Gary Becker, RIP

by Russ Roberts on May 4, 2014

in Economics, Uncategorized

Gary Becker has passed away at the age of 83.

He was my PhD advisor at the University of Chicago. We graduate students were in awe of him and more than a little bit afraid of him. He had a very big brain and was never one for casual conversation or chit-chat.

He called on students randomly and challenged us with questions during class. He would bark out your last name and ask a question. Usually, the student would then ask him to repeat the question as a way to stall for time, mental wheels spinning furiously, hoping to find the right response. Knowing we might be called on, we paid close attention to the lecture, desperately trying to figure out the implications of the analysis so we could be ready for the question. They were not easy questions. Mostly he was patient with our imperfections. The only exception I remember was when a student declared that Becker didn’t understand Coase’s work. A collective gasp filled the air. We half-expected a lightning bolt to come down through the roof and kill the student on the spot.

When I was working on my dissertation and I wanted to see Becker, I would go to his secretary (Myrna Hieke) and she would give me a 15 minute time slot. When the time came, I would sit down and he would greet me with something like “Well?” I would tell him whatever I was struggling with and he would tell me how I could fix it. Even in that casual setting, the laser-like quality of his mind was apparent. I usually didn’t use the whole 15 minutes.

When you presented your paper at his workshop, the expectation was that all of the participants had read your paper and there was no need for you to present it. You were given five minutes to mention anything you felt might be of interest and then the participants grilled you for 90 minutes. Becker was the main griller. His copy of the paper being presented had a special look that we students envied. It was covered in comments, but more than that, it looked like it had been run over by a car a few times. It was a scary place for a student to present but we were helped by the fact that a lot of illustrious guests from outside of Chicago also seemed to find it somewhat challenging.

His interview on EconTalk was the ninth episode of what is now over 400 episodes. It was a kindness on his part that helped me recruit other guests. We talked last fall about doing another interview but it fell through. I wish now I had tried a little harder to make it happen.

He exuded honesty and a desire to discover the truth. He gave all of us intellectual license to pursue economics to wherever it might lead. His confidence in economics inspired us. His curiosity and his reasoning powers were unparalleled. George Stigler liked to say about economics and economists that there is only one social science and we are its practitioners. Gary Becker, more than anyone, gave empirical support to Stigler’s claim. He was a giant. I’ll miss him.

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