Gary Becker, the University of Chicago economist who won a Nobel Prize for applying economic methods to shed light on sociological topics such as crime, education and marriage, has died. He was 83.
He died on May 3 after a long illness, according to a statement yesterday on the website of the University of Chicago, where he was a professor of economics and sociology. His death occurred at Northwestern Hospital, the Associated Press reported, citing his stepson, Michael Claffey.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Becker the 1992 Nobel in economics “for having extended the domain of microeconomic analysis to a wide range of human behavior and interaction, including nonmarket behavior.”
His method of analysis, which he called the “economic approach,” assumed that people act rationally -- that is, in a calculated way, balancing varied motivations and employing cost-benefit assessments -- rather than always in pursuit of personal gain. He liked to quote George Bernard Shaw: “Economy is the art of making the most of life.”
He carried economic analysis into numerous branches of social science. In some of his earliest work, he found that discrimination based on race or sex was akin to a tax that hurt practitioners as well as victims of bias.
He extended his theory of rational behavior to criminals, looking at how they might balance the benefits of a successful heist against the risk of capture and punishment. He said his interest in crime stemmed from his own experience in New York City, weighing whether he should risk a ticket by parking illegally.
He advanced the study of so-called human capital by analyzing the economic return on education and training. A major focus later in his career was families. He saw households as small factories producing goods such as meals, shelter and entertainment.
“For a long time my type of work was either ignored or strongly disliked by most of the leading economists,” Becker wrote in an autobiography for the Nobel Foundation. “I was considered way out and perhaps not really an economist. But younger economists were more sympathetic. They may disagree with my analysis but accept the kind of problems studied as perfectly legitimate.”
Becker was a leading proponent of the so-called Chicago School, which tends to put faith in free markets.
“What I have always learned to be the Chicago view, and taught to be the Chicago view, is that free markets do a good job,” he said in an interview with the New Yorker magazine published in January 2010, part of a series on lessons from the financial crisis of 2008. “They are not perfect, but governments do a worse job.”
Becker matched wits on a variety of economic and political issues with Richard Posner, the U.S. appeals court judge and lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, on a joint blog created in December 2004.
In a May 2009 post, Becker said the Republican Party had created a “crisis in conservatism” by focusing increasingly on social and military issues.
“I believe that the best way to restore the consistency and attractiveness of the conservative movement,” he wrote, “is for modern conservatism to return to its roots of skepticism toward governmental actions,” which would mean “more flexible approaches toward hot-button issues like gays in the military, gay marriage, abortions, stem-cell research.”
From 1985 to 2004, he wrote a monthly column for BusinessWeek, now Bloomberg Businessweek. He said he expected to contribute for a year or two but “discovered that I immensely enjoyed the opportunity to use economic reasoning to discuss important issues of the day.”
In his final column, in July 2004, he wrote: “Along with many others of my generation, I was a socialist when I started my university studies. But my first few economics courses taught me the power of competition, markets, and incentives, and I quickly became a classical liberal. That means someone who believes in the power of individual responsibility, a market economy, and a crucial but limited role of government.”
Gary Stanley Becker was born Dec. 2, 1930, in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, one of four children. The family moved to Brooklyn, New York, when Becker’s father became a partner in a business there, and Becker went to Brooklyn public schools.
His early interest in mathematics led him to economics in his freshman year at Princeton University. He graduated in three years and headed to the University of Chicago for graduate work.
It was there, in 1951, that he took a course in microeconomics from Milton Friedman and was excited to learn that economic theory could be “a powerful tool to analyze the real world,” as he put it in his autobiography.
Becker’s Ph.D. dissertation became a 1957 book, “The Economics of Discrimination,” which Becker called “the first systematic effort to use economic theory to analyze the effects of prejudice on the earnings, employment and occupations of minorities.”
After three years as an assistant professor, Becker left Chicago for New York City to teach at Columbia University and work at the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The American Economic Association in 1967 awarded him the John Bates Clark Medal, which recognizes the most significant contributions by an American economist under 40 years old.
Turned off by student riots at Columbia in 1968 and what he saw as the administration’s “incompetent” response, Becker returned to the University of Chicago as a professor of economics.
His 1981 book, “A Treatise on the Family,” revised and expanded in 1991, analyzed matters such as the division of labor in households and altruism and selfishness within families.
Among his findings: welfare payments to unmarried mothers in the U.S. discouraged marriage and encouraged fertility among poorer women.
In 1983 Becker was given a joint appointment in Chicago’s sociology department, linking his two fields of interest. The Hoover Institution appointed him a senior fellow in 1990.
His first wife, the former Doria Slote, died in 1970.
Becker’s survivors include his second wife, Guity Nashat, an economic historian who focuses on the Middle East, whom he married in 1980; and two daughters from his first marriage, Catherine Becker and Judy Becker, according to the university’s statement. He also is survived by a sister, Natalie Becker; two stepsons, Cyrus Claffey and Michael Claffey; two grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.
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