An Economist for the Ages

STANFORD – Like many others, I first met the Nobel laureate economist Gary Becker, who died earlier this month, by reading his seminal works Human Capital and The Economics of Discrimination. Several dozen outstanding economists have won the Nobel Prize in Economics since Sweden’s central bank began awarding it in 1969, but Becker is among the handful who have fundamentally transformed how economists (and social scientists more generally) think about a wide array of important economic issues.

Becker was remarkable for applying his penetrating insights, especially concerning economic incentives, to issues that had been mostly underexplored by economic analysis. This included viewing education as an investment, asking who gained and lost from discrimination, examining how families allocated their time, and explaining women’s fertility decisions.

His research on any one or two of these issues might well have won him a Nobel Prize on its own; to develop important insights into such a wide range of questions is truly remarkable. He amply deserved the rare accolade accorded to him by his long-time mentor and friend, the late Milton Friedman (himself a Nobel laureate who, like Becker, transformed economists’ thinking in many areas). Becker, declared Friedman, was “the greatest social scientist who has lived and worked in the last half-century.”

Becker’s constant focus was on the main forces driving human behavior and people’s interaction both in markets and in non-market activities. Early in his career, his work was often criticized for being overly dependent on economic analysis in dealing with big social problems, sometimes touching raw nerves on very sensitive issues.