Gary Becker, 1930-2014

Gary Becker, the wide-ranging economist who epitomized the iconoclastic nature of the University of Chicago, died this week. I’ve been on deadline writing a piece about one of his star students, Claudia Goldin, for which I almost scored what would have been Becker’s last interview. Alas, he was too ill — his assistant regretfully informed me of this on April 28th. On May 3rd, Becker passed away.

Here are some of my favorite links about Becker, assembled by the economist Tyler Cowen. I particularly liked Steven Levitt’s sweet homage to Becker, even describing how “people feared him because he could see the truth.” I think I like that because I feared my professors at Chicago, and sometimes my fellow students, that same way. And yet I had to engage with them, because that’s what Chicago trains you to do. When you do, you find that most of them are like Levitt describes Becker, deeply engaged with the people around them, even lunk-headed students like me.
I interviewed Becker only twice. In 2006, in an interview at the Boston Copley Hotel, which got our waiter so interested he looked up Becker online while we talked. Becker surprised me by readily conceding that markets aren’t always an effective approach, even offering up pollution controls as an example. He also said he thought science and math were important, but a liberal arts education would serve his grandkids best:

[L]earn liberal arts principles, so that if in 30 years from now the details are very different, you have a foundation that you can use to change.

I also interviewed him for this piece, Chicago Schooled, on whether the Chicago School caused the Great Recession. Becker again surprised me by not saying anything more emphatic than we’ll have to wait and see.

Becker told me in that first interview that he hadn’t studied sociology because it was too hard. Surprise again for me, since I got better grades in sociology courses than economics courses, and I knew I wasn’t smarter than Becker. He probably meant it was too obtuse, as these notes from James Heckman suggest. Becker was always clear-headed, and I wish I could have interviewed him more often.

Leave a Reply