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Gary Becker, Nobel-winning U. of C. economist, dies at 83

Alumnus David G. Booth gives $300 milliUniversity Chicago business school largest gift school' s history. The school is be renamed

Alumnus David G. Booth gives $300 million to the University of Chicago business school, the largest gift in the school' s history. The school is to be renamed Chicago Booth in his honor. He poses for a photograph with Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Gary Becker. (Photo by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times)

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Updated: June 6, 2014 6:37AM

Gary Becker, a University of Chicago professor who received the Nobel Prize in economic sciences, broke new ground in his field by using his craft to analyze social issues such as addiction, crime, human capital, discrimination and family relations.

Despite an early career filled with controversy fueled by leading economists who questioned the value of his work, Mr. Becker went on to become one of the most cited scholars in his field.

“He was very fearless in his thinking and willing to go against the crowd,” said his stepson, Mike Claffey. “Even as a kid growing up in Brooklyn, he became a Yankees fan. He used that fearless thinking and applied it to the economics of human behavior.”

Mr. Becker, 83, died Saturday, several weeks after doctors found an ulcer in his stomach.

Before he began publishing his ideas in the late 1950s, most academics considered habit and often emotion or irrationality as the primary factors in human behavior such as having children or committing crimes.

The key to his research is the theory that human behavior follows the same rational principles, whether it involves a household, a business or an organization. His work influenced sociology, demography and criminology.

Mr. Becker taught at the U. of C. for more than four decades.

Kevin Murphy, a U. of C. colleague and longtime collaborator, said Mr. Becker forged a new path in the study of investing in human capital.

“When people talk about investment, they typically think of building factories or roads,” Murphy said. “Gary taught us that what really matters is how much we invest in our people. Giving our children the academic, life and social skills they need to succeed requires the combined efforts of families and society.”

Mr. Becker’s mentor was famed U. of C. economist Milton Friedman. The school honored them in 2011 when it created the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics and named Mr. Becker as the chairman.

For Mr. Becker — who received a bachelor’s degree from Princeton and his master’s and Ph.D. in economics at the University of Chicago and also taught at Columbia University — economics provided a living and also led to his second marriage.

He met Guity Nashat Becker, a historian at University of Illinois at Chicago, while haggling over the price of a dining-room set Becker wanted to sell. Becker refused to lower the price and asked her out to dinner, according to an obituary posted on the U. of C. website.

Mr. Becker, who also was a professor of sociology, worked up until several weeks before his death.

“Gary has been the face of Chicago economics now for decades,” said colleague Lars Peter Hansen.

“He could talk about any problem in economics and have insightful things to say,” Hansen said.

Mr. Becker, who lived in Hyde Park, also authored a blog with Richard Posner, a senior lecturer at the U. of C. law school and a judge on the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. His last entry, dated March 3, argued for the end of the United States embargo against Cuba. Several weeks earlier, he argued for the legalization of marijuana.

Friends said he was a people person who loved detective novels and was generous with his office hours — and his work put a uniquely human touch on the field of economics.

This sentiment was perhaps best summed up by Mr. Becker himself in a speech he gave after winning the Nobel Prize in 1992: “Economics surely does not provide a romantic vision of life. But the widespread poverty, misery, and crises in many parts of the world, much of it unnecessary, are strong reminders that understanding economic and social laws can make an enormous contribution to the welfare of people.”

The award was given to Mr. Becker “for having extended the domain of microeconomic analysis to a wide range of human behavior and interaction, including non-market behavior.”

Other survivors include two daughters, Catherine Becker and Judy Becker; another stepson, Cyrus Claffey; four grandchildren; and a sister, Natalie Becker.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

The University of Chicago will plan a memorial service to honor Mr. Becker’s life and work, with details to be announced at a later date.


Twitter: @mitchdudek

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