Aloysius Siow’s Obituary for Gary Becker

My friend Aloysius Siow and I were graduate students at the University of Chicago in the mid to late 1970s, where we took courses from Gary Becker, and attended his workshop. In the past, I have posted several entries on Becker on this blog that appear under the Category “Becker, Gary.” I expect to write some thoughts on his passing, but am not ready to do so yet. Aloysius drafted an obituary without delay, and kindly said it was OK for me to post it as an entry on this blog.

Obituary: Gary Becker
The Father of Economics Imperialism

By Aloysius Siow, Professor of Economics
University of Toronto
May 4, 2014

Gary Becker, an American economist, died on May 3 at the age of 83.
His major contribution was the systematic application of economics to the analysis of social issues. Before his work, economists primarily studied how markets and market economies worked. He used economics to study discrimination, criminal behavior, human capital, marriage, fertility and other social issues.
He won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1992. He also won the John Bates Clark medal, awarded to the best American economist under 40, in 1967; and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor award by the US president to a civilian, in 2007.
Becker’s father, Louis William Becker, migrated from Montreal to the United States at age sixteen and moved several times before settling down in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Becker’s mother was Anna Siskind. He was born in Pottsville in 1930. At age five, Gary and his family moved to Brooklyn. He studied in Princeton University as an undergraduate. He did his PhD at the University of Chicago where he met Milton Friedman who would have an enormous influence on his intellectual development. After he obtained his PhD, Becker spent a few years as an assistant professor at the University of Chicago and then moved to Columbia University.
His path breaking 1955 dissertation was on the economics of discrimination. It was the first systematic study of a non-traditional economic topic using economics. In it, he argued that the difference in wages between a majority and a minority group can be used to measure the extent of discrimination in the labor market. When one points out today that it is unfair that women earn 80 percent of what men make, they are channeling Becker. His thesis analyzed how the South African system of apartheid benefited Whites at the expense of Blacks in South Africa. This analysis predated the Anti-apartheid Boycott Movement of the West which started in 1959.
The methodology and concern of his thesis previewed his research career. At the time of the publication of his thesis in 1957, economics was a conservative discipline, restricting itself to the study of the behavior of markets and market economies. Becker set for himself the task of systematically applying the tools of economics to the study of social issues. At the beginning, his work was generally ignored if not actually denigrated within the profession. Economists were supposed to study more important concerns.
After studying discrimination, he provided a modern economic theory of criminal behavior. Together with his study on discrimination, this work inspired the development of the law and economics movement.
At Columbia University, he began a systematic study of human capital, the study of the allocation of time and other topics in labor economics. Together with his colleague Jacob Mincer, they wrote many of the important papers in labor economics and also produced many successful graduate students. For example, their graduate student, Michael Grossman, wrote his thesis on health economics where he applied economics to the study of individual maintenance of health. Today, health economics is a major field of study and a central pillar of health policy. Due to the topics they worked on, they also attracted and successfully supervised many female PhD students. Claudia Goldin of Harvard University is perhaps his most illustrious female PhD student.
In 1970, Becker returned to the University of Chicago where he remained as a professor until his death. He continue to apply his economics to the study of the family, including the behavior of marriage markets, allocation of resources within the family and fertility behavior. The discussion of how economics can affect fertility anticipated government policies which seek to increase their native fertility rates. For example, Singapore has over 30 programs which seeks to increase her fertility rate.
Today, Becker’s approach is known as the rational choice approach in the social sciences. As the economics profession grew to appreciate his contributions, other social sciences have mixed feelings about his influence. On the one hand, they appreciate how he led economists to study different social issues. On the other hand, other social scientists often feel threatened by the invasion of economists.
Economists systematically use mathematical methods, statistical analysis and often large data sets. They prioritize cost benefit calculus over other factors which may also affect individual behavior. They had little patience with qualitative studies. Thus some social scientists felt that their contributions were unfairly ignored and so resisted the application of economics to their fields. For example, the Critical Legal Studies movement was developed in the 1970s in part in reaction to the success of the law and economics movement in law schools. In political science, rational choice theory is now a core field of study. Yet there are many political scientists who reject this approach.
Interestingly, motivated by the work of psychologists, economists have also begun to reject the purely rational calculus model of Becker as too narrow. Rather, these behavioral economics researchers argue that individuals have bounded rationality and are subject to systematic biases in their behavior. For example, Robert Shiller, a Nobel economist, has argued that bubbles occur in asset markets due to psychological biases. Thus the success of Becker has led to qualifications which is a hallmark of progress in science.
Contrary to many successful economists, Becker did not spend much time consulting for either the government or business. He was a conservative but unlike his mentor Milton Friedman, his direct influence on policy was minimal. Rather, the various economic fields which he instigated have had and continue to have significant influence on public policy. For example, every politician who wants to spend more resources on public education says that they are investing in the human capital of their society. Today, economists systematically contribute to policy discussions on maternity leaves, subsidies for child care and other social issues.
On a personal note, I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the late seventies where I met Gary Becker. I was interested in social issues. But because he was so intimidating as a scholar, I did not write my thesis under him nor was it on those concerns. Ten years after I obtained my PhD, and after I had moved to the University of Toronto, I wrote my first paper on the economics of the family motivated by a discussion in evolutionary psychology. Our interest on the economics of the family overlapped and we subsequently have had many professional interactions. I also began to realize that he did not know everything and that it is fine to work on topics which he had worked on.
Later in his life, he would sometimes introduce me as a former PhD student. At first I would correct him. But later I did not because perhaps he was right.

