University of Chicago archive photo
Economist Gary Becker, AM’53, PhD’55, was among the most widely admired social scientists of his generation, and his death in May at age 83 brought a fresh wave of commentary about how the Nobel-winning scholar transformed his field.
The tributes to Becker will continue on Oct. 30-31, when the University of Chicago will hold “A Celebration of the Life and Work of Gary S. Becker.” The events include a keynote address at 11:30 a.m. on Oct. 31 by fellow Nobel laureate James Heckman, followed at 2:30 p.m. by a memorial service at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. University students, faculty and staff members who are interested in attending can register here.
Members of the UChicago community are invited to share their remembrances of Becker this week. Many of the world’s most celebrated thinkers in economics and the social sciences have expressed their admiration for Becker’s work, both before his death and in the months since. None was more prominent than Becker’s former teacher and fellow Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, AM’33, who in 2001 described Becker as “the greatest social scientist who has lived and worked in the last half century.”
Here is a selection of other remembrances of Gary Becker:
“Becker fused the cool logic of economic reason with a fiery imagination, a combination that enabled him to use economics to enlighten wide swaths of human behavior. He transformed a discipline that had been tied to traditional topics, like business cycles, international trade, and money supply, into an intellectual field without boundaries.”
Nobel Laureate Lars Peter Hansen, the David Rockefeller Distinguished Service Professor in Economics, Statistics, and the College
“Gary Becker was an exceptional intellectual leader. His pathbreaking research was remarkable in terms of its breadth, importance, and creativity. For years he has been the personification of Chicago economics with his penetrating insights and analyses focusing on important economic and social challenges. His dedication to the University of Chicago and to Chicago economics was truly unique.”
“Gary had a reputation for being extremely tough. He absolutely terrified people. But not once in 20 years did I hear him raise his voice, or even appear openly angry. People feared him because he could see the truth. At his core, though, he had a deep humanity.
Years ago, my son Andrew died unexpectedly in the middle of the school term. I cancelled my classes for a few weeks. Only when I returned did I discover that Gary had stepped in, without anyone asking him to, and had taught the classes in my absence. The only problem was that my students were so disappointed when I returned!”
“Before Becker, economics was about topics like business cycles, inflation, trade, monopoly and investment. Today it is also about racial discrimination, schooling, fertility, marriage and divorce, addiction, charity, political influence—the stuff of human life. If, as some assert, economics is an imperial social science, Gary Becker was its emperor.”
“He was intellectually fearless. As a scholar and as a person, he represented the best of what the University of Chicago aspires to be.”
“He was devoted to and helped define Chicago economics, a rich tradition that uses economics to understand and shape the world around us. Gary was an inspiration to several generations of Chicago students—instilling in them the love for economics that he lived and breathed.”
"Gary Becker was a giant who used his genius to make sense of issues that had formerly resisted analysis. He integrated economics into more general social science and won over his critics. He demonstrated that analytic thinking and economic analysis were the social scientist’s most powerful tools."
“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 ... He didn’t just listen to the critics—he responded to the critics. It always enriched him.”
“[Gary Becker] turned on light bulbs in my head that I didn’t know existed.”
“When he first wrote Human Capital he was accused of debasing learning. Surely learning is good in itself regardless of its economic outcome? I have some sympathy with that view, but I have more sympathy with the view that education, including workplace learning and development, delivers tangible benefits: better wages, better services, better care, better job satisfaction, services, wellbeing and better profits. This is almost taken for granted now. Becker is a big part of the reason it is and we should be grateful for that.”
Nobel Laureate Robert E. Lucas Jr., the John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and the College
“Gary was a good friend and colleague and a very great economist. I find myself building in some way on his work in almost everything I do.”
“Gary took me on as an undergraduate with no skills to speak of, gave me time that I surely did not deserve, and set the course that I have been on ever since. I believe those actions reveal more about his character than any formal praise I could offer.”
—Adapted from “Human capitalist” by Jason Kelly from the July/August 2014 issue of The University of Chicago Magazine
Originally published on October 27, 2014.