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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,
John Sexton
and E.O. Wilson

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Gary Becker
Gary Becker
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Gary Becker Interview

Nobel Prize in Economics

May 5, 2001
San Antonio, Texas

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  Gary Becker

Professor Becker, your first book grew out of work you did while you were still in graduate school at the University of Chicago. This was your book on the economics of discrimination, which was such a radical idea at the time. How did this come about?

Gary Becker: Early on, maybe my second or third year, I got a little idea that I thought I could use to understand this social problem of discrimination against groups. In particular blacks, but also women and other groups -- Jews, Chinese in many societies, and so on. So I had this little idea, how I could use economic theory to talk about the connection between people's prejudices and how that worked out in the economic system. So let's say if an employer was prejudiced against black workers, what did that mean for the jobs that black workers could get and for the earnings that they would make compared to, say whites, who were equally skilled? Now it's not so obvious that even though, let's say employers will be prejudiced, how that shows up in terms of earnings and occupation. That linkage had not been discussed, in fact you'll find almost no literature on discrimination, prior to my book, by economists. So I had this little idea. I saw a way of taking the prejudices of workers and employers and customers and all groups, even governments, and sort of putting that through an economic analysis with competition and the goals of employers, opportunities for black and white employees to choose among different firms. So it becomes a complicated problem, using all the tools of economics. I saw a way to do that and be able to say, "Well, if there's much prejudice under this-this conditions, there'll be this much difference in wages between equally productive whites and blacks, this much unemployment of blacks, this much lower occupations of blacks." So that really excited me, because it seemed to be obviously important if we were trying to understand the situation of blacks, you just can't look at... we can't see the prejudices, it's manifested in what we see in terms of earnings and employment. I had something that could be manifested and yet I had a way of working back and sort of inferring what the prejudices must have been. So I thought that was really exciting.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Most of my teachers at Chicago were open to my working on that. Some were skeptical that an economist should be working on these problems, so they forced a sociologist to be a member of my thesis committee. But I had enough of my faculty like (Milton) Friedman and others -- Ted Schultz, who eventually won the Nobel Prize also -- and some others there, who thought I was onto something, who encouraged me. So I kept doing it. My fellow graduate students were skeptical, and I'd go out to other economists, at MIT and elsewhere, very good places, they were very skeptical if this was economics. I don't know if I would have persisted if it wasn't -- I had some support among my faculty members who I admired so much. And given my own, you might say, rebellious instincts, the combination, I think both were necessary in enabling me to persist in the face of the fact that most economists thought this wasn't really economics, and this was sociology or whatever you wanted to call it. But I thought it was economics, in the sense I was using economic tools to discuss what was obviously, I would say, "This is a major problem. We economists should be talking about this," and they would be skeptical about that.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Once it came out, it seems like it sort of sat there for a while. It was so innovative that people didn't take it seriously at first.

Gary Becker: I would say for ten years, it had almost no impact on anything that was done, was not discussed very much. Sat there. I mean, it got a couple of reviews that were favorable, and some were really extremely favorable, but they didn't have much impact either. And then, all of a sudden, maybe because of civil rights legislation, the Civil Rights Movement, these issues came to the fore. People were discussing these issues. And even economists began to see, "Well, this is an important issue." And then they discovered, "Well, Becker has this book out there on this subject that we haven't paid any attention to." So gradually, along with the subject, it became something economists discussed. And that just snowballed, and now my -- whatever you want to call it, discrimination economics, minority economics -- it's a tremendous, a very big field in economics, and a huge number of papers are written and books written about it every year. To my surprise, my book went into a second edition. It's still discussed a lot, still has a lot of references. So I find that very gratifying. It's almost 50 years since the book was published. I mean it was a thesis. I wrote that book when I was 23 years old basically. That this still, you know, is being discussed, and more importantly, that the field has expanded enormously. A lot of new work that's been done. But it took awhile. But once it caught on, when the subject caught on, then it really snowballed.

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