Former Student Remembers Working Alongside Gary Becker: "He Was Always a Knock Away."


Gary Becker walks with a student in his earlier days of teaching at University of Chicago.

 

By Jesse Shapiro, George S. and Nancy B. Parker Professor of Economics at Brown University
 

When I was a postdoc at the University of Chicago, I often went to the office on Sundays.

The halls of Chicago Booth's (then Chicago GSB) Harper Center in Hyde Park were quiet, but not empty. People at Chicago like to work.

Often there would be a knock on the door sometime in the middle of the afternoon. Gary Becker was another Sunday regular. And he liked to check up on me. 

I was the inaugural Becker Fellow at the Becker Center on Chicago Price Theory, then a university-wide center, now an initiative of the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics.

It is hard to convey what it felt like to have Gary Becker stopping by to see how my work was going. You might liken it to Bono stopping by your garage to hear how the band is sounding, or Picasso coming round to have a look at your latest.

I wish that my reasons for admiring Becker's work were more original. But they mostly echo the praise given by many before me. In 1967, in awarding Becker the John Bates Clark Medal, the American Economic Association recognized Becker for "enlarg[ing] the scope and power of our science" with his "versatility and imagination." Becker did so much to broaden and deepen our discipline that it is hard to believe he was just one person. But there he was, knocking on my door.

During my time at Chicago, Becker was always a knock away. If I asked to have lunch, he made time later that same week. If he didn't hear from me for a while, he wrote to ask how things were going. When we talked about my latest work, Becker was both patient and direct.

From time to time Becker would invite me to present a paper in progress at his famous Applications of Economics Workshop. Becker and others commented liberally: for a 90-minute workshop, I would sometimes bring only 25 minutes of prepared material. But, though he always read the paper carefully, most of Becker's comments did not concern the details. Rather, Becker's comments pointed to the important issues that the paper didn't even touch. Often, I found, he was showing the way to the next paper, one I hadn't even started contemplating.

Becker's death in 2014 meant the loss of a warm friend and a north star, for me and I think for many others. I miss him, and I write this in remembrance of his presence in my life.