Becker Podcast

by Russ Roberts on July 11, 2006

in Podcast

In this podcast with Gary Becker, we talk about the economic approach to human behavior, Becker’s status as a maverick in the early part of his career, and the influence of Smith and Marshall on Becker.

Becker points out that the older, more established members of the profession treated his early  work with disdain but that younger members of the profession found his work exciting.

We stopped there and moved on to another topic, but I wonder if economics is particularly susceptible to intellectual fads relative to other fields. Much of the most powerful ideas of economics are unchanged since Adam Smith. So there is always going to be a tendency for the younger members of the profession to look for ways to be distinctive and marketable. That makes new niches for publication particularly attractive.

I’m not suggesting that Becker’s work was attractive simply because it was novel. It was exciting. But the incentives for younger folk must have surely played a role in making it more appealing to them than to their elders.

Later in the podcast, Becker dismisses the idea that "everything had been figured out" and all the easy problems had already been solved. He’s surely right that there is plenty left to do in economics. But I wonder how the field is shaped because of the difference between the social sciences and the physical sciences. In the physical sciences, technology helps make measurement more accurate or possible where it was impossible before. Other than neuroeconomics, there isn’t much of a role for technology in making measurement more powerful or opening up new areas for research. If anything, cheap computing power has made empirical research less reliable (JSTOR subscription required) because it has made searching for a statistically significant result easier.

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{ 4 comments }

happyjuggler0 July 11, 2006 at 3:34 pm

Gary Becker is the man. Can you imagine his notion of human capital was once considered highly controversial? Wow! This guy has radically changed our notions of how the world works.

This is a link for an article on Becker:

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/b15f2cbc-fc32-11da-9599-0000779e2340.html

Half Sigma July 11, 2006 at 5:26 pm

Economists need to get together with the people programming virtual worlds (like Final Fantasy XI or World of Warcraft) and design economic experiments into the games that could never be done in real life.

Dan Landau July 13, 2006 at 12:50 pm

Becker didn’t invent human capital, T. W. Schultz rightly got the Nobel for that. Becker was a student of Schultz. I think Becker’s greatest achievement is applying economic approaches to sociological problems. He is leading us towards the reintegration of economics, sociology, & political science. We need that to progress on some rather important theoretical issues in economics, like economic growth. As Becker’s earlier work showed, they need us even more.

t July 18, 2006 at 1:57 am

Awesome podcast. Keep 'em coming!

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