Gary Becker

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -


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

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