BORN POTTSVILLE, PENNSYLVANNIA, DECEMBER 2, 1930. DIED CHICAGO MAY 3, 2014, AGED 83
ONE OF the f oremost economic scholars of the 20th Century, Gary Becker was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1992 for applying economic analysis to human behaviour and daily life.
His vast area of expertise included black markets,racial discrimination and crime and punishment. For his published work on these and related subjects he received honorary doctorates from universities all over the world, including the Hebrew University.
Becker was one of the first to consider the economic consequences of ethnic and racial discrimination. He courted controversy with his claims for the economic benefits of a free market in human organs. By pricing human body parts he and his co-author Julio Jorge Elias claimed the number of organ donations would be boosted. In his 2010 Hayek memorial lecture at London’ Institute of Economic Affairs he proposed a market-based approach to immigration with migrants paying for entry.
Becker pioneered the concept that people tend to follow the most cost effective means to achieve their chosen goals, the rational choice theory. Through his widely admired blog and his speaking engagements he remained involved in economic policy discussions to the end. According to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Becker’s research programme was founded on the principle that an individual’s behaviour adheres to the same fundamental principles in a number of different areas.
Gary Becker was one of four children born to Jewish parents in a small coalmining town in Eastern Pennsylvania. In his autobiography he describes his father as having gone into business after leaving Montreal for the USA at the age of 16 and living a peripatetic life-style until reaching Pottsville in the mid 1920s where Gary, his sisters Wendy and Natalie and brother Marvin were born.
His mother’s family had left Eastern Europe for New York City when she was a baby. When Gary was four the family moved to Brooklyn and he grew up in a home full of lively intellectual and political debate. Gary’s earlier interest in mathematics was replaced by a desire to do something useful in society and at Princeton he read economics, attracted to its mathematical rigour.
But his interest in economics waned in his third year, when he saw it did not embrace important social problems to which he was seeking answers. His next move was to the University of Chicago where he encountered Milton Friedman whose course on microeconomics in 1951 revived his flagging interest in the subject of economics itself. With Friedman as mentor, Becker was able to bask in what he described as a “first class group of economists who were doing first class research”.
He published two articles in 1952 based on his research at Princeton, but admitted that in Chicago he relearn ed what economics was about.
In 1957, an article by Friedman and a book based on Becker’s Ph.D dissertation were published in 1957.“The book contains the first systematic effort to use economic theory to analyse the effects of prejudice on the earnings, employment and occupations of minorites”, he wrote in his authobiography blog. This launched him on his life’s path of applying economics to social issues..
He became assistant professor at Chicago and then taught at Columbia from 1957 for the next 12 years. He received the John Bates Clark Medal awarded by the American Economic Association, returning to Chicago as professor of economics and sociology at the university and the Booth School of Business.
Hisstudyontheeconomicincentives of crime was based on personal experience when he added up the financial pros and cons of parking illegally . His argument was that most people were motivated by moral imperatives and that crimes were committed usually as a matter of financial incentive. His Treatise on the Family in 1951 was the result of his research into the effects of education and the emancipation of women on marriage. Becker married Doria Slote in 1954 but she died in 1969. He married Guity Nashat in 1980.
In his field Becker was a trailblazer in terms of the relevance of economics to daily life. He is survived by Guity, his daughters Catherine and Judy from his first marriage and two grandchildren.
Receiving the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W Bush