Dr. Strangelove…

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Dr. Strangelove or:

How I am Surprised that this Movie was Inspired by Economics


Summertime is here and what better way to enjoy the warm evenings than watch some of the best movies about economics! Yes – economics – and you might be surprised what movies are on the top ten list created by IMDB.com (check out the list here), and what inspired the people to make them.

I’ll give you a hint about the movie that was named number one: the movie was inspired by a recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

Give up? One of the consultants on Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) was Professor Thomas C. Schelling, economist, and 2005 Nobel Laureate. A the founder of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Schelling’s interest in game theory led him to write important works on nuclear strategy and to use the concept of the tipping point to explain social problems.

As it was described in Schelling’s December 13, 2016 The New York Times obituary:

“In “Meteors, Mischief and Wars,” published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1960, Professor Schelling looked at the possibility of an accidental nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union and reviewed three novels that imagined such an event. The director Stanley Kubrick read his comments on the novel “Red Alert” and adapted the book for “Dr. Strangelove,” on which Professor Schelling was a consultant.”

Matt Cadwallader, HKS Communications, described what happened next in his article for the Harvard Kennedy School:

“Kubrick travelled to Cambridge to meet with Schelling and (“Red Alert” author Peter) George. The three spent an afternoon wrestling with a considerable plot hole: when “Red Alert” was written in 1958, inter-continental ballistic missiles were not much of a consideration in a potential U.S.-Soviet showdown. But by 1962, ICBMs had made much of the book’s plot points impossible. The speed at which a missile strike could occur would offer no time for the plot to unfold. “We had a hard time getting a war started,” said Schelling.”

Schelling describes how they came up with the solution: “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.” He also noted that the “doomsday device” featured in the movie was an example of poor gamesmanship and failed as a deterrent because the other side did not know in advance that it existed.

And presto, a movie classic was born. To learn more about Dr. Strangelove, check out these links:

Full 2014 video interview with Professor Schelling about Strangelove

More fun facts about Strangelove (many not economics-related)

The New Yorker analyzes the accuracy of Strangelove