Gary Becker’s Grandson Ponders Opportunity Cost of College

HarboeLouisYoungTechEntrepreneur2014-03-30.jpg

“Louis Harboe with his parents, Frederik Harboe and Catherine Becker. Louis, now 18, got his first freelance tech job at age 12. Last year, he attended the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 1) Ryan was headed to South by Southwest Interactive, the technology conference in Austin. There, he planned to talk up an app that he and a friend had built. Called Finish, it aimed to help people stop procrastinating, and was just off its high in the No. 1 spot in the productivity category in the Apple App store.
. . .
Ryan is now 17, a senior at Boulder High. He is among the many entrepreneurially minded, technologically skilled teenagers who are striving to do serious business. Their work is enabled by low-cost or free tools to make apps or to design games, and they are encouraged by tech companies and grown-ups in the field who urge them, sometimes with financial support, to accelerate their transition into “the real world.” This surge in youthful innovation and entrepreneurship looks “unprecedented,” said Gary Becker, a University of Chicago economist and a Nobel laureate.
Dr. Becker is assessing this subject from a particularly intimate vantage point. His grandson, Louis Harboe, 18, is a friend of (p. 6) Ryan’s, a technological teenager who makes Ryan look like a late bloomer. Louis, pronounced Louie, got his first freelance gig at the age of 12, designing the interface for an iPhone game. At 16, Louis, who lives with his parents in Chicago, took a summer design internship at Square, an online and mobile payment company in San Francisco, earning $1,000 a week plus a $1,000 housing stipend.
Ryan and Louis, who met online in the informal network of young developers, are hanging out this weekend in Austin at South by Southwest. They are also waiting to hear from the colleges to which they applied last fall — part of the parallel universe they also live in, the traditional one with grades and SATs and teenage responsibilities. But unlike their peers for whom college is the singular focus, they have pondered whether to go at all. It’s a good kind of problem, the kind faced by great high-school athletes or child actors who can try going pro, along with all the risk that entails.
Dr. Becker, who studies microeconomics and education, has been telling his grandson: “Go to college. Go to college.” College, he says, is the clear step to economic success. “The evidence is overwhelming.”
But the “do it now” idea, evangelized on a digital pulpit, can feel more immediate than academic empiricism. “College is not a prerequisite,” said Jess Teutonico, who runs TEDxTeen, a version of the TED talks and conferences for youth, where Ryan spoke a few weeks ago. “These kids are motivated to take over the world,” she said. “They need it fast. They need it now.”

For the full story, see:
MATT RICHTEL. “The Youngest Technorati.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Fri., MARCH 9, 2014): 1 & 6.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date MARCH 8, 2014.)

The War on Drugs Likely “Increased the Rate of Addiction”

DrugPrisonerGraph2013-02-03.jpg

Source of graph: online version of the WSJ commentary quoted and cited below.

(p. C1) President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in 1971. The expectation then was that drug trafficking in the United States could be greatly reduced in a short time through federal policing–and yet the war on drugs continues to this day. The cost has been large in terms of lives, money and the well-being of many Americans, especially the poor and less educated. By most accounts, the gains from the war have been modest at best.

