Tim Harford on Tom Schelling

Tim Harford profiles Tom Schelling. Schelling explains why “rational addiction” is a bad theory.

I missed it when it came out, but Tim Harford of the Financial Times has a lovely sketch of Tom Schelling at home. Harford &#8212 whose work I hadn’t previously encountered &#8212 seems to be an unusually deft and sensitive interviewer, with a subtle and nuanced grasp of the substance of Schelling’s work in areas from arms control to segregation to addiction to global warming.

A sample:

In 1988 two economists, Kevin Murphy and the Nobel laureate Gary Becker, published what became a significant theory of smoking in which they described a “rational consumer” of addictive products who knowingly hooks himself on cigarettes or heroin because he calculates the pleasure will outweigh the pain.

Schelling’s view of the addict was different. In his 1980 essay, “The Intimate Contest for Self Command”, he tried to understand the smoker “who in self-disgust grinds his cigarettes down the disposal swearing that this time he means never again to risk orphaning his children with lung cancer and is on the street three hours later looking for a store that’s still open to buy cigarettes”. For Schelling, the addict was neither perfectly rational nor irrational and helpless – he was a rational being at war with himself, who could deploy strategies to help him win that war.

Schelling thinks he had what Becker and Murphy lacked: personal experience. He quit smoking in 1955, but started up again in 1958 when he bought a cigar in a London restaurant (“thinking I was immune”) and spent the next 15 years trying to quit. It was many decades before Becker and Murphy formulated their hypothesis but Schelling says “I learned then that they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

I know some economists take the Becker-Murphy-Grossman model seriously, but I’ve never figured out why. It’s a lovely bit of applied math, but it fits the phenomena like a cheap suit. If you want to understand addiction, Schelling’s essays on self-command (e.g., the 1982 Tanner Lecture, reprinted in Choice and Consequence) are a much sounder place to start.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com