Gary Becker has died; great social and behavioral economist

5 May

Becker was one who didn’t primarily see economics as a business science but more as a social and behavioral science.  Pretty significant figure in his field.

From the NYT:

Gary S. Becker, a Nobel prize-winning economics professor and longtime columnist for Business Week whose research illuminated motivations about such aspects of everyday life as marriage, crime, addiction, racial discrimination and birthrates, died on Saturday in Chicago. He was 83.

His death, after a long illness, was announced by the University of Chicago, where he was a professor of economics and of sociology.

Professor Becker, who grew up in Brooklyn, remained active into his 80s. In 2004 he began a blog on which he and a colleague, Richard A. Posner, a legal scholar and federal appeals court judge, commented on such issues as gun control — Professor Becker proposed to tax guns heavily — and trends in education.

An original, prolific and sometimes provocative scholar, Professor Becker was widely regarded as a towering figure in his field. Like his teacher and then colleague at the University of Chicago, Milton Friedman, he held to a free-market orientation.

The two were the only ones to have received both the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Professor Becker received his Nobel in 1992; Mr. Friedman was awarded his in 1976.

President George W. Bush bestowed the Medal of Freedom on Professor Becker at the White House in 2007, saying, “Professor Becker has shown that economic principles do not just exist in theory.”

In applying his work to public policy, the president added, Professor Becker had become “one of the most influential economists of the past hundred years.”

Professor Becker was best known for his work in labor economics. Starting from the assumption that all elements of society are rational economic agents, he focused on the motivating factors of human behavior rather than on the study of broad economic trends.

The work inspired researchers in other fields, including anthropology and political science. He himself also held a joint appointment in the economics and sociology departments at the University of Chicago.

“Gary Becker may well go down in history as the chief architect in the designing of a truly general science of society,” said George J. Stigler, a mentor and another University of Chicago Nobel laureate.

Professor Becker’s inquiries cast fresh light on social phenomena previously regarded as having little or no economic dimension. Households, for example, were long seen simply as entities intent only on maximizing consumption, but Mr. Becker saw them as small factories that also produce valuable, though nonmarketable, basics of life, like leisure and sleeping.

One of his early works, “The Economics of Discrimination,” which grew out of his doctoral thesis, attracted little notice when it was first published in 1957, but it won acclaim with the rise of the civil rights movement.

In the book, Professor Becker asserted that to better understand any form of discrimination, one needs to quantify what people are willing to pay to avoid one another’s company. He concluded that the perpetrator of discrimination is harmed as well as the victim.

“Every time I discriminate — if I decline to hire a black and instead hire a white, when they’re equally productive, but the black is cheaper — I’m losing,” he said in a 1993 interview with Modern Maturity magazine.

Professor Becker’s “A Treatise on the Family” (1981) studied people’s interactions in such private areas as choosing a spouse, divorce, deciding how many children to have and whether to leave money to them rather than spend it in retirement.

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