The direct monetary cost to American taxpayers of the war on drugs includes spending on police, the court personnel used to try drug users and traffickers, and the guards and other resources spent on imprisoning and punishing those convicted of drug offenses. Total current spending is estimated at over $40 billion a year.
These costs don’t include many other harmful effects of the war on drugs that are difficult to quantify. For example, over the past 40 years the fraction of students who have dropped out of American high schools has remained large, at about 25%. Dropout rates are not high for middle-class white children, but they are very high for black and Hispanic children living in poor neighborhoods. Many factors explain the high dropout rates, especially bad schools and weak family support. But another important factor in inner-city neighborhoods is the temptation to drop out of school in order to profit from the drug trade.
The total number of persons incarcerated in state and federal prisons in the U.S. has grown from 330,000 in 1980 to about 1.6 million today. Much of the increase in this population is directly due to the war on drugs and the severe punishment for persons convicted of drug trafficking. About 50% of the inmates in federal prisons and 20% of those in state prisons have been convicted of either selling or using drugs. The many minor drug traffickers and drug users who spend time in jail find fewer opportunities for legal employment after they get out of prison, and they develop better skills at criminal activities.
. . .
(p. C2) It is generally harder to break an addiction to illegal goods, like drugs. Drug addicts may be leery of going to clinics or to nonprofit “drugs anonymous” groups for help. They fear they will be reported for consuming illegal substances. Since the consumption of illegal drugs must be hidden to avoid arrest and conviction, many drug consumers must alter their lives in order to avoid detection.
Usually overlooked in discussions of the effects of the war on drugs is that the illegality of drugs stunts the development of ways to help drug addicts, such as the drug equivalent of nicotine patches. Thus, though the war on drugs may well have induced lower drug use through higher prices, it has likely also increased the rate of addiction. The illegality of drugs makes it harder for addicts to get help in breaking their addictions. It leads them to associate more with other addicts and less with people who might help them quit.
. . .
The decriminalization of both drug use and the drug market won’t be attained easily, as there is powerful opposition to each of them. The disastrous effects of the American war on drugs are becoming more apparent, however, not only in the U.S. but beyond its borders. Former Mexican President Felipe Calderon has suggested “market solutions” as one alternative to the problem. Perhaps the combined efforts of leaders in different countries can succeed in making a big enough push toward finally ending this long, enormously destructive policy experiment.

For the full commentary, see:
GARY S. BECKER and KEVIN M. MURPHY. “Have We Lost the War on Drugs? After more than four decades of a failed experiment, the human cost has become too high. It is time to consider the decriminalization of drug use and the drug market.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., January 5, 2013): C1 & C2.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date January 4, 2013.)

Behavioral Economics Does Not Undermine Capitalism

thinkingfastandslowBK2012-06-21.jpg

Source of book image: http://www.brainpickings.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/thinkingfastandslow.jpg

Daniel Kahneman first gained fame in economics through research with Tversky in which they showed that some of economists’ assumptions about human rationality do not always hold true.
Kahneman, whose discipline is psychology, went on to win the Nobel Prize in economics, sharing the prize with Vernon Smith. (Since the Prize is not normally awarded posthumously, Tversky was not a candidate.)
I have always thought that ultimately there should be only one unified science of human behavior—not claims that are “true” in economics and other claims that are “true” in psychology. (I even thought of minoring in psychology in college, before I realized that the price of minoring included taking time-intensive lab courses where you watched rats run through mazes.)
But I don’t think the implications of current work in behavioral economics are as clear as has often been asserted.
Some important results in economics do not depend on strong claims of rationality. For instance, the most important “law” in economics is the law of demand, and that law is due to human constraints more than to human rationality. Gary Becker, early in his career, wrote an interesting paper in which he showed that the law of demand could also be derived from habitual and random behavior. (I remember in conversation, George Stigler saying that he did not like this paper by Becker, because it did not hone closely to the rationality assumption that Stigler and Becker defended in their “De Gustibus” article.)
The latest book by Kahneman is rich and stimulating. It mainly consists of cataloging the names of, and evidence for, a host of biases and errors that humans make in thinking. But that does not mean we cannot choose to be more rational when it matters. Kahneman believes that there is a conscious System 2 that can over-ride the unconscious System 1. In fact, part of his motive for cataloging bias and irrationality is precisely so that we can be aware, and over-ride when it matters.
Sometimes it is claimed, as for instance in a Nova episode on PBS, that bias and irrationality were the main reasons for the financial crisis of 2008. I believe the more important causes were policy mistakes, like Clinton and Congress pressuring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to make home loans to those who did not have the resources to repay them; and past government bailouts encouraging finance firms to take greater risks. And the length and depth of the crisis were increased by government stimulus and bailout programs. If instead, long-term cuts had been made in taxes, entrepreneurs would have had more of the resources they need to create start-ups that would have stimulated growth and reduced unemployment.
More broadly, aspects of behavioral economics mentioned, but not emphasized, by Kahneman, can actually strengthen the underpinnings for the case in favor of entrepreneurial capitalism. Entrepreneurs may be more successful when they are allowed to make use of informal knowledge that would not be classified as “rational” in the usual sense. (I discuss this some in my forthcoming paper, “The Epistemology of Entrepreneurship.”)
Still, there are some useful and important examples and discussions in Kahneman’s book. In the next several weeks, I will be quoting some of these.

