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If you like Gary Becker's story, you might also like:
Milton Friedman,
Murray Gell-Mann,
John Hennessy,
Leon Lederman,
Paul H. Nitze,
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and E.O. Wilson

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Gary Becker
Gary Becker
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Gary Becker Biography

Nobel Prize in Economics

Gary Becker Date of birth: December 2, 1930
Date of death: May 3, 2014

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  Gary Becker

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Gary Stanley Becker was born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, one of four children. Both of his parents had come, with their families, from Eastern Europe as small children. The family relocated from Pennsylvania to Brooklyn, New York when Gary was five, and he spent his school years in the public schools of Brooklyn. At age 16, he gave up a chance to play on his high school handball team, even though he enjoyed the sport, to join the school's math team, which met during the same period. By the end of high school he knew his future lay in mathematics. His father, a businessman with failing eyesight, took a great interest in current events and often asked Gary to read the newspaper aloud to him. The lively discussions of current events that followed also had a large impact on Gary Becker, who hoped that he could apply himself in a socially meaningful way.

Becker graduated from Princeton University in only three years, by taking extra courses in advanced mathematics over the summer. At Princeton, he took his first course in economics. He was fascinated by the mathematical rigor of economic analysis, but frustrated by the lack of attention the standard economics curriculum paid to the social consequences of economic phenomena. He briefly considered pursuing graduate studies in sociology, but finally enrolled in the graduate economics program at the University of Chicago.

At Chicago he fell under the influence of Milton Friedman and other faculty members who emphasized the application of economic theory to the problems of society as a whole. Professors Friedman, Gregg Lewis and T.W. Schultz encouraged Becker's interest in social problems and he chose to write his doctoral dissertation on the effect of prejudice on the earnings and employment opportunities of minorities.

In 1954, Becker married Doria Slote; the couple would eventually have two daughters, Judy and Catherine. On receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago the following year, Becker was hired by the school as an assistant professor. His dissertation on prejudice led to the book The Economics of Discrimination, published in 1957. His effort was well reviewed in professional journals but attracted little attention elsewhere. Many economists believed this sort of investigation fell outside of their discipline, while most sociologists and psychologists failed to recognize the relevance of his approach. Although he still enjoyed the support of his former professors, he felt that to achieve intellectual independence he needed to move on. He turned down a larger salary at Chicago to accept an appointment at Columbia University in New York City, where he would also work for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

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His first research project for the Bureau examined the influence of education, training and experience on individuals' economic performance and its further impact on the larger economy. He published his findings in 1964 in the book Human Capital. This work was slow to win recognition, although it is now recognized as a major breakthrough in economic thinking. In the 1960s, Becker's other research projects included studies of crime and punishment, the allocation of time, and various forms of what are usually regarded as irrational behavior. Becker concluded that many behaviors typically regarded as irrational, such as crime, are actually the product of rational choices made in constrained circumstances. Becker shared his findings in a series of widely read papers, "A Theory of the Allocation of Time" (1965) and "Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach" (1968). The economics profession as a whole did not accept Becker's broad application of rational choice theory, but his work was gathering a following among students at Columbia and elsewhere.

In 1968, student protests over the Vietnam War erupted on the Columbia campus. Students opposing the university's involvement with the federal government and the military occupied several university buildings, shutting down the schools and precipitating a violent confrontation with the police. Although the administration eventually regained control of the campus, Becker was disappointed in what he saw as weak leadership in the university, and he felt increasingly estranged from some of his colleagues. Living in the suburbs while working in Manhattan necessitated a long commute, which had also become a strain. After 12 years in New York, Becker gladly accepted an offer to return to the University of Chicago in 1970. He had achieved enough recognition as an individual thinker that he no longer felt lost among the other stars of Chicago's economics faculty.

In Chicago, Becker began a long period of study of the family, and the economic implications of marriage, child-rearing, family size, divorce and other behavior. At the same time, his own family life was shattered by the death of his wife Doria. While recovering from this tragedy, and raising his now-teenage daughters on his own, Becker continued his research. In the mid-'70s he published two major books, The Allocation of Time and Goods Over the Life Cycle (1975) based on his earlier research, and The Economic Approach to Human Behavior (1976), a broader explication of his work on rational choice theory.

Gary Becker Biography Photo
Becker's personal life brightened when he married Guity Nashat in 1980. The Iranian-born Nashat is a well-known historian of the Middle East, whose research in the changing role of women intersected with Becker's economic studies of the family. The two would eventually collaborate on a study of their shared interests. His book A Treatise on the Family appeared in 1981. The book generated controversy, not only in academic reviews but on the editorial pages of daily newspapers as well. Becker applied economics to yet another area in A Theory of Competition Among Pressure Groups for Political Influence (1983). At the University of Chicago, the Department of Sociology offered Becker a professorship to hold jointly with his position in the Economics Department, clear evidence that his economic analysis of social problems was gaining influence.

By the 1980s, Becker's ideas were well-known within his profession, but little understood by the public at large. This changed when the magazine Business Week offered him the opportunity to write a monthly column. Initially uncertain of his ability to write so frequently for a general audience, he accepted the offer on the urging of one of his two stepsons. The column, which ran from 1985 to 2004, brought his ideas to a large audience for the first time. His work won increasing acceptance among his peers as well; in 1987 he served a term as President of the American Economics Association. The following year he became a Fellow of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University.

Gary Becker Biography Photo
In 1992, Gary Becker was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. Rational choice theory -- and particularly his work on human capital, discrimination and crime -- had become part of the public discourse. Becker's Nobel Prize lecture, "The Economic Way of Looking at Life," was widely read after its publication in The Journal of Political Economy. Dr. Becker's ideas on the family and many other subjects reached a still wider audience when he and his wife, Guity Nashat Becker, collaborated on the 1997 book of essays, The Economics of Life. For years, Gary Becker and his friend, Judge Richard Posner, maintained a lively presence on the Internet, The Becker/Posner Blog. They shared many startling ideas in their 2009 book Uncommon Sense: Economic Insights from Marriage to Terrorism.

In his ninth decade, Gary Becker continued to write prolifically, while teaching regular classes at the University of Chicago, in the Graduate School of Business, as well as the Departments of Economics and Sociology. Although his primary academic concern was the university's graduate economics program, Becker made it a point to be available to undergraduates, and invited them to attend his celebrated graduate class on human capital.

President George W. Bush recognized Dr. Becker's achievements with the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2007. On his death at the age of 83, he was widely praised for expanding the scope of economics, and was eulogized as one of the most influential economists of the last century.

This page last revised on May 05, 2014 15:20 EDT
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