Gary S. Becker, Nobel-winning economist, dies at 83

May 5

Gary S. Becker, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who expanded the “dismal science” to embrace such pressing matters of daily life as crime, discrimination and family formation and became a leading public intellectual, died May 3 in Chicago. He was 83.

His death, which occurred after complications from surgery, was announced by the University of Chicago, where he served on the faculty.

A man concerned from boyhood with issues of politics, society and justice, and a scholar at home in arcane areas of mathematics, Dr. Becker found his life’s work in applying the tools of rigorous economic analysis to issues of social and political life.

At one time, the study of so fundamental a human institution as the family was thought to be the exclusive domain of such disciplines as sociology or anthropology. Dr. Becker brought to this study the methods of economics and showed new ways of looking at such family-related topics as altruism, self-sacrifice and childbearing.

The extent to which he blended the scholarly and the colloquial is suggested by the name given to one of his insights: the “rotten kid theorem.”


University of Chicago Economics Professor Gary S. Becker, left, receives the 1992 Nobel Economics Prize from Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf. Dr. Becker died May 3 at age 83, (Jan Collsioo/European Pressphoto Agency)

As he described his overall approach in his 1992 Nobel lecture, he refused to assume that only a selfish-seeming desire for gain formed the basis for human motivation, and he ascribed to human beings or groups an ability or desire to make rational choices.

As he saw it, a rich variety of factors underlies the continuum of choices made by individuals and societies. Such factors include income and opportunity as well as the memory of previous choices and the ability to calculate the outcome of present and future choices.

Also to be considered were the actions of other people and groups and, to a particularly significant extent, the limited availability of time.

His 1957 book, “The Economics of Discrimination,” based on his University of Chicago doctoral dissertation, contained what he described as the first systematic effort to use economic theory to analyze the effects of prejudice on the earnings, employment and occupations of minorities.

He once said “the key to prejudice” was the question, “How much are people willing to give up to avoid interaction?” The book posited that discrimination based on race — or any other factor — does not only have costs for the minority being targeted but also for the person who is discriminating.

“Every time I discriminate — if I decline to hire a black and instead hire a white, when they’re equally productive, but the black is cheaper — I’m losing,” he told Modern Maturity magazine in 1993.

He once recalled that colleagues were initially perplexed by his subject. “They thought I would discuss price discrimination,” he said, or selling different people the same good for different prices. “No one conceived that an economist would talk about race discrimination in those days.”

Dr. Becker said his work on discrimination analysis set him on the path of applying economics to social issues, often with an emphasis on labor and on “human capital,” the term by which he referred to the competence of the individuals that make up societies.

He received the John Bates Clark Medal in 1967, awarded to the outstanding American economist younger than 40, and in 1992 the Nobel committee cited him “for having extended the domain of microeconomic analysis” into many areas of human behavior and interaction, including nonmarket behavior.

In general, Dr. Becker was regarded as a believer in the free market. Among the forums in which he advanced these positions was a blog he conducted with Judge Richard A. Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. He also had a column for years in Business Week magazine.

Recognizing the degree to which Dr. Becker influenced the thinking of his times, President George W. Bush in 2007 awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.

Dr. Becker said his application of economic analysis to thinking about crime and punishment grew out of an incident on the street, during which he was forced to make a quick decision.

Pressed for time before an appointment, he had only moments to decide whether to park his car in a lot or risk leaving it in an illegal spot on the street. As it happened, he took the risk and was fortunate to avoid a ticket.

This led him to reason that not all crime stems from diseased minds or social deprivation. Instead, he suggested, crime might sometimes derive from a rational computation of the probability of gain compared with the likelihood of punishment.

To be accepted as more than speculation, he asserted, such ideas had to be tested and subjected to the scrutiny of math. From youth he had been adept at math, and he could express social ideas in the algebraic equations, in which variables might stand for such seemingly unquantifiable concepts as happiness and guilt.

Early on, he said, he had tried to apply economic analysis to family and social issues such as birthrates and family size.

In time, he began to broaden the scope of his efforts to almost every question affecting family life: marriage, divorce, willingness to sacrifice for other members of the family and efforts by parents to create better lives for their children.

Even the decision to marry, he said, involves a calculation of benefits and costs. People wed when they expect it will leave them better off, he said, and divorce for the same reasons.

With collaborators, he published books and papers with such titles as “The Economic Theory of Illegal Goods: The Case of Drugs” (2004). Another paper was on introducing incentives in the market for organ donations. With his second wife, Guity Nashat, he published a book titled “The Economics of Life: From Baseball to Affirmative Action to Immigration, How Real-World Issues Affect Our Everyday Life” (2007).

Gary Stanley Becker was born Dec. 2, 1930, in Pottsville, Pa., where his father owned a small business, and grew up in Brooklyn.

Household discussions on questions of politics and justice, he said, helped develop a desire to be of use to society. He graduated from Princeton University in 1951 and then entered the University of Chicago, where study under economist Milton Friedman helped him recognize the power of economics as a tool for understanding how the world worked.

He received his doctorate from Chicago in 1955 and later became a full professor at Columbia University. He returning to a teaching job at Chicago in 1970, a move he said was impelled in part by the failure of Columbia’s administration to take a firm hand in 1968 against the intimidation of rioting students.

Back in the Midwest, he returned to his study of the family, leading in 1981 to publication of “A Treatise on the Family.” The book demanded six years of day-and-night effort. After its publication, he said, it took him two years to recapture his intellectual vitality.

It is this book from which comes the rotten kid theorem, an illustration of how economic calculation may affect behavior. The theorem holds that even a spoiled child will be nice to his despised sister if it creates an image of family harmony that persuades a rich uncle to present gifts to both.

In 1983, his work in breaking down the boundaries among disciplines culminated in his receiving a joint appointment at Chicago in the departments of sociology and economics.

His first wife, the former Doria Slote, died in 1969. In 1980, he married Nashat, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Besides his wife, survivors include two daughters from his first marriage; two stepsons; a sister; and four grandchildren.

Reflecting on his intellectual development, Dr. Becker once said that he preferred sports to math as a teenager. But when at 16 a scheduling conflict forced him to choose between his high school’s handball team and its math team, he said, he opted for the latter.

That, he said, “was indicative of my shift in priorities.” After all, he noted, “I was better at handball.”

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