This Day in Jewish History

1930: A Man Who Won a Nobel for Bold Thought Is Born

Among other achievements, Gary Becker dared to try to quantify the economics of racism.

Gary Becker, 1992 Nobel Laureate and University of Chicago professor of economics and sociology, speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference 2009 in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Tuesday, April 28, 2009.
Gary Becker, 1992 Nobel Laureate and University of Chicago professor of economics and sociology, speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference 2009 in L.A., California, U.S., April 28, 2009. Jamie Rector, Bloomberg News

December 2, 1930, is the birthdate of economist Gary Becker, who blazed paths through so much new territory that when he won the Nobel Prize, in 1992, it was not for one specific achievement. As the prize committee put it, Becker was recognized “for having extended the domain of microeconomic analysis to a wide range of human behavior and interaction, including non-market behavior."

As a member of the famously neo-conservative University of Chicago economics department, where he was a disciple of economics guru economics guru Milton Friedman, Becker held a number of the political and ethical positions that one might expect of a libertarian or neo-con, but even those who didn’t agree with his conclusions were admiring of his bold creativity and intellectual honesty.

The real world

Gary Stanley Becker was born in the mining town of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, where his father, Louis Becker, owned a small business.

Louis had been born in Montreal and did not get beyond eighth grade in school. Gary’s mother was Anna Siskind, who had immigrated to the United States with her family from Eastern Europe as a baby, and whose education also ended with the eighth grade. Nonetheless, Becker said in his Nobel lecture, that growing up, “we had many lively discussions in the house about politics and justice.”

When Gary was 4 or 5, the family moved to Brooklyn, New York, where his father entered into a new business venture. He graduated from James Madison High School in 1948, and then attended Princeton University, finishing a B.A in economics in three years. He later said that he entered college as a socialist, and moved in the direction of belief in the free market after he began studying economics.

For Becker, economics became a realm in which he could apply his natural talent in mathematics to the study of a whole range of social issues, and thus satisfy a personal urge to improve society. It was when he arrived at the University of Chicago, in 1951, that he encountered other scholars who thought the same way.

Foremost among them was Milton Friedman, whom he called “by far the greatest living teacher I have ever had. In his Nobel lecture, Becker described Friedman as someone who presented economics as “a powerful tool to analyze the real world.”

Portrait of Milton Friedman in 2004.
WikiCommons

Becker wrote his doctoral thesis, completed in 1955, on “The Economics of Racial Discrimination.” In it, he attempted to quantify the costs of racial and ethnic bias to labor markets.

Offensive to some

It was this readiness to quantify issues generally approached as moral questions and to and present them as questions of efficiency, that some found so bracing, and others as offensive.

Becker concluded, for example, that illegal drug use, as well as other criminal activity, was determined by rational factors, even if the perpetrators didn't realize as much, and that their behavior could be discouraged by practical measures. He proposed harsher sentencing as a variable that would increase the incentive to desist from illegal behavior.

In a different field entirely, he also saw the free market as being able to provide an answer to the scarcity of organs available for transplant, and felt that if people wanted to sell their innards, they should be able to.

In his 1981 book “A Treatise on the Family,” Becker applied economic analysis to the division of responsibility within families, doing so from the starting even assumption that men were the natural wage-earners and women the natural child-raisers, though he acknowledged that these concepts were then in flux.

The feminist economist Kathleen Geier, in a tribute to Becker after his death, while saying that she "found plenty to object to in Becker's work," also acknowledged that simply by "taking institutions like marriage and the family seriously as subjects fit for economic analysis, Becker helped open up a space for feminist ideas within economics."

Following Friedman's model as the engaged intellectual, Becker wrote a monthly column for Business Week from 1985 to 2004 (he was encouraged to do so and helped by his second wife, the Iranian-born economic historian Nahat Guity). Later he co-wrote a blog with federal judge and law professor Richard Posner.

Gary Becker died on May 3, 2014, at the age of 83.