Longtime Becker collaborator Kevin Murphy recalled his senior colleague’s love of economics and the University.
“He was devoted to and helped define Chicago Economics, a rich tradition that uses economics to understand and shape the world around us," said Murphy, the George J. Stigler Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the Chicago Booth School of Business. “Gary was an inspiration to several generations of Chicago students—instilling in them the love for economics that he lived and breathed.”
“Gary was an outstanding scholar and a beloved professor. The Booth community has suffered a great loss,” said Chicago Booth Dean Sunil Kumar, the George Pratt Shultz Professor of Operations Management.
Breaking new ground in economics
Becker broke new ground by approaching economics as the study of human behavior. He crossed disciplinary boundaries to apply core economic tenets—maximizing behavior, market equilibrium, stable preferences, and rational choice—to subjects thought to be the domain of sociology, psychology, law, and other fields.
Much of his work illuminates diverse aspects of human behavior that were previously considered to be largely irrational.
The Economics of Discrimination (1957) 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. In his 1981 book, A Treatise on the Family, he expanded that work to a study of the interactions within a family, including those between parents and children, husbands and wives, and among siblings. Becker concluded that women’s entry into the work force and their increased earning power have reduced demand for children, because women’s time has become more valuable.
Becker became one of the most-cited economists, yet his early career was fraught with controversy. Early on, economists questioned the value of his analysis of social problems. “For a long time, my type of work was either ignored or strongly disliked by most of the leading economists,” Becker wrote in his autobiography. “I was considered way out and perhaps not really an economist.”
Those early challenges only strengthened Becker’s work, according to Heckman.
“He persevered in a scholarly way,” said Heckman, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor in Economics. “He didn’t just listen to the critics—he responded to the critics. It always enriched him.”
From Chicago to New York and back
Born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, Becker completed his undergraduate work summa cum laude in mathematics at Princeton University, where he “accidentally took a course in economics” as a freshman and was “greatly attracted by the mathematical rigor of a subject that dealt with social organization.” He earned a master's degree and a PhD from the University of Chicago, where Milton Friedman became his enthusiastic mentor.
“Friedman considered him the best student he ever had,” Heckman said. In later years Friedman would call Becker “the greatest social scientist who has lived and worked in the last half century.”
After serving as an assistant professor in economics at UChicago from 1954 to 1957, Becker joined the faculty at Columbia University, where he conducted research at the National Bureau of Economic Research in New York.
At Columbia he started a workshop on labor economics and related subjects. He was joined after a few years by Columbia economist Jacob Mincer. “We had a very exciting atmosphere and attracted most of the best students at Columbia. Both Mincer and I were doing research on human capital before the subject was adequately appreciated in the profession at large, and the students found it fascinating. We were also working on the allocation of time and other subjects at the forefront of research,” Becker wrote in his autobiography.
Upon returning to Chicago in 1970, Becker resumed his contact with leading economists on the faculty. In particular, he collaborated with George Stigler, also a Nobel Prize winning economist, with whom he wrote influential papers on the stability of tastes and an early treatment of the principal-agent problem, while pursuing his interest in the family.