Gary S. Becker, Nobel-winning scholar of economics and sociology, 1930-2014

Nobel Laureate Gary S. Becker, AM'53, PhD'55, made historic changes to the study of economics and the social sciences, combining disciplines to understand decisions in everyday life, while spawning rich new questions for scholars in diverse fields to pursue.

Becker, 83, University Professor of Economics and of Sociology at the University of Chicago, died on May 3 following complications from a recent surgery. He won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1992 “for having extended the domain of microeconomic analysis to a wide range of human behavior and interaction, including non-market behavior.” 

Becker pioneered study in the fields of human capital, economics of the family, and economic analysis of crime, discrimination, addiction, and population. University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer said Becker will be remembered as one of the foremost economics scholars of the 20th century.

"Gary was a transformational thinker of truly remarkable impact on the world and an extraordinary individual,” Zimmer said. “He was intellectually fearless. As a scholar and as a person, he represented the best of what the University of Chicago aspires to be."

In 2011, the University recognized Becker’s contributions by naming a research institute in honor of him and his mentor, Milton Friedman, also a Nobel Prize-winning economist at UChicago. The Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics brings together many of the world’s outstanding economists to advance and disseminate innovative research. Becker was named chair of the institute.

“Gary Becker was an exceptional intellectual leader,” said Lars Peter Hansen, the David Rockefeller Distinguished Service Professor in Economics, Statistics, and the College, research director of the Becker Friedman Institute and a fellow Nobel laureate in economics. “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.”

His friend, colleague, and fellow Nobel Laureate James J. Heckman remembered Becker as a brilliant and tough-minded thinker.

“He was a creative mind, and he ranged in his thinking across a large set of issues—the economics of education and skill formation, economics of discrimination, law and economics, the economics of social interactions, and economics of the family,” Heckman said.

“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,” Heckman said. “It was not a ‘quick answer’ kind of analysis. He laid the framework for discussing social problems.”

Fellow Nobel-winning economist Robert E. Lucas Jr., the John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and the College, noted Becker's influence on his own research. “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."

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.

Economics pervaded every aspect of Becker’s life—even his marriage to University of Illinois at Chicago historian Guity Nashat Becker. The two met haggling over the price of a dining room set Becker had advertised. Becker refused to lower the price, but said he would allow her to take the furniture and pay for it later.

“I asked how come he wouldn’t come down on the price, but he trusted me with the table before paying for it,” she later recalled. He said: ‘I didn’t care about getting the money. But it was the principle, I did not want to sell it below what it was worth.’ What surprised me even more was when he asked me to dinner.”

The two married in 1980.

Interdisciplinary interests

Reflecting his multidisciplinary interests, Becker was appointed professor in sociology in 1984 and held appointments at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the Law School in addition to serving on the economics faculty.

He worked with noted sociologist James Coleman, and the two taught an interdisciplinary faculty seminar on rational choice in the social sciences. He also taught a workshop for many years with Richard Posner, a federal appeals court judge and member of the University’s Law School faculty. The two started the popular Becker-Posner blog in 2002. Becker was to remain active as a scholar and as a public intellectual until shortly before he died. His last two blog posts this year presented arguments in favor of legalizing marijuana and ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba. The blog led to a book based on their exchanges, Uncommon Sense: Economic Insights, from Marriage to Terrorism.

Becker was a founding member of the National Academy of Education and a fellow in the American Statistical Association, the Econometric Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population.

He also was a member of the American Economic Association, serving as its president in 1987. 

In 1967, Becker was awarded the John Bates Clark Medal, then given once every two years to the most outstanding American economist under the age of 40. He also won the Seidman Award and the first social science Award of Merit from the National Institute of Health. He was awarded the National Medal of Science in 2000 for his work in social policy and the Presidential Medal of Honor in 2007. He received the University’s Alumni Medal, the highest award the Alumni Association bestows, in 2010.

Gary Becker is survived by his wife Guity; two daughters, Catherine Becker and Judy Becker; a sister, Natalie Becker; two stepsons, Cyrus Claffey and Michael Claffey; two step-grandchildren; and two grandchildren.

The University of Chicago will plan a memorial service to honor Becker’s life and work, with details to be announced at a later date.