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Gary Becker, 1930-2014

May 09, 2014

Won Nobel Prize in Economics in 1992

Gary S. Becker, 83, a professor of economics and sociology at the University of Chicago who won the Nobel Prize in 1992 for his work applying economics to social issues, died Saturday, May 3, after a long illness.

Becker’s decision to pursue his graduate degrees at the University of Chicago reignited his interest in economics, thanks largely to Milton Friedman’s microeconomics course. He continued his focus on applying “economic theory to analyze the effects of prejudice on the earnings, employment and occupations of minorities,” which was featured in his first book, “The Economics of Discrimination,” which was a continuation of his PhD dissertation.

“Gary was an outstanding scholar and a beloved professor,” said Sunil Kumar, Chicago Booth dean and George Pratt Shultz Professor of Operations Management. “The Booth community has suffered a great loss.”

Becker said his renewed appreciation for economics “started me down the path of applying economics to social issues, a path that I have continued to follow,” he wrote.

Longtime Becker collaborator Kevin Murphy recalled his senior colleague’s love of economics and the university.

“He was devoted to and helped define Chicago Economics, a rich tradition that uses economics to understand and shape the world around us," said Murphy, the George J. Stigler Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the Chicago Booth School of Business. “Gary was an inspiration to several generations of Chicago students—instilling in them the love for economics that he lived and breathed.”

Becker was an assistant professor at the University of Chicago from 1954 to 1957, and took a teaching position at Columbia University and the National Bureau of Economic Research in 1957. He divided his time between teaching at Columbia and doing research at the NBER for 12 years. He returned to Chicago in 1970, and received a joint appointment with the Department of Sociology in 1983. He joined Chicago Booth in 2002.

Becker considered his move to Columbia an integral part of his development, writing in his Nobel biography that he would have been hindered developmentally had he not challenged himself and “left the nest.”

The Nobel Foundation, describing its decision to award Becker the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 1992, praised Becker “for having extended the domain of microeconomic analysis to a wide range of human behavior and interaction, including nonmarket behavior.”

Becker noted in his biography that he and Columbia colleague Jacob Mincer “were doing research on human capital before this subject was adequately appreciated in the profession at large, and the students found it fascinating. We were also working on the allocation of time, and other subjects in the forefront of research.”

At the time of his death, Becker was an active faculty member at the University of Chicago Department of Economics and the Chicago Booth School of Business, as well as with the Becker-Friedman Institute for Research in Economics, where he was chair.

Becker also was Rose-Marie and Jack R. Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, a Research Associate of the Economics Research Center at the National Opinion Research Center, and an associate member of the Institute of Fiscal and Monetary Policy for the Ministry of Finance in Japan.

In 1952, Becker published two articles, “The Classical Monetary Theory: The Outcome of the Discussion” and “A Note on Multi-Country Trade,” based on research he conducted at Princeton. In 1957, he published, “A Statistical Illusion in Judging Keynesian Models,” which he wrote with Friedman, and “The Economics of Discrimination,” which was based on his PhD dissertation.

Becker received the John Bates Clark Medal in 1967, then given biennially to the most promising economists younger than 40.

Becker was born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, but spent his formative years in Brooklyn, having moved when he was about 4. He had an interest in math that he decided to pursue more seriously when he turned 16, and he found inspiration in his family’s lively discussions about politics and justice, the combination of which would eventually shape his career.

He received his bachelor’s degree from Princeton University in 1951, finishing in three years, and his PhD in economics from the University of Chicago in 1955.

Becker is survived by his wife Guity; his daughters, Catherine Becker and Judy Becker; a sister, Natalie Becker; a stepson, Cyrus Claffey; and two grandsons.

The University of Chicago will plan a memorial service to honor Becker’s life and work, with details to be announced at a later date.