Australia, China, India, Denmark, and Germany, and no doubt others. These grid operators are uniformly phlegmatic about the energy transition. They publish reports  about how to integrate 20%, 40%, 100% renewable electricity in their grids, how to fix the problems, and how much it will cost. They never SFIK say: stop this, we can’t cope, a secure supply requires baseload coal or nuclear plants. You only hear this biased testimony from the old-fashioned silo monopolies in parts of the USA and in Japan.

Another telling detail is the little gaps in the chart. The few surviving British coal generators have not been running at night. This is orthodox Econ 101: the grid control room has a merit order list of generators, and will call on the cheapest first. Renewables have zero marginal cost, and therefore go first when demand is low in the small hours. Orthodoxy is terrible for the owners of coal plants, which were designed and financed on the assumption that they will run as “baseload”, that is almost all the time, with spikes in demand met by more expensive gas generators. This effect  is cutting into the returns from coal plants, in Germany, Texas, Colorado, and India, even faster than the slide in the comparative LCOE of new build.

Climate 2016: the curate’s Easter egg

Chances of cutting carbon emissions to stay within 2 degrees warming are good, but not 1.5 degrees.

How are we doing? American readers in particular could use a little perspective. Trump is not the USA, the USA is not the world. So: good in parts. I will leave out the record temperatures, droughts, floods here and there, and melting Arctic ice. You know all that and it’s bad, bad. But we are maybe not doomed – yet.

1. To start with the good news. Global industrial carbon emissions are about flat. The IEA says they are exactly flat at 32.1 gigatonnes of CO2 a year.

That’s 8.5 GT of carbon. I propose to use carbon rather than CO2 (1 unit carbon = 3.67 units CO2, by the molecular formula). Nobody can imagine a tonne of a gas. A tonne of carbon corresponds to about 1.3 tonnes of typical US hard coal, 1.2 tonnes of crude oil (with some variation).

The Tyndall Centre and the Global Carbon Project estimate global emissions including the hard-to-measure land-use changes and methane leaks. They find a slight rise: +0.7% in 2014, approximately constant in 2015, and up again by 0.2% in 2016 (provisional data excluding Q4). See here and Le Quéré et al here.  Global GDP growth was about 3%. We have decoupled GDP growth from industrial carbon emissions. There is still a little growth from land-use changes like deforestation.

2. A plateau isn’t enough. Emissions have to go down. Carbon Brief  has estimated the world’s remaining carbon budget at 222 GT for a 66% chance of staying within the 2 degree C target; 56 GT for the more demanding and prudent 1.5 degree target. I set up a few scenarios to show what these imply. Continue reading “Climate 2016: the curate’s Easter egg”

A Nobel Prize for John Goodenough

It’s long past time.

Over the jump, an open letter to the Chemistry Committee of the Nobel Prizes urging them at long last to award the Nobel Prize to Professor John Goodenough, who invented the lithium-ion battery. If you agree, you can email a message of support to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences at Continue reading “A Nobel Prize for John Goodenough”

Gas-guzzlers cause dementia

Air pollution from traffic is associated with the risk of dementia.

We knew first that air pollution from tailpipe exhausts causes respiratory diseases like asthma. Then the epidemiologists added heart disease, and the mortality estimates went up. Then cancer, and they went up again. The latest addition is dementia. The death rates don’t go up, which is not for many of us a plus.

I have two sample studies for you. (H/T James Ayre at Cleantechnica, and a commenter there.) Continue reading “Gas-guzzlers cause dementia”

A merry Christmas 2016, or perhaps not

Thoreau was not the only Yankee to be shocked by the naked imperialism of the Mexican War. The Unitarian pastor and abolitionist Edmund Sears wrote the great hymn It came upon the midnight clear in December 1849. I won’t say it’s my favourite carol – Mary MacDonald gets my vote for her gem-like Celtic lullaby – because, being an inhibited Brit, I am embarrassed to shed tears in public.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world hath suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

As a Unitarian, Sears was unconvinced by the paradoxical orthodox view that the redemption has strangely already happened, in the birth, life and legacy of Jesus of Nazareth, and in spite of his failure, martyrdom, and systematic betrayals by his followers up to our own time. Sears places his hope, as much as any Orthodox rabbi, in a remote eschatological future:

For now the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

But what if we are looking for a more immediate hope today? Savagery continues in Iraq and Syria, the Arctic melts, and another Herod moves into the White House to prepare a larger rerun of the massacre of the innocents, to the complacent plaudits of conservative Pharisees?

I give you an unlikely gold-bearing Mage in the form of investment bankers Lazards. They have been surveying levelized US electricity generating costs for years, and have just published the 10th version. It’s a fat report, but this is the key chart. (Sorry for the poor resolution, go to the report link for a better image.)


The major takeaway is that in the USA the cheapest new coal generation is no cheaper than the most expensive wind and utility solar. (Footnote 1) Continue reading “A merry Christmas 2016, or perhaps not”

Onward and upward with ADUs

Almost two years ago, I was kvelling about a progressive land use policy improvement in Berkeley that loosened the parking and other screws on accessory dwelling units (ADUs, “mother-in-law units”, or “granny units”), a special kind of owner-occupied rental housing. The political wheels turn slowly, but now we have well-conceived ADU legislation statewide–HT to my Cal colleague Karen Chapple, who Debbie informs me lobbied effectively for it in Sacramento–that relaxes density, utility connection, and parking requirements. It won’t solve the housing crisis but it will help, in addition to providing a package of other good stuff (see the earlier post for details).

A chameleon in Paris

Guessing what the chameleon in the White House will do on climate change.

Will Trump denounce the Paris Agreement? He didn’t mention it in his 100-day programme, and is saying he has “an open mind” on AGW. So there is a little hope. How much?

Trump poses a unique problem for politicians, diplomats, pundits and bloggers trying to figure out his intentions. Continue reading “A chameleon in Paris”

Quote of the Day

This is not the republic of my imagination.

–Charles Dickens, letter to William Macready, from Baltimore (1842)

Independence Day

The Paris Agreement on climate change enters into force today.

The Paris Agreement on climate change enters into force today, with 97 parties representing 69% of global emissions. The other signatories are delaying ratification, but are not opposed.

Duh, you Americans say. We have a REALLY IMPORTANT election coming up! Donald Trump might become the leader of the most powerful country on the planet!

True, but. In a hundred years’ time, which do you think will be remembered? November 8th, the day the United States dodged a bullet and failed to elect an unstable racist conman to the Presidency? Sam Wang gives the chance at less than 1%. Trump has never led in the polls from the day he announced his candidacy. It matters a great deal to the United States whether the Democrats regain control of the Senate (merely a two-thirds chance), for if they don’t, Clinton’s presidency will be one long constitutional crisis.

No. It will be November 4th 2016, the day the world started to fight back against climate change and swore to abandon its addiction to fossil fuels.

Some uplifting media for you. Continue reading “Independence Day”