Gary S. Becker, 83, Nobel Winner Who Applied Economics to Everyday Life, Dies

Gary S. Becker, a Nobel prize-winning economics professor and longtime columnist for Business Week whose research illuminated motivations about such aspects of everyday life as marriage, crime, addiction, racial discrimination and birthrates, died on Saturday in Chicago. He was 83.

His death, after a long illness, was announced by the University of Chicago, where he was a professor of economics and of sociology.

Professor Becker, who grew up in Brooklyn, remained active into his 80s. In 2004 he began a blog on which he and a colleague, Richard A. Posner, a legal scholar and federal appeals court judge, commented on such issues as gun control — Professor Becker proposed to tax guns heavily — and trends in education.

An original, prolific and sometimes provocative scholar, Professor Becker was widely regarded as a towering figure in his field. Like his teacher and then colleague at the University of Chicago, Milton Friedman, he held to a free-market orientation.

The two were the only ones to have received both the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Professor Becker received his Nobel in 1992; Mr. Friedman was awarded his in 1976.

President George W. Bush bestowed the Medal of Freedom on Professor Becker at the White House in 2007, saying, “Professor Becker has shown that economic principles do not just exist in theory.”

In applying his work to public policy, the president added, Professor Becker had become “one of the most influential economists of the past hundred years.”

Professor Becker was best known for his work in labor economics. Starting from the assumption that all elements of society are rational economic agents, he focused on the motivating factors of human behavior rather than on the study of broad economic trends.

The work inspired researchers in other fields, including anthropology and political science. He himself also held a joint appointment in the economics and sociology departments at the University of Chicago.

“Gary Becker may well go down in history as the chief architect in the designing of a truly general science of society,” said George J. Stigler, a mentor and another University of Chicago Nobel laureate.

Professor Becker’s inquiries cast fresh light on social phenomena previously regarded as having little or no economic dimension. Households, for example, were long seen simply as entities intent only on maximizing consumption, but Mr. Becker saw them as small factories that also produce valuable, though nonmarketable, basics of life, like leisure and sleeping.

One of his early works, “The Economics of Discrimination,” which grew out of his doctoral thesis, attracted little notice when it was first published in 1957, but it won acclaim with the rise of the civil rights movement.

In the book, Professor Becker asserted that to better understand any form of discrimination, one needs to quantify what people are willing to pay to avoid one another’s company. He concluded that the perpetrator of discrimination is harmed as well as the victim.

“Every time I discriminate — if I decline to hire a black and instead hire a white, when they’re equally productive, but the black is cheaper — I’m losing,” he said in a 1993 interview with Modern Maturity magazine.

Professor Becker’s “A Treatise on the Family” (1981) studied people’s interactions in such private areas as choosing a spouse, divorce, deciding how many children to have and whether to leave money to them rather than spend it in retirement.

Among many other things, he sought to explain why family size has tended to decline as income rises, finding that wealthier parents were choosing to invest more in quality at the expense of quantity. Women’s time became more valuable as they swelled the work force and earned more money, he found.

One of the best-known elements of the book was the “rotten kid” theorem. “Children have an incentive to act altruistically toward each other as their parents want them to, even if children are really egotistical,” he wrote.

In another study, in 1991, he sought to explain why extremely popular restaurants or Broadway plays often do not expand or raise prices as much as demand might suggest. He concluded that social influences provided the answer. Consumers may value the access to a scarce product — sometimes called a positional good — or enjoy the camaraderie of lines. Providers also realize that public taste can be fickle and demand may ultimately slacken.

Professor Becker was rarely tied formally to political candidates; an exception came in 1996, when he was an adviser to Senator Robert Dole, a Republican, during his presidential campaign. But his views, expressed monthly in Business Week for nearly two decades and then in the Becker-Posner Blog, were reliably consistent with free-market conservatism.

His work led him to favor school vouchers, a volunteer army, pay for college athletes, legalization of drugs, stiffer criminal sentences and relaxation of minimum-wage laws.

Gary Stanley Becker was born on Dec. 2, 1930, in the coal-mining city of Pottsville, Pa., where his father owned a small business, and moved with his parents, his brother and two sisters, to Brooklyn as a child. There, he took an interest in the stock market and financial news, which he read to his father, who was losing his sight.

At 16, as a student at James Madison High School, he faced a choice between the math team and the handball team, which met at the same time; he chose math, even though he considered himself better at handball.

He went on to attend Princeton University, graduating in 1951. In 2008, the Princeton Alumni Weekly ranked him No. 11 on a list of most influential Princetonians in its 261-year history. (James Madison, class of 1771, was first.)

After taking graduate degrees at the University of Chicago, he moved to Columbia University, where he became a professor of economics at age 30. He returned to Chicago as a visiting faculty member but was persuaded by Professor Stigler to stay.

In 2011, the University of Chicago named a research institute in honor of Professor Becker and Milton Friedman, the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics. Professor Becker was named its chairman.

Beginning in 1973, he was also affiliated with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he became a senior fellow in 1990 and spent a few weeks each year. He summered on Cape Cod.

Professor Becker’s first wife, Doria Slote, died in 1969.

He is survived by his wife, Guity Nashat, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern history at the University of Illinois at Chicago; two daughters from his first marriage, Catherine Becker and Judy Becker; two stepsons, Cyrus Claffey and Michael Claffey; a sister, Natalie Becker; two step-grandchildren; and two grandchildren.

Professors Becker and Nashat collaborated in 1997 on “The Economics of Life: From Baseball to Affirmative Action to Immigration, How Real-World Issues Affect Our Everyday Life.” She persuaded him to write the column for Business Week, where he held forth from 1985 until 2004.

In his 1992 Nobel lecture, Professor Becker described how he employed economics to analyze social issues outside the discipline’s traditional range of vision.

He said that, unlike Marxists, he rejected the assumption that individuals were motivated solely by the prospect of selfish, material gain. Rather, he insisted, “behavior is driven by a much richer set of values and preferences” that can also include altruism, loyalty and spite.

Actions are constrained by various factors, but the most fundamental is limited time, he argued. “So while goods and services have expanded enormously in rich countries,” he said, “the total time available to consume has not. Thus wants remain unsatisfied in rich countries as well as in poor ones.”

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