Gary Becker Put People at the Heart of Economics

Family, Friends, and Colleagues Remember A Great Social Scientist

A creative, fearless scholar. A loving father and “fairy grandfather.” An exemplary citizen of the University of Chicago. A researcher who put people and the problems at the heart of his research.  A good-humored man who was terrible at telling jokes. A deeply generous soul who gave his time and ideas to all—and made the world a better place.

President Zimmer mourns the loss of his colleague and friend.

These were a few of the facets of Gary S. Becker highlighted at an October 31 memorial at Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago. The service was a heartfelt and moving tribute to a man whose impact will long be remembered and whose loss is keenly felt by so many.

The ceremony concluded the Becker Friedman Institute’s two-day conference celebrating the life and work of Becker, who died May 3, 2014 following a short illness. 

President Robert J. Zimmer began by recalling his profound sense of shock and loss upon hearing of Gary’s death.  “I felt the loss in two ways: as a friend and colleague I respected and admired deeply, and also to the university community, which had lost a model citizen,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer recalled Milton Friedman’s praise for Gary as “the greatest social scientist who has lived and worked in the last half-century.” 

“I so greatly admire…the intellectual integrity and total intellectual fearlessness that gave him the room and freedom and fortitude” to fulfill this role.

Zimmer noted that in their first meeting, Gary expressed the need for an economics research institute—a need now realized in the Becker Friedman Institute. “It is a lasting institutional tribute to Gary and his teacher. I am glad we will have this reminder everyday as a keystone of Gary and what he stands for. “


A Great Family Man

“Many great men are not great family men, but my father was the best father anyone could ask for,” Judy Becker told the audience. "Gary S. Becker really loved his family and that’s the most important thing.”

He went sledding, bowling, and ice skating with his children and grandchildren.  He loved watching and playing sports, reading mystery novels, sports, classical music, the beach, and his wife Guity’s cooking.

Grandson Henry Harboe echoed Judy’s theme of Gary as a man of warmth and joy.

“For me, he was something of a fairy grandfather. He was as playful and loving to his family as he was feared, awed, and respected by students,” Harboe said.

Harbor said that his grandfather’s humor occupied a special place in his family’s hearts. “His jokes were frequent and terrible.”  When Harboe asked his brother for examples to give as evidence, the reply was, “What jokes? Those weren’t jokes!”

Gary’s stepson Cyrus Claffey noted, “He cared deeply about three things: family, work, and the [economics] department. He thought being a great teacher was just as important as being a great scholar,” and that extended to his family.

“One of the enduring lessons Gary taught me was the importance of character,” Claffey said. That’s the one immutable feature we always have control of. You measure a man not by his wealth but content of his character.”

Judy recalled with gratitude his “sage and positive advice.” 

“He taught me how to think for myself — to stand up for what I believe in, and never be afraid to go against common view,” she said. Harboe added, “I was never in his classroom, but the lessons I learned from him around the dining table will stay with me forever.”

Professionally, Judy Becker said, her father mastered the trick of being a true maverick while still being well liked. “He never pushed ideas on anybody, simply asked the right questions,” Harboe noted.

Claffey said he benefitted from hours of that sage advice, especially when starting a new business in recent years, and like so many others, mourned the loss of the opportunity to ask Gary’s opinion.

Another lesson all absorbed was Gary’s work ethic. “I’ve never seen anyone more disciplined; you could set your watch by his routine and work habits,” Claffey said.  His daughter added, “He taught us how important it is to love your work. He showed what it is to work 16-hour days but but say, ‘I never worked a day in my life.’”

“I wish he was here today to reap the rewards of all you are heaping upon him,” Claffey told the audience. “Through the deep feelings he left with you, he will continue to live on in our hearts and minds and in his place in history.”

Harboe concluded, “What I’ll miss most is special feeling of warmth and joy. I saw that joyousness in the eyes of strangers, friends, and colleagues whenever I was with him. He was my biggest inspiration, and the source of some of the happiest moments of my life. “

Putting People at the Heart of Economics

Gary’s special genius was recognizing that economics was about people, according to his frequent collaborator Kevin M. Murphy.

“Gary felt that if [something] was important to people, it should be important  to economists. He put people at the center of his universe.”

“People care about love— loving others, their children, their parents. Gary recognized that. He focused on marriage because marriage was important.  He focused on family because family was important,” Murphy said.

“I actually think he just kept plugging away at economics, and the rest of us didn’t realize it was economics until we looked back and saw what he had done. He recognized that people were at heart of problems, and brought profession around to that. We owe him a great debt of gratitude for doing that.”

Gary also showed that markets could not be banished from economics or our understanding of human behavior, said Murphy, the George J. Stigler Distunguished Service Professor of Economics. “Even if you had no formal markets, they would show up because markets were the way people interacted with one another.”

“I learned an enormous amount from Gary. He enriched our profession as much as anyone else I can think of. He made us realize what the goal line was—understanding human behavior. That shaped his work, and I would like to thank him very much for guiding us down that road.  Thank you, Gary.”

A Model Citizen

Steven M. Stigler offered a view of Gary through the lens of history. He recalled his father, George, using all his resources to persuade Gary to rejoin the UChicago economics faculty.

Along with Milton Friedman, statistics professor Jimmie Savage was another great influence on Gary, Stigler said. Savage’s work incorporating the view of a rational, utility-maximizing individual into statistics clearly influenced Gary’s work on rational choice theory.

Stigler experienced this when he got to know Gary by participating in the interdisciplinary rational choice workshop he ran with James Coleman of the Sociology Department.

“Gary was a model citizen of university. He taught eagerly and often at all levels and never failed to respond to a request for comment on work . He encouraged the youngest without neglecting others,” said Stigler, the Ernest DeWitt Burton Distinguished Service Professor of Statistics and the College.

“Gary’s range and depth of creativity was rarely matched by any other in our discipline. We miss him greatly but we see him everywhere in shaping of economic thought and intellectual culture at the University of Chicago and elsewhere." 

Gary Belonged to the World

Concluding the service, colleague Edward P. Lazear observed, “We are overwhelmed by enormity of our loss but at same time reminded of all he gave us.”

Among the cherished memories of casual lunches, lovely dinners, continual discussions of economics, hearty laughter, the bad jokes, and constant support, Lazear said we could all carry forward lessons from his scholarly life.

“We learned from Gary that intelligence is not enough. It must be paired with effort. The most important thing we learned was to be intellectually ambitious,” said Lazear, Jack Steele Parker Professor of Human Resources Management and Economics and Stanford University and a distinguished adviser to the Becker Friedman Institute.

“Gary belonged to the world. He wrote seminal paper in seven separate literatures and was the first to deserve to win multiple Nobel Prizes. He believed deeply in economics not as a game or intellectual chess match, but as the most powerful tool for understanding the human condition,” Lazear continued.

“He had intellectual courage; his ideas were not only revolutionary, but viewed by many as heresy. He was not only a visionary; he was a dreamer who turned dreams into reality.

 “He showed us how to strive for the unreachable and always reach for the truth.

As we follow his example, we will owe much to Gary, who remains our beacon.”