The Economist for the Rest of Us: Gary S. Becker, 1930-2014

Gary BeckerGary S. Becker, the economist for non-economists, died after a long illness on May 3; he was 83.

As the Wall Street Journal eulogized, with his death “the world lost one of the great economists of the past century—and one of its most significant social scientists.”

An economist and sociologist long associated with the University of Chicago, Becker was a pioneer in spanning the two disciplines and creating a role for economists to examine human behavior in marketplaces that weren’t strictly financial. That effort helped him win the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1992. In his Nobel lecture (“The Economic Way of Looking at Life”) he cited items as diverse as racial discrimination, crime and punishment, human capital, and perhaps most innovatively, family life, as among his areas of interest. Such disparate and nonpecuniary studies are hardly unusual for an economist’s gaze these days, but when Becker started his research in 1955 they were. (Becker’s doctoral dissertation was on discrimination.)

An appreciation by Catherine Rampell  in the Washington Post made his colonization explicit:

Today, economists instead stick their noses (and mathematical models) just about everywhere, investigating the study of everything from drug addiction to gender roles to education to jaywalking to rotten kids. That is largely thanks to Becker, who planted the dismal science flag in every single one of these subjects, as well as many others that fall under the broad category we now call “everyday life.”

But his journey wasn’t smooth. As he wrote in 1992:

[The 1957 book The Economics of Discrimination, based on his dissertation] was very favorably reviewed in a few major journals, but for several years it had no visible impact on anything. Most economists did not think racial discrimination was economics, and sociologists and psychologists generally did not believe I was contributing to their fields.

But with the help of sympathetic and similarly inclined colleagues at the University of Chicago like Milton Friedman and T.W. Schultz, Becker’s vision moved from the fringes to the center. Again, from 1992:

For a long time my type of work was either ignored or strongly disliked by most of the leading economists. I was considered way out and perhaps not really an economist. But younger economists were more sympathetic. They may disagree with my analysis, but accept the kind of problems, studied as perfectly legitimate.

Becker insisted on marshaling the full set of data tools currently available to derive evidence-based theories about rational choice. His focus on evidence was reflected in his positive reception outside the academy, a welcome helped no doubt by his free-market viewpoints. When Becker was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007, then President George W. Bush intoned, “Professor Becker has shown that economic principles do not just exist in theory.”

Also helping was Becker’s increasingly deft hand at presenting his insights to a larger audience. In 1985 he started writing a right-of-center column for BusinessWeek (“It was a wise decision, for I was forced to learn how to write about economic and social issues without using technical jargon”), and a decade ago he started blogging on current affairs with Judge Richard Posner, also at Chicago.

Becker was born in Pottsville, a small Pennsylvania coal mining town but his family moved to Brooklyn when he was 5. He describes his teen years as the time when he started weaving together the two main threads of his professional career.

After my father lost most of his sight, I had the task of reading him stock quotations and other reports on financial developments. Perhaps that stimulated my interest in economics, although I was rather bored by it. We had many lively discussions in the house about politics and justice. I believe this does help explain why by the time I finished high school, my interest in mathematics was beginning to compete with a desire to do something useful for society.

He studied at mathematics Princeton but switched to economics for his graduate work under Friedman at the University of Chicago. Becker taught there for a few years before taking simultaneous positions with Columbia and the National Bureau of Economic Research. But unhappy with what he saw as Columbia’s milquetoast response to rampant student unrest and feeling his intellect was going “stale,” he returned to Chicago in 1970 and stayed there for the rest of his life.

In 2011 the university created the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics (“inquiry that illuminates our choices, our economy, our society, and our future”); Becker served as its chairman until his death

“He kept a finger on the pulse of American public policy [and] analyzed ‘relevant’ problems in a much deeper way than is usually associated with public policy,” fellow University of Chicago professor and Nobel laureate James J. Heckman told the campus news service. “It was not a ‘quick answer’ kind of analysis. He laid the framework for discussing social problems.”

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