Gary Becker Biography

Gary Becker, an American economist and recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1992, is widely regarded as one of the most influential social scientists of the past 50 years. Renowned for his groundbreaking work in extending microeconomic analysis to various aspects of human life, such as family dynamics, drug addiction, racial discrimination, and crime, Becker was a pioneer in the study of human capital. Born into a Jewish family in Pennsylvania, he initially prioritized athletics over academics but ultimately chose to pursue his passion for mathematics and economics. After earning his PhD from the University of Chicago, Becker embarked on a successful academic career, making significant contributions to the field of economics and sociology. His notable achievements include the development of the “rotten kid theorem” and his influential economic analysis of democracy.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Gary Stanley Becker
  • Died At Age: 83
  • Economists
  • American Men
  • Died on: May 3, 2014
  • Place of death: Chicago, Illinois, United States
  • U.S. State: Pennsylvania
  • Grouping of People: Nobel Memorial Prize In Economic Sciences
  • Education: Princeton University, University of Chicago
  • Awards:
    • 1992 – Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences
    • 1967 – John Bates Clark Medal
    • 2007 – Presidential Medal of Freedom
    • John von Neumann Award
    • 2000 – National Medal of Science for Behavioral and Social Science

Childhood & Early Life

Gary Stanley Becker was born on December 2, 1930, in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, United States to a Jewish family. He had two sisters and one brother. His father ran a small business. Even though his parents were not well educated, his father had a deep interest in financial and political issues. The older man began losing his sight and it fell upon the young boy to read out the news to him. This played a key role in kindling Becker’s interest in economics.

As a teenager, he was more interested in sports than in intellectual activities even though he was a good student. He eventually chose academic pursuits over sports when he realized that he could wholeheartedly pursue just one of these. He went to the Princeton University where he earned his BA in 1951. He then proceeded to the University of Chicago for graduate work in economics where he got the chance to attend the famed economist Milton Friedman’s course on microeconomics. During this time, he was also exposed to the works of economists like Gregg Lewis, T.W. Schultz, and Aaron Director who were doing innovative research in the subject. He became an Assistant Professor at Chicago after his third year of graduate study and earned his PhD in 1955.

Career

He accepted a teaching position at Columbia University in 1957. There he started a workshop on labor economics and related subjects. After a few years economist Jacob Mincer also joined the Columbia department and became co-director of the workshop. This marked a very exciting period for the economists who did significant research on human capital. Along with Mincer, he developed the New Home Economics, primarily based on Becker’s theory of allocation of time. This work focused on the results of his research on the family, including analyses of marriage, divorce, fertility, and social security.

In 1970 he returned to the University of Chicago as a professor of economics. By this time prominent individuals like George Stigler and Harry Johnson had joined the department which made the atmosphere a very stimulating one. Becker and Stigler wrote two papers together: one of the stability of tastes and the other, an early treatment of the principle-agent problem, both of which proved to be highly influential. He performed vital research in the field of labor economics. Due to the involvement of the human element in such studies, he focused on the motivating factors of human behavior rather than on the study of broad economic trends and extended microeconomic analysis to topics traditionally belonging to sociology.

His unconventional mode of working was not appreciated by many of the leading contemporary economists of his era. However, the younger economists were more open-minded towards including sociological issues in economic research. After teaching at the economics department at Chicago for many years, he was offered a joint appointment at the sociology department as well in 1983. Here he collaborated with James Coleman to launch an interdisciplinary faculty seminar on rational choice in the social sciences which proved to be very successful. In addition to his academic duties and research, he also wrote a monthly column for ‘Business Week’ from 1985 to 2004. Becker joined hands with Judge Richard Posner to start a joint weblog called ‘The Becker-Posner Blog’ in 2004.

Major Works

Gary Becker, along with Jacob Mincer popularized the concept of human capital, a term that refers to all the knowledge, talents, skills, abilities, experience, intelligence, training, judgment, and wisdom possessed individually and collectively by individuals in a population. He is remembered for his extensive analysis of the same. He proposed the “rotten kid theorem” which is a thought experiment in economics counted among the most famous theorems within family economics, and applied mechanism design. According to the theorem, even selfish family members will act to help one another if their personal incentives are properly aligned.

Awards & Achievements

Gary Becker was awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 1992 “for having extended the domain of microeconomic analysis to a wide range of human behavior and interaction, including nonmarket behavior.” He was also the recipient of several other awards like Pontifical Academy of Sciences (1997), National Medal of Science (2000), and John von Neumann Award (2004). In 2007, he was honored with the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Personal Life & Legacy

Gary Becker’s first marriage was to Doria Slote in 1954. The couple had two daughters. His wife died in 1970 and he later married Guity Nashat in 1980. His second wife was a historian of the Middle East. Becker had two stepsons from this marriage. He died in Chicago, Illinois, on May 3, 2014, after complications from surgery, at the age of 83.

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