Gary Becker, RIP
Gary Becker passed away on May 4, 2014 at age 83. There will be many obituaries written about this Nobel Prize winning economist, focusing on his numerous and important contributions to the dismal science. Here, instead, I will tell a more personal story, my own private interactions with my first mentor, Gary Becker.
I entered the Columbia University graduate program in economics in 1965. There were about 100 of us, so they assigned the new entrants to three different sections. The top one was taught by Becker, the middle one by William Vickery who also later won the Nobel Prize in economics, and the section for the least prepared of the students was taught by Roger Alcaly. I lucked out and landed in Becker’s microeconomics course. Those were heady days for me. This was the time before I met Murray Rothbard, and became an Austrian economist; I was a staunch follower of Gary’s: a logical positivist, an empiricist, a follower of the Chicago School of thought, as was this teacher of mine.
One of my recollections of being in his course was the time a thought just sort of burst out of me without forethought. I said, “I never knew that!” (I forget which of his teachings this reaction of mine involved.) Gary’s immediate response was “You’re learning something Block,” which cracked up the class although in retrospect it does not now seem all that funny to me in the written word. But the way he said it certainly entertained the class.
Prof. Becker gave out problem sets as homework and encouraged us students to work together on them. I figured that as a group effort he could not really count these efforts in the final grade he assigned, so I didn’t really put much if any effort into them. My mistake. I think I had the lowest grades of anyone who passed that course, maybe a B minus to the best of my recollection.
Despite this, Gary agreed to become my thesis advisor. My topic was rent control. One of the highlights of working with him on this was the time that my econometric equations did not show the ill effects of this pernicious legislation. Gary told me to go out and do this all over again until I got it right. Later, I realized that this was one of the cracks in logical positivism in economics: if we knew what the effects of rent control were, and we certainly did based on basic supply and demand analysis, what was testing what: was my pathetic empirical study testing what theory told us, or was the theory testing my econometric analyses? Obviously the latter.
Another high point in my experience at Columbia was the Gary Becker-Jacob Mincer workshop in labor economics. Graduate students would present their thesis findings, out-of-town professors would present their latest research, and Becker, more often than not, would jump all over everyone — me certainly included when it was my turn. I now run a seminar at Loyola University which is very much patterned after that experience.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Before anyone could begin writing a dissertation, he had to pass an oral examination. I presented four fields: Becker in labor, and three others. While one of the others was grilling me, I could see Gary folding his arms against his chest, frowning, and shaking his head “no.” This was a bit unnerving, to say the least. Needless to say, I failed on that occasion. But I did pass on my second try, and thus qualified to write a dissertation.
At around the time he won the John Bates Clark award for being the economist under the age of 40 who had made the greatest contribution to economics, Gary had a bunch of us students over to his house. I got to see where this great man composed some of his publications and met members of his family. This was another high point in my intellectual career; and a practice I try to emulate with my own students.
Another interaction I had with Gary was that he and some other family members owned a four-family commercial building in Brooklyn. Knowing of my interest in real estate, he asked me to get him a tenant for an empty suite. I did so. I think few of his students ever had any commercial relationship with him. I was fortunate to see this dimension of him.
Gary Becker left Columbia for the University of Chicago in 1970, when I was in the middle of writing my dissertation. I used to joke that Columbia wasn’t big enough for me and Gary, and that he had to leave. Gary assigned me to William Landes as my next dissertation advisor, and, sure enough, Bill also soon departed from Columbia for the University of Chicago. Like the mouse who helped the elephant shake the bridge when he rode over it on his back, I claimed responsibility for both of these departures. I’m pretty sure that neither went west just to escape me.
Several years later, I forget exactly when, perhaps in the 1990s, I attended a conference, and, as luck would have it, I sat right next to Gary. Someone said something in the question and answer period, and I muttered my thoughts out loud in front of him. I said something to the effect: “Drat, I was going to say just what that guy said.” Gary’s response: “Raise your hand and say this in your own words; we can’t have too much of the truth.” This is but one small example of how this man supported his students. I was not one of his more successful students in terms of prestige accomplishments (by the standards of mainstream economics) that would make him proud of me. Indeed, I think I was one of his worst students, in terms of not following in his philosophical path. My embracing of Austrian economics was a disappointment to him, I have always thought. And, yet, Gary was almost always entirely encouraging to me.
My main mentor in economics is of course Murray Rothbard. But Gary Becker was there first, before I had met Murray. I learned a valuable lesson from both of them: to encourage my own students, to support them, even if I do not agree with them. The teacher-student relationship is a very important and powerful one in the realm of ideas, and I am very lucky that for about five years I fell under the sway of one of the most creative economists on the planet, and surely one of the nicest, Gary S. Becker.
I did have one occasion upon which I publicly criticized my old teacher and mentor. He had called Austrian economics a “cult” and this did not sit too well with me. Here is the op-ed I wrote in response. However, I am happy to say that we remained on good terms even despite this philosophical parting of our ways, as can be seen from the correspondence we included in the above-mentioned op-ed.
One last thought: I debated Richard Epstein at the University of Chicago in 2004. Purely on a lark, and completely unannounced, I looked up Gary’s courses, and went to the room where he was teaching five minutes before his class was scheduled to start. I went with my young cousin Dan Levine, who was enrolled at the University of Chicago Law School at the time. Not only did Gary make his class wait for 15 minutes while he talked to me, but went out of his way to offer my cousin Dan any help he could give him. This meant quite a bit to me, as I very much wanted, and still do, Gary to like me, to be proud of me, despite the fact that I followed his path in economics and politics only partially. This extraordinary kindness of his gave me evidence that this was true.