Becker builds on a career of original thinking
By Meg Breslin
What Gary Becker has done over the last 50 years is fundamentally change how economists think about their profession.”
William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor of Economics
Fifty-five years after earning his doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago, Gary Becker still works in his office seven days a week, constantly seeking out new discussions on the subject that is his life’s passion.
He also writes a popular weekly blog with federal judge Richard Posner in addition to researching, writing on scholarly topics, and teaching graduate students. His influential work has earned the 79-year-old world-renowned economist the Nobel Prize in Economics, the National Medal of Science, the John Bates Clark Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to name a few.
And the thin, fit man with a wisp of gray hair and a warm, attentive demeanor has no plans to retire any time soon.
“He’s remarkably immune to the aging process,” says Posner, a longtime friend and senior lecturer at the Law School. “He just doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.”
In recognition of the contributions to his field and to the University of Chicago, Becker, AM’53, PhD’55, will receive the University’s Alumni Medal, the highest award the Alumni Association bestows. The award ceremony will take place during Alumni Weekend on Saturday, June 5 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.
Becker says his life might have been dramatically different had he not accidentally taken a course in economics in his freshman year at Princeton University. Without that exposure, he might never have discovered his passion.
“I really do love this, and I feel I’m lucky,” Becker says. “I could have gotten into science or math, but I was lucky enough to find the field that best suits the talents I have.”
Becker’s remarkable zeal for economics has been with him since his undergraduate years at Princeton. After entering graduate school in economics at UChicago in 1951, Becker was an instant fan of professor Milton Friedman, who emphasized economics as a powerful tool to analyze the world. Friedman became a mentor, friend, and major influence on Becker’s work.
Becker approaches economics as the study of human behavior, which was a groundbreaking take on the more narrow early view of supply-and-demand theories. Becker’s 1957 book, The Economics of Discrimination, applied economic analysis to the study of prejudice against minorities. His 1964 book, Human Capital, examined how investments in a person’s education and training pay off. His 1981 book, A Treatise on the Family, looked at the economic implications of interactions within families.
Becker is one of the most cited economists today, yet his early career was fraught with controversy. Early on, economists felt his analysis of social problems wasn’t really economics. “For a long time, my type of work was either ignored or strongly disliked by most of the leading economists,” Becker writes in his autobiography. “I was considered way out and perhaps not really an economist.”
Steven Levitt, a fellow professor in the economics department and the co-author of the bestseller Freakonomics, can attest to the level of anger and misunderstanding Becker’s early work produced. As an undergraduate at Harvard and a doctoral student at MIT in the early 1990s, Levitt says “nobody really said anything good about Gary Becker.”
In fact, Levitt came to Chicago, in part, to “know the enemy for a year or two.” Instead, Becker completely won over Levitt. “What Gary Becker has done over the last 50 years is fundamentally change how economists think about their profession. He did that by broadening the scope for what economists think is economics. He showed that every topic under the sun is ripe for economic study,” Levitt says.
While it was difficult then, Becker is actually grateful his early work wasn’t easily embraced. “I felt I had to keep proving myself and justifying, so I continued to work hard,” he says.
Some of the criticism has crept up again with the current financial crisis, with Becker taking flak over the Chicago School’s firm adherence to the power of the free market. While some argue the lack of government regulation caused the crisis, Becker says government regulators also contributed greatly to the crisis.
Becker’s intense and confident approach has gained him a wide fan base of younger, up-and-coming scholars. Among them is Kevin Murphy, a professor of economics who won a MacArthur Fellowship for his own work. Murphy met Becker while he was a U of C student; now they co-teach economics courses to graduate students.
“He truly believes in economics,” Murphy says. “As much as I sometimes get discouraged by the criticism of the Chicago School, he just says, ‘In the end, we’ll be proven right.’”
Becker writes his heavily researched views with an easy, inviting style through the Becker-Posner Blog. For 19 years, he also wrote a monthly column for Business Week. Although the blog format was just emerging in 2002, he jumped in, anticipating the intriguing public conversation that could emerge from a back-and-forth discussion with Posner, a federal appeals court judge and noted public intellectual. Last year the blogging partners released a book based on their exchanges, Uncommon Sense: Economic Insights, from Marriage to Terrorism.
Becker also takes his passion for ideas home and enjoys discussing social and political ideas with his four children, grandchildren, and his wife Guity, a historian of the Middle East who is a retired professor from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Guity emphasizes that her husband has a good sense of humor, and an uncanny ability to win over people. She laughs when recalling how she and Becker met, while she was completing her doctorate from UChicago and saw an ad Becker placed for a dining room furniture set.
True to his role as an economist, Becker wouldn’t negotiate on price. He did give Guity a few weeks to pay up—then promptly asked her to dinner. When she told him she wasn’t available for two months, she thought that was the end of it.
Instead, Becker showed up at her door two months later, on the day Guity completed her doctoral studies.
It’s that same quality of discipline and optimism that keeps Becker so committed to his work today.
“There’s still a lot we don’t know,” Becker says. “If we knew it all, I wouldn’t be that excited about it. But trying to discover all the things we don’t know still excites me, pretty much the same as it did when I first started out in the field.”