Book discussed:
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

The Becker article mentioned above is:
Becker, Gary S. “Irrational Behavior and Economic Theory.” Journal of Political Economy 70, no. 1 (Feb. 1962): 1-13.

The Stigler-Becker article mentioned above is:
Stigler, George J., and Gary S. Becker. “De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum.” American Economic Review 67, no. 2 (March 1977): 76-90.

Gary Becker Says “Economics Trumps Culture”

At the Chicago American Economic Association (AEA) meetings, I attended an 8 AM session on Sun., Jan. 8, 2012 in honor of the 30 anniversary of Gary Becker’s Treatise on the Family. At the end of the session, Becker discussed five issues related to the book.
One of these was the question of whether the features of the family are best understood on the basis of economic issues or cultural issues. He mentioned two examples: the Irish family and the Asian family. In the past it had been claimed that the Irish family would have enduring features due to religion and culture, features such as many children and women who stayed at home. Today, Becker noted, the Irish family looks much like other European families. He then paraphrased Singapore’s former ruler Lee Kuan Yew as having claimed in the past that the Asian family is superior to the Western family in its cohesiveness and loyalty. Today, Becker noted, Asian families look much more like Western families. Becker concluded that in the short run cultural factors may dominate, but that in the long run economic factors dominate. He said “Economics trumps culture.”
Becker’s discussion has broader relevance. One of the issues that I am grappling with in my research and teaching is the extent to which success at entrepreneurial innovation depends on cultural differences and the extent to which it depends on differences in constraints and policies.
If policies matter more, then it is easier to see a clear path toward progress, than if murkier cultural issues matter more.

Reduce Spending for Stronger Economy

GovernmentSpendingGraph2011-04-25.jpgSource of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A17) To the extent that government spending crowds out job-creating private investment, it can actually worsen unemployment. Indeed, extensive government efforts to stimulate the economy and reduce joblessness by spending more have failed to reduce joblessness.

Above all, the federal government needs a credible and transparent budget strategy. It’s time for a game-changer–a budget action that will stop the recent discretionary spending binge before it gets entrenched in government agencies.
. . .
We can see such a sensible budget strategy starting to emerge. The first step of the strategy is largely being addressed by the House budget plan for 2011, or HR1. Though voted down in its entirety by the Senate, it is now being split up into “continuing” resolutions that add up to the same spending levels.

For the full commentary, see:

GARY S. BECKER, GEORGE P. SHULTZ AND JOHN B. TAYLOR. “OPINION; Time for a Budget Game-Changer; Assurance that current tax levels will remain in place would provide an immediate stimulus. House Republican budget planners are on the right track.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., APRIL 4, 2011): A17.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

China’s Continued Growth Requires Reliance on Private Enterprise

(p. A21) No country in the modern world has managed persistent economic growth without considerable reliance on private enterprise and decentralized private markets. All centrally planned economies failed to achieve sustained development, including the Soviet Union before its collapse, China before market reforms began in the late 1970s, and Cuba since Castro’s revolution in the late 1950s.

China’s private sector has led its dominance in textiles, electronics, and other consumer and producer goods. It’s followed the model of the “Asian Tigers”–Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan–and relied heavily on exports produced with cheap labor. In the process, China has accumulated enormous reserves, as Taiwan, Japan and other rapidly growing Asian economies did in past decades.
Poorer countries like China need not get everything “right” to grow rapidly through exports to richer countries. They need only have some strong sectors that use world markets to fuel overall growth. Japan’s rapid growth from the 1960s-1980s was led by a highly efficient manufacturing sector. Yet at the same time Japan also had a large and inefficient service sector, and an agricultural sector that was riddled with subsidies and inefficient incentives.
Similarly, China’s economy still has a glut of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) with excessive employment and low productivity. Their importance has fallen over time, but Chinese economists estimate that they still control about half of nonagricultural GDP. One crucial example is the state-controlled financial sector that makes cheap loans to other large, inefficient and unprofitable state enterprises. China’s economy also suffers from extensive price controls, restrictions on migration, and many other structural barriers to efficient growth.

For the full commentary, see:

GARY S. BECKER. “China’s Next Leap Forward; The jump from middle-income to rich status is much harder to achieve than the ascent from poverty. But there are plenty of reasons to believe China’s growth prospects remain strong.” The Wall Street Journal (Weds., SEPTEMBER 29, 2010): A21.