My personal debt to Gary Becker (RIP)
May 4, 2014
Mark D. White
I was very sad to hear of Professor Gary Becker's passing. Although I never met him, and heard him speak only once, he had a tremendous impact on my life and career.
As an undergraduate economics major in college, I was focusing on monetary economics and anticipating a career with the Federal Reserve -- I wasn't even thinking of graduate school at that point. And like many an economics geek, I would confuse amaze my friends by applying reasoning based on marginal benefit and cost to everything in their lives, advising them (for instance) to ignore the sunk costs of "everything they'd put into a relationship" and focus on whether they were likely to derive positive net benefit from it going forward.
Oh how they mocked me.
But then two things happened. One was the publication of Richard Posner's book Sex and Reason, which applied basic economic reasoning to a variety of sexual topics. The other was Gary Becker's being awarded the Nobel Prize and my subsequent introduction to his work on crime, discrimination, and the family.
Validation at last! Here were two brilliant scholars, at the top of their fields, applying economic reasoning to topics other than the traditional subject matter of undergraduate economics: interest rates, GDP, and widgets. I loved the internal logic of economics since my sixth-grade teacher Mr. Dalton drew a supply-and-demand diagram on the chalkboard, but I was bored by the topics to which it was normally applied in my college classes. And here were Becker and Posner, doing interesting things with economics -- dare I say, sexy things -- and being heralded for it!
Furthermore, they showed me that I could have an academic career studying these things using economics. So I forgot about Alan Greenspan's job and instead applied to graduate schools (which I would have had to do anyway, but I hadn't thought that far ahead yet). My eventual graduate program didn't focus on "Becker topics," so instead I took the full range of microeconomics courses to get the basic modeling techniques under my fingers. And while I wasn't working on marriage or crime as I progressed toward my PhD, I did always have them in the back of my mind -- and I would include these topics in the introductory economics courses I taught in graduate school and beyond.
By the time I addressed topics like marriage and the family in writing, it was as part of a critique of the ethical foundations of mainstream economics. The same topics that fascinated me and drew me into academic economics as an undergraduate later frustrated me because of the difficulty mainstream economics had dealing with their inherent normativity. People don't help their family members and obey the law simply because the expected payoff exceeds the expected cost -- there's often more to it than that, ethical factors that are not easily reducible to raw utility. Economics has a valuable perspective to offer on these issues, although it is neither complete nor dispositive.
But, I repeat, it is valuable. And for that value, anyone who studied topics such as crime, discrimination, and the family -- or economics in general -- owes Professor Becker a tremendous debt of gratitude. My personal debts go much deeper, of course: I thank him for showing me a new avenue for my curiosity and, indirectly, for inspiring my shift to philosophy to supplement the economic approach he helped to teach me. Rest in peace, sir.