The Strategy of Conflict

I first met Tom Schelling when I was on my second job after grad school, toiling in the public policy fields of Washington, D.C. I was working at a leftish think tank, working on what would prove to be a futile effort at getting our government to adopt residential building energy efficiency standards similar to what we still have with those yellow appliance labels. One of our projects was trying to join together with business leaders on energy conservation and for this work we had contracted with Professor Schelling to lead some focus groups that brought the bunny-loving, tree-hugging, energy conservation crowd together with Big Oil, Big Banking, and Big just about everything else representing those captains of industry.

Even at that tender age, I could see that the Professor (no one really thinks of him any other way) had a lot to teach me. I went out and read his seminal work, “The Strategy of Conflict” cover to cover. I still have the book, and have gone back to it several times to refer to my favorite passages. Here is one puzzle that will delight you that I remember from the book, because I got the wrong answer.

You and a friend agree to meet in New York City on a given date in the future. But when the time comes, you both realize that you have forgotten to communicate a place and a time. Yet you end up meeting each other just fine. Remember this is in the day before cell phones, BlackBerries, and other modern communicating devices. Where and when do you meet?

I will give you the answer at the end of the column, but this is the sort of stuff that Schelling is famous for. He is one of these deep thinkers that understands not only human nature at its best, but also at its worst.

Still trying to figure out the puzzle? Remember, no communication between you and your friend is allowed. Okay, I will give you a hint. Schelling has taught countless students at Yale, Harvard and now the University of Maryland. At the time he wrote his book, he was teaching at Yale in New Haven, Conn.

Schelling shared this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics, and is an interesting choice. He has consulted for presidents and policy makers and for those same captains of industry that we met with in my early career. His work in game theory, arms control, environmental policy, and criminal behavior is far reaching, influential and deep. As an example, you are kidnapped and you are given two choices over whom the kidnapper should call: your mother (who presumably loves you) or your mother in law (who presumably doesn’t). Schelling’s theories show that your mother-in-law is the far better choice to get your release for both you and your kidnapper, and proves this conjecture with panache, wit, and solid thinking that just about anyone can understand.

It isn’t often that a Nobel winner can write well, have deep thoughts that almost any lay person can grok, and not be such a specialist. I salute their choice, and glad to know the Professor is still teaching plenty of pupils. Go pick up his book today and see if you find it as interesting as I did.

So what was my answer to his puzzle? I thought noon at the main information concourse of Pennsylvania Station, because being from Long Island that is where I enter the city when I take the train. But Schelling’s answer is noon, under the clock in the middle of Grand Central Station. For his students at Yale, it was the one place they would guarantee of entering the city, and noon is as good a time as any for two people to meet. So I almost got it right, and you could argue that if my friend was also coming from Long Island, chances are we would have met in Penn Station rather than Grand Central.

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