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Gary S. Becker (1930–2014)

Gary Becker, 2011

Gary S. Becker (19302014), a Nobel Prizewinning economist and longtime professor at the University of Chicago, who in later years became a noted columnist and blogger, died this past Saturday, May 3, at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, following a long illness.

Born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, Becker earned in MA (1953) and PhD (1955) from the University of Chicago, where he studied with the economist Milton Friedman, and began teaching as an assistant professor in 1954, leaving Chicago in 1957 for Columbia University, where he conducted research at the National Bureau for Economic Research, and returning to Chicago in 1970, where he would spend the rest of his career.

Becker, who held a joint appointment as University Professor in the the Departments of Economics and Sociology, remained active well into his eighties, where his acute stance on the role of human capital in labor economics, free-market orientation, and commentator on the economic dimensions of social phenomena helped earn his reputation as “an original, prolific, and sometimes provocative” scholar.

As a columnist for Business Week from 1985 to 2004, Becker “was forced to learn how to write about economic and social issues without using technical jargon, and in about 800 words per column,” a manner of thrift and accessibility he would later bring to the Becker-Posner Blog, an online point-counterpoint tête-à-tête with Judge Richard A. Posner that welcomed new generations of readers, as the authors touched on broad-reaching issues of economic position and policy, including the Cuban embargo, the decriminalization of marijuana, and affirmative action.

In 1992, Becker won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences “for having extended the domain of microeconomic analysis to a wide range of human behavior and interaction, including non-market behavior.” In 2007, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This same year, he was among the founding Board of Editors for the Journal of Human Capital.

In 2011, the University of Chicago recognized his contributions by naming the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics in honor of Becker and his mentor.

Among his publications, Becker authored The Economic Approach to Human Behavior, The Economics of Discrimination, Human Capital: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis with Special Reference to Education; coauthored (with Richard A. Posner) Uncommon Sense: Economic Insights, from Marriage to Terrorism; and contributed to Milton Friedman on Economics: Selected Papers, all of which are published by the University of Chicago Press.

Drawn from the many remembrances of Becker appearing on the web this week:

From the Wall Street Journal:

Modern economics too often seems to devolve into statistics and mathematical formulas, which is only one of the reasons the world will miss Gary Becker, who died on Saturday at age 83. The Nobel laureate always put the study of humanity first and foremost, applying the principles of his discipline to human capital and how it can best be utilized for the common good.

From the New York Times:

President George W. Bush bestowed the Medal of Freedom on Professor Becker at the White House in 2007, saying, “Professor Becker has shown that economic principles do not just exist in theory.”

In applying his work to public policy, the president added, Professor Becker had become “one of the most influential economists of the past hundred years.”

From the Chicago Tribune:

“He just pushed economics in so many different directions,” said [Kevin] Murphy, who collaborated with Mr. Becker in research on human capital, education, addiction and the economics of the family. “He believed that economics was helpful to understanding and improving people’s lives and that’s how he did his research and that’s how he taught.”

Murphy said Mr. Becker rarely ever talked about anything besides economics and his family.

“His commitment to his family and his commitment to economics were the two biggest things in his life and he liked it that way,” Murphy said. “He really loved economics and he loved the University of Chicago and he loved even more the combination of those two things.”

To visit Becker’s University of Chicago Press author’s page, click here.

To read the University of Chicago’s official memorial, click here.