Remembering Gary Becker: A personal note

Is it rational to oppose women’s participation in the labor market? Will society not benefit from a stream of new, high-quality ideas, as more people contribute to the economy? I asked Gary Becker these questions in his office about three years ago.

As I sat down to explain my research idea and to seek feedback, a tiny laptop on one of the desks caught my attention. There was no external monitor to be seen, but the laptop seemed to be connected to a larger keyboard. I forced my brain to stop asking itself questions about Professor Becker’s workflow.

(A more rational agent would have clearly been only thinking about economics! Or, do reflections about personal productivity count?)

I cannot find my notes from this meeting, but I remember roughly what I said. And I remember the mixture of satisfaction, relief and confusion, when Professor Becker validated my idea.

I had written down a simple economic model, which illustrated (potentially huge) benefits of diversity. In the imaginary economy I was describing, economic growth would be driven by innovation. New inventions would emerge if people with different yet complementary perspectives participated in research, development, and other idea-generating processes. The model included “the costs of political reform” — incumbent workers (men) would earn lower wages, as the supply of female workers would suddenly increase.

I was intrigued by the possibility that as economies become more dependent on new ideas, competition in the labor market might be viewed as something that hurts in the short run, but ultimately helps virtually everyone. The logic is similar to the basic argument in support of free trade: in the simplest models, international exchange intensifies competition, but citizens ultimately benefit, thanks to lower prices and a more efficient allocation of resources.

It will not surprise people who knew Gary Becker that he listened carefully, asked sharp questions, and could have simplified my model in a split-second if he had wanted to.

It became immediately obvious that he was informed about things outside of economics. Mentioning his wife, born in Iran, he said that women’s rights and participation in the economy are still issues worth studying deeper.

He kept an icy exterior, as if he tried to hide his great sense of humor. People say that he used to be extremely tough, but later in his career he was viewed as a genuinely nice guy, generous with his time, and always passionate about economics.

Before I left the meeting, he asked: “how would a reform you described change people’s incentives to accumulate human capital? What about physical capital?” I had come in with questions about how productivity of groups might be shaped by the composition of teams — and left with a reminder that aggregated outcomes can defy our predictions when we do economic analysis on a small scale.

Becker’s office, January 2011

Soon after the meeting, I saw that other researchers were already writing papers that studied exactly the same forces. For example, Matthias Doepke, Michele Tertilt, and Alessandra Voena wrote that “technological change increased the costs of patriarchy for men, and thus contributed to expanding women’s rights.”

So, the draft of my paper will stay locked on my old laptop, and no economists will be harmed in the process of reading it… As long as nobody steals it, of course!

Many people respected Gary Becker not just because he changed economics, but also because of how engaged continued to be. Refusing to relax in an ivory tower, he was determined to write, teach and discuss economics as long as as he could.

In the previous five days, many people eloquently summarized his tremendous impact and contributions. I would just like to paraphrase a few memories that Professor Kevin Murphy shared with us, in a sad atmosphere, four days after Professor Becker passed away, because I think it is worth writing them down:

  • ‘A lot of people are in a hurry. They want to get something published next week. It was more important for Gary to get things right.’
  • ‘I’ll always remember his joy when people were learning economics — and his frustration when they weren’t.’
  • ‘Gary played tennis so that he’d be healthy enough to do economics. He ate and slept so that he could do economics.’

My classmate, Ali Rauh, gave me permission to use a beautiful photograph which proves that the last point is indeed correct:

What others are saying:

  1. “Gary Becker was the most important social scientist in the past 50 years and possibly longer … As a scholar, Professor Becker was fearless, brilliant and intellectually honest. He saw value in economic theory, but kept it in close communication with the data. He was motivated by the belief that economics, taken seriously, could improve the human condition” (Wolfers)
  2. “not only [was he] the most creative and influential economist of the last 50 years, but also a kind and gentle person, a mentor” (Levitt)
  3. “he helped normalize the idea that many social problems and questions could benefit from rigorous economic analysis” (Rampbell)
  4. “the idea of exploring everyday life through a broadly economic lens has been enormously influential in the economics profession and has altered how other social sciences approach their issues” (Yglesias)
  5. “Arguably, the full contributions of each man [Newton and Becker] are still not yet widely understood” (Heckman, written in 2011)
  6. “[Becker’s work was] for me, an antidote to a lot of formal and sometimes sterile economics” (Heckman)

I would encourage everyone to watch the lectures on Human Capital, and to catch up with the Becker-Posner blog. The blog is another example of Becker’s energy and passion. It paid no attention to what happened to fit the news cycle, discussing important, and often controversial, policy issues instead.

It is chilling to read Becker’s last blog post, which is so clearly right. What a reminder that public policy can be stuck in an awful equilibrium:

Since Cuba no longer provides any significant threat to American interests, there is no sense in continuing to punish the Cuban people with an embargo on trade, nor to provide excuses to its leaders for the poor performance of the Cuban economy.

In a follow-up article, I would like to summarize some of the lessons we learned in Price Theory, although capturing Gary Becker’s approach and thinking will be difficult. Then, I want to ask what popularization of economics looks like today, now that we have so much more data, but Milton Friedman and Gary Becker are not writing anymore.

(Once the updates are posted, I will add links here.)

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