An ode to Gary Becker

My friend and colleague Gary Becker is arguably the most influential economist of the last fifty years. I published a study in the American Economic Association Papers and Proceedings a few years back that attempted to identify which economic theories and economic theorists were having an influence on cutting edge, data driven economic research today. The most amazing finding was that papers Becker had written in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s were all actively influencing research today. Becker came out head and shoulders ahead of any other economic theorist in terms of impact. No one else had more than a couple of papers (typically published just a few years apart) that qualified as influential. Becker is not only the Michael Jordan of economics, he is the Gordie Howe of economics as well.

What is Becker’s secret? It doesn’t hurt to be incredibly smart. That isn’t really what sets him apart, though, I don’t think. He has four other traits that are just as important: he works harder than anyone else, he loves what he does, he is not afraid of criticism, and he has never stopped learning new things.

A case in point about learning new things. At the age of 73 or 74, Becker decided to stop writing a monthly Business Week column he had been doing for twenty years. Is he slowing down? Retiring? Nope. The reason he stopped is because he felt like he could have a greater impact writing a blog with the renowned legal scholar Judge Richard Posner. And judging from the fact that they have received over 2000 comments on their postings in the first few months, my guess is he might be right about the power of the Blog vs. print media.

conductor

Becker got me into economics. I was a creative writing major in college and until I read Becker's work on crime, and then several other pieces from Chicago, I just assumed economics was about the stock market. He's a national treasure. I'm nearly finished with a PhD in economics, focusing on aids and black families, and it seems like I'm working in areas that Becker helped in creating. People like him have done a great deal in persuasing both economists and non-economists to look at the world in a new, exciting way.

perplexed

If Levitt is the Luke Skywalker of economics, Becker is the master Yoda.And maybe without Becker the economics would look like finance plus the eternally unsolvable money problem, plus the eternally unsolvable oligopoly problem, plus the eternally unsolvable growth problem.

Anonymous

No. Milton Friedman is Yoda (I met him at Chicago). Becker could be Obi-Wan, and Levitt his Skywalker.

Teller

I don't think Becker is the best Economist of the last 50 years. Calling him that is an understatement. Becker is the best (first?) Social Scientist of the century. They should give him (and Murphy) a second Nobel prize just for their work on endogenous preferences. Having said that, I do belive Friedman, while not contributing much to the science, did more for humanity by more policy relevant economics and achiving more in educating the public. Therefore I personally consider him a greater overall economist than Becker.

perplexed

I agree that Becker is a giant even if you put him among fellow Nobel prize winners and the Social Scientist of the century.That said, I don't think endogenous preference stuff is all that hot, especially in comparison to his other contribution.As for Friedman, I would say that Friedman is a bit overrated and Stigler is quite a bit underrated.Stigler is definitely my favorite of older Chicago deities.

Teller

I know it is not that hot, but it should be. I think it will in time, once people see how many topics economics has problems with that this framework solves.

conductor

Where do you start with the Becker/Murphy endogeneous preferences material? Are there other articles to help the neophyte learn more about this, too?

Anonymous

Sorry to jump in a little late.I have to disagree with the way you are framing the story that is Social Science history. Given that rational choice economics has dominated much of the thinking on behavior (esp. choice), I would associate Friedman & Becker with the Empire rather than the Rebels (or Jedi). Who are the rebel Jedi you may ask (i.e., those who have challenged the mainstream economic model of behavior)? Well, Yoda would probably be Herbert Simon, Obi Wan would be Kahneman & Tversky, and Luke Skywalker would be people like Thaler, Loewenstein, Camerer, and Rabin (a.k.a., the behavioral economists).

Eve Griliches

My father pushed for Gary Becker to get the Nobel prize for years, finally he did. He was always the number 1 person on my father's list.

Now that I've started reading more on the economic environment, I can see why.
Eve Griliches
Telecom Analyst
IDC

conductor

Becker got me into economics. I was a creative writing major in college and until I read Becker's work on crime, and then several other pieces from Chicago, I just assumed economics was about the stock market. He's a national treasure. I'm nearly finished with a PhD in economics, focusing on aids and black families, and it seems like I'm working in areas that Becker helped in creating. People like him have done a great deal in persuasing both economists and non-economists to look at the world in a new, exciting way.

perplexed

If Levitt is the Luke Skywalker of economics, Becker is the master Yoda.
And maybe without Becker the economics would look like finance plus the eternally unsolvable money problem, plus the eternally unsolvable oligopoly problem, plus the eternally unsolvable growth problem.

Anonymous

No. Milton Friedman is Yoda (I met him at Chicago). Becker could be Obi-Wan, and Levitt his Skywalker.

Teller

I don't think Becker is the best Economist of the last 50 years. Calling him that is an understatement. Becker is the best (first?) Social Scientist of the century.

They should give him (and Murphy) a second Nobel prize just for their work on endogenous preferences.

Having said that, I do belive Friedman, while not contributing much to the science, did more for humanity by more policy relevant economics and achiving more in educating the public. Therefore I personally consider him a greater overall economist than Becker.

perplexed

I agree that Becker is a giant even if you put him among fellow Nobel prize winners and the Social Scientist of the century.

That said, I don't think endogenous preference stuff is all that hot, especially in comparison to his other contribution.

As for Friedman, I would say that Friedman is a bit overrated and Stigler is quite a bit underrated.

Stigler is definitely my favorite of older Chicago deities.

Teller

I know it is not that hot, but it should be. I think it will in time, once people see how many topics economics has problems with that this framework solves.

conductor

Where do you start with the Becker/Murphy endogeneous preferences material? Are there other articles to help the neophyte learn more about this, too?

Anonymous

Sorry to jump in a little late.

I have to disagree with the way you are framing the story that is Social Science history. Given that rational choice economics has dominated much of the thinking on behavior (esp. choice), I would associate Friedman & Becker with the Empire rather than the Rebels (or Jedi). Who are the rebel Jedi you may ask (i.e., those who have challenged the mainstream economic model of behavior)? Well, Yoda would probably be Herbert Simon, Obi Wan would be Kahneman & Tversky, and Luke Skywalker would be people like Thaler, Loewenstein, Camerer, and Rabin (a.k.a., the behavioral economists).

Eve Griliches

My father pushed for Gary Becker to get the Nobel prize for years, finally he did. He was always the number 1 person on my father's list.

Now that I've started reading more on the economic environment, I can see why.
Eve Griliches
Telecom Analyst
IDC